When Shen Beauty first opened its doors in 2010, Jessica Richards was a new mom who just wanted a decent moisturizer without having to leave her borough to buy it. But from the moment it opened, she started to establish herself as a clairvoyant of sorts when it came to how the beauty industry would change over the next decade, the move away from only shopping department store counters, and the fun of discovering brands-worth-knowing from around the world. Her success meant that over the past decade, Shen outgrew its original, small Cobble Hill space, and so Richards opened a new store, just a few blocks away from the old one.
Setting out to elevate the shopping experience entirely—all while maintaining six feet of distance from fellow shoppers—Richards thought of every detail, from how to make sampling possible in a COVID world to upgraded treatment rooms where clients can get brow tints and innovative facials. And as statistics show more and more consumers opting for online shopping, this was no easy feat. We sat down with Richards to discuss how the beauty industry has changed, the challenges of opening and operating a store during the pandemic, and introducing new brands to the community—one of which has ties to Dr. Fauci (more on that later).
What did you do before starting SHEN and how did that background prepare you for launching a brick-and-mortar beauty business?
I don’t think anything prepares you for the trials and tribulations of opening and running a retail store, specifically during COVID. Prior to Shen, I worked in fashion as a stylist, which is as far from retail as you can get. This is probably the reason I’m viewed as bringing a different perspective—my lens is from the eyes of fashion vs. beauty. I definitely am a believer in the high and low shopping experience, which allows me to offer the Shen clients such an amazing range of brands. I did however work retail growing up throughout high school, so I was aware of many of the aspects that go into it, just not what it actually is like to be the owner. I don't think anything truly prepares you for that.
You opened SHEN in 2010—how has the beauty industry changed since then?
It’s night and day. People used to buy based on brand recognition and ads. Now, they buy from word of mouth and Instagram—which is social media’s ‘word of mouth’ I suppose. People were uncomfortable purchasing a brand they had never heard of, which is honestly the whole reason I brought in Bobbi Brown when I started Shen ten years ago. So mass retailers had no interest whatsoever in selling or focusing marketing dollars on niche brands. There was no other beauty retainer that sold more than half the brands Shen sold when I first opened. Since then I’ve launched over 70 brands in the U.S., including Ilia, May Lindstrom, Kosas, and Pai Skincare.
On the consumer side, people are more focused on ingredients and personalization than they are on heritage or household name brands. More than half of consumers know what an ingredient does and its benefit. People might shop the “old way”—for example, my friend recommended this and this—but that doesn’t mean it’s actually the right product for their skin. A big part of Shen is the staff having the education to properly advise clients on what they truly need, so they come back and know we’re here for them and all their beauty needs.
You were forced to shut down the old SHEN in March during the pandemic, while working on the new store. How has the pandemic changed the process? Or the results?
The challenges far exceeded what I could have imagined—from laying off staff to construction delays and all the hurdles one has to jump over to get to that glorious finish line. This was all while trying to save my business and be an at-home mom and teacher to my two boys. On top of all the normal hurdles of opening a new store, I would say the most anxiety-provoking thing was identifying this new normal of shopping and, most specifically, how to deal with sampling beauty products.
This is an incredibly experiential thing, such a sensorial moment, so we created our own way of testing products. We created palettes with matching palette knives to allow the associate to scrape off part of a lipstick or foundation and put it on the palette for the customer, who can then play in front of the many mirrors. It's really taking it back to the basics of artistry. For skincare, customers will be given a separate palette, and the associate will decant some for you to try.
The design of the space was also a consideration. As the next chapter in the SHEN journey, I knew I wanted it to be beautiful, but now there was the added challenge of safety and allowing for people to social distance while shopping. The bays are 6.5 feet apart, we’ve added a sink in the store for clients to wash hands upon entering, we’ve created our own Shen Hand Sanitizer with 80% alcohol (which exceeds the CDC requirements of only 75%), and we have UV lights which run through the space each evening.
What helped you persevere through these challenging times?
What has kept me going is my Brooklyn community. They have taken the time to reach out and show their support and anticipation of the opening. It has been incredibly rewarding to be a beacon of hope in a slew of closures.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs right now?
Perseverance is critical. When you think you’ve gotten knocked down, know you will get up again and then get knocked down again. It doesn’t get any easier, but if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen.
What makes SHEN different from other beauty retailers?
The elevated shopping experience of showcasing our incredible brands, the education that each of our associates has (an understanding of the brand and the ingredients that make up every formula), the safety protocols to keep clients and employees healthy, and the expanded treatment offerings you can get right in the store.
How do you decide what to introduce at SHEN?
When I first started, I discovered products while traveling or scouring the web into the late evening hours. Now, it’s a combination of the internet and social platforms, and people sending me products, introducing me to founders, and word of mouth. On the services front, we didn’t initially start with them, and it was requested from my clients, so we grew that arm of the business. In the new space, we have four luxurious treatment rooms armed with the best of the best technology, such as LightStim. I want clients to see immediate results, and that’s absolutely what you get when you have a treatment at Shen. It’s only the best of the best.
Can you tell us about any cool new brands or treatments you are featuring?
Yes, we’ll be introducing HydraFacials with my new aesthetician Monica, which everyone will no doubt want once we can return to offering facial services in New York. Lip blushing is one of the newer treatments I’m excited to debut, especially now that everyone has to wear a mask. It gives you the perfect “I woke up like this” lip color, which is custom matched to each person. One of the new brands we’re debuting in the space is Faace, a line targeted towards period, sweaty, and tired face. Dr. Bielory’s Remedies Viral Nasal Spray is one of the products I’m thrilled to carry, especially as we navigate this new normal. The founder studied under Dr. Fauci!
If you’re not in Brooklyn, fear not, Richards’ unique assortment can be shopped on Shen’s website, too.
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