Lush co-founder Rowena Bird on growing the spa arm of the business

Rowena Bird Lush

The co-founder of Lush tells Amanda Pauley about the challenges of transitioning from product retailer to treatment provider, and why more Lush Spas are on the cards. 

Handmade cosmetics retailer Lush has come a long way since opening its doors in 1995. To date, the brand has opened more than 900 shops in 51 countries and earned itself a cult consumer following, but that’s not all.

In 2009, Rowena Bird and fellow co-founder Helen Ambrosen decided to evolve the brand’s offering from cool and ethical cosmetics to encompass luxurious treatments, resulting in the opening of the first Lush Spa on the King’s Road in London’s Chelsea, in 2009.

“It seemed like a natural step but we weren’t opening a spa to take over the world. We did it because it would enhance our brand, position us differently and give customers an education on the products we have,” explains Bird.

“At the time, I think we were probably seen as a bit of fun. And we are fun, but we’re also incredibly serious about what we do; for example, how we buy our raw materials and get the products together. I think having a spa made people relook at us. It was like, ‘Oh, Lush has grown up’.”

There are now 19 Lush Spas worldwide, with eight in the UK in cities such as Bath, Edinburgh and London, and another one set to open in Belfast in April 2018. All of the brand’s spas are set within its retail shops.

“We knew the spas would be hard pushed to make more money than the retail [side of the business], which is why it was important to put them in the shops. But our spas aren’t about standing on their own, they’re about adding an extra experience for our customers,” says Bird.

Rowena Bird at Lush shop in Mexico

Breaking the mould

However, making the move into the saturated treatments market was no easy feat. “People would pick up a solid shampoo and not know if it’s a soap, massage bar or what, so we knew we needed to enter the spa market in a ‘Lush’ way, putting a lot more imagination into it,” says Bird.

“We wanted to create treatments, using our products, that picked people up in one place and put them down in another, treating mind and body.” The Chelsea Lush Spa opened with just one treatment – the Synaesthesia body massage – a bold move for a new spa going up against other five-star facilities in the city that had long and varied menus.

“We didn’t think ‘let’s invent 10 treatments and open a spa’. We thought, ‘let’s invent one, open the spa and see how it goes’. If customers respond well to it, then we’ll invent another treatment and so on. We’re very customer-led,” says Bird.

The menu now features 11 treatments with unusual add-ons, such as dry ice or sea shanty music, which focus on mental as well as physical wellbeing. The Planets, for example, is a full-body massage and lifting facial accompanied by palm reading; while newest treatment Karma is a fourhanded massage inspired by Ayurveda, performed by two therapists.

Learning curve

The biggest challenge of moving from retail to services, however, lay in recruitment. As a trained beauty therapist, Bird knew that finding the right people to staff the spas was crucial. “It was about trying to find the ones who really care, and that’s not every therapist out there,” she says.

When Lush first launched its spa arm, therapists would travel to the brand’s training centre in Poole and live in rented houses while learning all the treatments, which took around three months. However, this restricted applicants as many weren’t able to spend that length of time away from home.

Now, Lush has on-site trainers in each of its salons, who undertake a six-week course at the Poole facility before training therapists in-house, “opening the process up to more people,” says Bird.

However, therapists learn only one treatment at a time, with any one ritual taking between two and four weeks to perfect. “With a product, we can see how it behaves and how it looks, whereas with our therapists, they’re in a dark room and we don’t get to see them. We need to make sure they’re of a high standard before we put them in with a customer,” says Bird.

For example, for the Synaesthesia body treatment, therapists spend the first week focused on perfecting the massage routine, “before learning the other aspects, such as the dry ice, working with the music and adding their personality into the experience – which is just as important,” explains Bird.

Lush Spa pic 1

Hiring from within

The brand has also got more creative with its hiring process in the past few years, finding that staff retention has improved since it began recruiting internally as well as externally.

“We now train retail staff, who have the passion and ethics for the brand, in body massage at our training facility, which is registered as a VTCT training centre,” explains spa operations manager Teri Bebb. “It gives them an internationally recognised qualification in body massage and, when completed, we train them in our own treatments.”

This initiative stemmed from staff demand, says Bird. “We had shop floor staff who were doing body massage evening courses so that they could then apply for the spa, so we thought, why not offer that in-house ourselves?

“Plus, one of the challenges we’ve experienced with external therapists is getting them to work on the shop floor, which is part of the job. Our internal staff have already been doing that successfully for years.”

The lush life

Even more spas will be opening in the future but the company doesn’t have a set target. “If we open a large store that has the space then we will put the spa in, or if we need to relocate a successful shop to bigger premises then it’s something we’ll think about,” explains Bird.

Although the spas only bring in a small percentage of total sales for the business, each site is getting busier, with many booked up six to eight weeks in advance.

The company is also seeing client patterns emerging. “Our Hong Kong spa tends to have more walk-ins because people are used to rocking up and asking for a space in the moment, whereas in the UK our therapists’ columns fill up quite quickly,” says Bird. “We’re understanding that around the world, people treat and think about spas differently. We’re always learning.”

Lush spa pic 2

Pics: ©Lush