Susan Kirsch earned a business degree, but soon after graduating she realized she didn't want to work with money. She wanted to work with makeup.
Her mother had been a painter, so being creative came naturally. But Ms. Kirsch's canvas would be the human face.
"I realized I had an artistic hand," says the Montreal native, who has been living in Toronto since she graduated from Ryerson University (when Ryerson was still a polytechnical institute). "So it was a matter of how to combine the two things together – my business degree and my love of cosmetics."
In 1988, she landed on the perfect hybrid solution: creating camouflage makeup for use by plastic-surgery patients. "I helped people recover post-surgery," Ms. Kirsch says. "I helped them work with their new face."
Doctors promoted Ms. Kirsch's services through their clinics, and her business grew quickly. She then opened a stand-alone studio offering makeup lessons in addition to products manufactured to complement her original camouflage line.
Among them were kits with magnetic closures called Pandora's Makeup Box – which would eventually become the name of her company – into which customized colour palettes could be inserted and interchanged according to seasonal trends.
Launched in 2000, the kits, which today retail for $48, were initially sold nationwide through retail stores, the Shopping Channel and Ms. Kirsch's website.
Demand was high and in 2005 she purchased a three-storey commercial building. Today, the main floor serves as a studio for makeup lessons while the basement is reserved for manufacturing and storage space.
The goal is to create a one-stop grooming destination, and to that end Ms. Kirsch, a mother of three grown children, rents the upper floor to a pair of hairdressers. She plans to add a nail bar and a mini-fashion boutique. "I want to create a new retail model for Toronto," she says.
Meanwhile, to increase sales of Pandora's Makeup Box, Ms. Kirsch is experimenting with sales options.
Ms. Kirsch launched her makeup kits in 2000. See pictures of her and her makeup here. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
In addition to her bricks-and-mortar location, she has been selling through popular online subscription services such as Ipsy. She is also considering opening a pop-up store. She is not sure which route would serve her best: the pop-up, the online subscription series or her own store.
While contemplating sales, she also must keep her makeup line current. Her business, not to forget, is all about creating new looks.
"How do I handle the fluctuating inventory, and how do I finance all the individual components, from packaging to marketing, in growing my business?"
The Challenge: How can Pandora's Makeup Box increase sales while keeping the brand fresh?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Audrey Hyams Romoff, president of OverCat Communications, a public relations agency specializing in lifestyle brands, Toronto
Seeking expanded distribution in the right retailers in the right location would be a logical next step, but be prepared to support that move. Retailers have less and less patience for brands that park their products in their stores and then expect them to sell with no support. Having a marketing campaign would be crucial. Retailers may even insist on seeing a marketing plan and spend before even considering your brand.
Advertising campaigns can be very expensive, so at the very least I would suggest hiring a PR agency to promote the brand to beauty media and bloggers. Make sure you have allocated sufficient product samples for this. Media won't write about something they can't experience personally.
While pop-ups are a fun strategy they are extremely time consuming and expensive. Finding the right location and driving traffic to that location are key. I would hold off on the pop-up idea until there is more brand awareness.
You already have an e-commerce-enabled site, which is great, but if driving online sales is the goal the website needs a total refresh. Same for the branding. The home page does not make a strong first impression or really communicate what type of company you are. I would hire a Web developer who has experience with lifestyle brands. Women buy cosmetics because they want to be transformed and because it is an affordable luxury. There needs to be a much stronger emphasis on making the product look beautiful.
Teri Kirk, president and CEO, The Funding Portal, a service where businesses can find and apply for government or private funding, Toronto
Your competitive advantage is your entrepreneurial structure and capacity for innovation. Many government funding programs are designed to help businesses in your situation to grow their staff, export to new markets, execute R&D, including developing new formulas or products, and commercializing your innovations.
Examples of funds provisioned by Canadian and provincial governments that might be a good fit for Pandora's Makeup Box are Skills Link, helping companies like yours hire youth; Investing in Business Innovation; and the Early Stage Exporters Fund.
Try to attract accredited investors to your business to provide capital and advice. Some online networks, such as the free MyFundCard network from The Funding Portal, facilitate matches with individual investors seeking investment opportunities.
Andrew Eastwood, senior vice-president, ACI Brands Inc., one of Canada's largest health and beauty distributors, Oakville, Ont.
The Canadian retail landscape is continuing to grow with an influx of new department stores, juggernaut beauty departments at drugstores and strong stand-alone beauty concepts. This makes the pop-up route or opening your own store especially challenging.
Your best option may be to secure expanded distribution at retail. A well-known, established retailer can support your business efficiently and effectively. However it is important that you are also prepared with a sales and marketing plan with a short and long-term view. You also need to have innovative products that have a unique, compelling brand story. This gives the brand depth and can be a real point of difference in a heavily cluttered industry.
Innovative packaging, high margins and a unique product assortment will help get the attention of retailers and keep your brand current. The quality of the product on the inside is essential but don't overlook the overall presentation and packaging.
Inventory can be tricky, so it's always safest to take a conservative approach to forecasting and pipeline fill. Work in partnership with retailers to build the forecast using similar items in their existing mix. It's also essential to evaluate each store on a case-by-case basis, as all stores are not equal. Retailers can provide a breakdown of the percentage share of sales by door; this is valuable information that should be analyzed and considered when managing inventory.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Refresh the brand
Hire a Web developer with experience in lifestyle brands to polish your website.
Seek government funding
Check out funds designed to help you do research and development, hire staff and export.
Don't neglect packaging
Innovative packaging will help get the attention of retailers and keep your brand current.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.