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Beauty product retailers tick all the boxes, but only one passes the sniff test

The Body Shop
2,700+ store locations

2011 consolidated sales: $993 million

Bath & Body Works

1,660+ store locations
2011 net sales: $2.7 billion

At first blush, The Body Shop and Bath & Body Works homepages have little to distinguish one from the other—but it’s a similarity that’s only skin deep, says Uzair Dada, CEO of Iron Horse Interactive. The Body Shop, he says, is clearly superior when it comes to e-commerce, messaging, and social.

“The Bath & Body Works website feels like it’s coming from the early dot com days, when we were just moving from the print structure to the electronic structure,” Dada says. “We’ve learned to do things better online with the advent of the Amazons of the world, but Bath & Body Works hasn’t evolved to keep up with today’s consumers, who want to get in, get stuff, and get out.”

The Body Shop’s site features detailed product pages, uses basic built-in retargeting to suggest recommended items during browsing, and keeps the final transaction process simple. Conversely, Bath & Body Works falls prey to a confusing, overwhelming main navigation bar, product pages that contain virtually no copy to encourage further inspection—other than what Tripp Westbrook, executive creative director at Firehouse, calls “fairly bland descriptions”—and a layout that Dada says takes its inspiration more from a print catalog than anything digital.

“On the Bath & Body Works site it’s like, turn the page for the fragrance or season you want, here’s how to buy it, and here’s how much it is,” Dada says. “It’s functional, but it seems like…it’s not trying to be anything else but an outlet for fragrances.”

The lack of engagement on and blandness of the Bath & Body Works website is surprising considering its target demographic of Web-savvy young people. With its constant focus on cheap products and the fragrance du jour, Bath & Body Works generally appeals to a younger audience of mostly teenage girls, whereas The Body Shop courts a slightly more mature, sophisticated crowd with an interest in fair trade products and natural ingredients, Westbrook says.

“When you get to The Body Shop, you find things other than just product; there’s a little opinion, a little style,” Westbrook says. “The Body Shop takes it that much further to engage on a human level, as opposed to simply the ‘people with money in their wallets’ level,’” he adds.

However, being product-driven isn’t exactly a crime, according to Mary Ellen Muckerman, head of strategy at Wolff Olins. Just because Bath & Body Works doesn’t focus on fair trade, doesn’t mean it’s soulless.

“If you define fun as liveliness and lightheartedness, then Bath & Body Works does a great job because that’s what it’s billing itself as—it’s about fragrance and having a fanciful spirit,” Muckerman explains. “From a brand strategist standpoint, both brands do a good job at reinforcing their core ideas—Bath & Body Works does a good job exploring fragrance, while The Body Shop clearly does a good job at being a values-based brand by taking ‘Beauty with Heart’ and making it into a full experience.”

Corporate responsibility and cause marketing are a big deal for The Body Shop, and they extend throughout the brand experience. While Bath & Body Works uses its social channels to endorse products—much like the brand uses its website, says Westbrook—The Body Shop primarily uses its social channels to engage.

“It’s a very one-sided conversation,” Westbrook says of Bath & Body Works’ social sites. “The beauty of social media is that it’s a dialogue, not a monologue, but Bath & Body Works is treating it like it’s a monologue. I appreciate it when it feels like there are actually people behind a brand.”

Bath & Body Works may kill The Body Shop when it comes to Facebook numbers—the former has nearly 5 million “likes” to The Body Shop USA’s roughly 140,000—but social is more than a numbers game, Westbrook says. 

Comments on The Body Shop’s social pages far outnumber comments left on Bath & Body Works’ posts, something likely related to the type of content being shared. For example, while Bath & Body Works has Pinterest boards named “Home décor” and “Fragrance fans,” The Body Shop curates boards dedicated to “Against animal testing” and “STOP sex trafficking.”

“A brand may get a lot of ‘likes’ and followers, Wolff Olins’ Muckerman sees it from another angle. It’s about a value exchange, she says.

“Paying sets up an expectation,” she says. “On the one hand, it calls for The Body Shop to step up and deliver, and it also ensures they’ll have a self-selected community of active brand ambassadors who really want to be there.”

But the efficacy of The Body Shop’s loyalty program in comparison to Bath & Body Works’ is almost a moot point, says Dada, since the latter discontinued its own loyalty program. A link on its website informs visitors that “enrollment is closed” and gives no indication when enrollment will open again, if ever.

“Like with everything else, Bath & Body Works has done nothing to hook people to keep them coming back on an ongoing basis,” he says. “A brand like Bath & Body Works cries out for having [a] loyalty program.”

One area all of our analysts agree on is the fiasco of Bath & Body Works’ inability to deliver an automated email reply. While The Body Shop sends instant replies to people who sign up on its site to receive email, visitors hear only crickets from Bath & Body Works. At the time of this writing, a Direct Marketing News staffer was still waiting for an initial email communication a full month after signing up.

“The irony is, they could literally have put something in the mail and had it to people in less than a week, and we’re talking about email here—so, what’s the point in signing up at all?” Westbrook asks. “It’s a broken promise.”

Brand Champion

There’s nothing wrong with being product-centric, but not at the expense of forgetting about customer needs. While The Body Shop engages its audience with a mix of relevant messaging and brand story, Bath & Body Works continually flogs its fragrance without relief—and its lack of automated email confirmation is inexcusable. Bath & Body Works has a lot of room for improvement. While stellar in most ways, The Body Shop could have scored a few extra points with a free loyalty program.

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