Bath and Body Works, an American chain that sells similar neatly packaged fruit and floral beauty products in almost 300 stores across the US, has just opened in Milton Keynes, Derby and Edinburgh, under the aegis of Next and using old Next stores. Here, in the shape of Sun-Ripened Raspberry Bubble Bath and Mint Gel for Tired Legs, is a serious rival.
Judging by the packed reception on the first Saturday of trading in the Milton Keynes store, only 100 yards away from the nearest branch of Body Shop, Bath and Body Works has timed its arrival perfectly. 'The Body Shop is old hat,' says Katie Flowers, 16, squirting some Wake Up Body Wash on to her hand. 'This is much better, and it's cheaper. Soap's only 95p.'
Instead of sanctimonious posters about Rice Bran Body Scrub or Brazilian womenfolk, Bath and Body Works abounds with hearty signs decorated with red-checked gingham, welcoming us to the 'Health and Beauty Farm', and has a jolly 'Country Cart' in the front door offering on-the-spot samples. No sign of a rainforest collection tin. Shop here, dine at Harvester.
Bath and Body Works, owned by the American clothing giant The Limited, is all about pampering and fun. In place of Body Shop's well-publicised mission 'to dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and enviromental change', Bath and Body Works simply states: 'We do not test on animals; we make products that are good for you and fun to use.'
''I don't think people care about the environment much any more,' says Catherine Paradine, 24, clutching a basket of Sun-Ripened Raspberry Bubble Bath and Bath Lotion. 'People go for the price and smell of the product.
This place is much better than Body Shop anyway. They put more of a show on for you.'
Round the corner, Body Shop is facing the onslaught with dignity. 'People are still into environmental issues and animals,' says one customer, standing by defiantly large stacks of Antibacterial Tea Tree Oil Soap ( pounds 1.50). 'I wouldn't change to another shop.'
'We won't be beaten by Bath and Body Works, or by anyone else,' says the manager, Julie Standbridge. 'Our customers are loyal and supportive.'
Shop assistants in Bath and Body Works bound around in gingham aprons, hair bunched in red ribbons, faces scrubbed and smiling. The smell of apples and oranges pervades the shop; upbeat music comes over a sound system.
'The feel is of the American heartland,' explains the manager, Helen Cairns, as she rolls a 'Hand- made with Love' Happy Massager over a startled customer's back. 'There's a natural, wholesome image here. Environmental?
She points to a poster of a cosy- looking house surrounded by a white picket fence and gently falling autumn leaves. 'That's the idea. Not an English look, but an American country feel. You know, happiness.' She smiles brightly.
In Milton Keynes, shoppers seem to care little about the American heartland.
'It's just nice to see something new,' says Kerry Batman, 22. 'Body Shop fragrances are old-fashioned, like dewberry. This is so fresh in comparison.'
Bath and Body Works outlets now open - Edinburgh: 74-75 Princes Street; Derby: 21 St Peters Street; Milton Keynes: 134-136 Midsummer Arcade. To come: Nottingham (next Tuesday) and Watford (18 November).
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