From White Musk to bust: What went wrong at The Body Shop

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body shop design
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Were you a White Musk person, or more into Fuzzy Peach? Did you go the full Satsuma Body Butter, or draw the line at Pink Grapefruit Body Wash? If none of this means a thing to you, then I would hazard a guess that you’re neither a millennial nor a Generation X British woman.

We were raised on this stuff. Not literally – we never actually ate it, no matter how fruity and delicious the flavours and scents were – but The Body Shop and its fun, eye-catching products played an important role in the Eighties and Nineties youth of many of us. So much so that the whiff of a Kiwi Fruit Lip Balm will trigger a powerful Proustian response among much of our cohort.

The now-embattled Body Shop was more than just a place to purchase essentials like lemon-scented soap in the shape of a whale, or peppermint foot scrub; it was where you went to linger and browse among crowds of other girls (remember, we didn’t have the internet or Netflix to occupy us back then). It was where you shopped to show you were “That Kind of Person”: the sort who cared about the fate of dolphins and polar bears. It resonated with my peer group at a time in the mid-Nineties when we were, for some reason, wearing hippyish woven rucksacks, Tipp-Ex-ing the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament on our pencil cases and filling our bedrooms with bean bags and incense.

Forgive us, then, if we come over all wistful at news that The Body Shop has gone into administration just weeks after new private equity owners Aurelius completed its £207 million takeover of the beauty chain. The brand now faces the prospect of mass store closures and thousands of job losses.

So what has gone wrong for the retailer whose products once lined teenage girls’ shelves? Why hasn’t a new generation of teens and young women risen up to take our places?

The first branch of The Body Shop
The very first branch of The Body Shop opened in Brighton in the mid-70s - Mark Stewart/Camera Press

Part of the reason lies in the broader retail landscape. Ethical beauty is now a more crowded market than it was in The Body Shop’s heyday. When the late Dame Anita Roddick founded the brand in Brighton in 1976, it was truly pioneering. Its natural cosmetics, which had not been tested on animals, were well ahead of their time, and Dame Anita was an early adopter of the commitment to fair trade. While “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” are buzzwords widely deployed today by retailers selling everything from toothpaste to gin, these values were at the heart of The Body Shop right from the start of its life. As Dame Anita once said, “social and environmental dimensions are woven into the fabric of the company itself”.

With some justification, the company claims to have been a leader in social and environmental justice for more than four decades. And as such, it held a unique appeal among a certain demographic.

“I’ve never seen such dynamism,” says Mark Constantine, the CEO of the eco-friendly cosmetics retailer Lush and a former supplier to the Body Shop. “It was amazing. People wanted something that was refreshingly different... The Body Shop was a breath of fresh air.”

For Mary Portas, the Body Shop was “a Mecca of joy”. Speaking on Radio 4, the retail consultant and broadcaster praised the Body Shop’s radical approach: “Everything that she stood for was what business should be today. She talked about business being a force for good, and making progress and having an effect in the world,” she said. “You wanted to be part of her gang.”

“It was teenage girls’ first foray into beauty,” says Catherine Shuttleworth, a retail analyst and the founder of the marketing agency GetSavvy. “Anita Roddick brought something completely different and unusual to the high street. You went in and you could see people like you in those shops… It felt like a very accessible point to start your beauty journey.”

Dame Anita Roddick with her products in a Body Shop store
Ahead of her time: Dame Anita Roddick - Cheryl Chenet/Getty

You might expect that with its values now so mainstream, and seemingly so popular with consumers, The Body Shop, which has about 3,000 stores worldwide, would be riding high. The resilience of the health and beauty sector despite the cost of living crisis – the so-called “lipstick effect” that sees beauty items sell well during economic slumps – might also have counted in its favour.

But the very ubiquity of “Body Shop values” in the 21st century means it has lost its unique selling point. In the face of competition from rivals, such as the handmade cosmetics retailer Lush, it has struggled.

While it still puts its sustainability commitments front and centre of its branding, the business has been on a journey since the mid-Noughties which consumers might well see as taking it further and further away from its roots.

When Dame Anita sold the company to L’Oréal for £652 million in 2006, animal welfare activists called on shoppers to boycott it over concerns about the French cosmetic brand’s policy on testing ingredients on animals. (L’Oréal states on its website that it does not test any of its products or ingredients on animals and has been “at the forefront of alternative methods for over 30 years”.)

Dame Anita died in 2007 at the age of 64, after a brain haemorrhage. Ten years later, L’Oréal sold The Body Shop to the Brazilian group Natura & Co for £880 million. According to David Boynton, the retailer’s then chief executive, the brand had “run out of steam” under L’Oréal.

In autumn 2023, Aurelius acquired it from Natura in a cut-price deal worth a fraction of what the latter paid for it, after the chain’s revenues slumped by almost a quarter in 2022. Natura said it had been “the most difficult year in the history of The Body Shop”, blaming “an extraordinary set of external factors”. Inflation and the pandemic had both played their part. But the problems went deeper.

“I think what happened is that over time [as] the business got sold, it didn’t still have that founder’s mentality,” suggests Shuttleworth. “It lost its way… and suffered from moving from owner to owner. It’s been death by a thousand cuts. A little bit of its heart has been taken out each time.”

Interesting new brands popped up to take its place in the popular imagination, ones with a successful social media presence. Shuttleworth cites Trinny Woodall’s makeup and skincare brand, Trinny London, as a prime example of a business that has built an engaged online following, via the consumer communities known as Trinny Tribes on Facebook.

“That’s all generated by a really smart social media strategy, and I don’t think that’s something The Body Shop has had,” says Shuttleworth. “They’ve traded on the name.” But the name alone isn’t enough; it doesn’t mean enough to consumers now, who “shop in an entirely different way”.

Constantine acknowledges The Body Shop as a direct influence on many ethically focused businesses, including Lush and fairtrade chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely. “We wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for Anita,” he says.

The Body Shop, James Square, Covent Garden, London
The Body Shop has changed hands several times since Dame Anita sold it in 2006 - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

The Body Shop seems stuck on the high street in an era when so much retail is now conducted online. But their bricks and mortar stores have arguably been outdone by the experiential offerings of competitors.

“They haven’t really invested in their stores,” says Jonathan De Mello, the founder and chief executive of JDM Retail. “They’ve let competition come to the fore, such as Lush and [cosmetics firm] Rituals, which have expanded a lot and compete directly on price… They’ve stood still while the competition has gone past them. Most brands want stores [that offer] more of an experience when the customer walks in.”

They would benefit from having “bigger, better, bolder stores” in better locations, De Mello argues, adding that The Body Shop has also failed to reinvent its products as much as some of its rivals have.

But despite the gloomy picture, and the uncertain outlook for the British stores, De Mello sees a future for the brand. “I think they’ll survive,” he says. “But they need to morph into a more modern business.”

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