When you think of the name Superdrug, what comes to mind? To most people, it's a sort of Boots-meets-Kwik Save, a low-budget home for toothpaste and tweezers. You'd be right up to a point, but in between the rows of Ponds' cold cream and Imperial Leather you'll find some of the best mass- market beauty products that money can buy. And these are all their own work.
Superdrug's own-brand beauty products are a bit of a sensation. There are 20 of them, ranging from teenage skin-savers to anti-ageing creams, and have names like Optimum (a sort of natural-meets-hi-tech range in direct competition with Synergie or Clarins), Purite (a range for sensitive skins which competes with Simple or Clinique) and Clarity (a collection for shiny, spot-prone skins). Their prices range from pounds 1.99 to pounds 4.99, a mere pittance compared to top cosmetic house charges, but the Optimum Skin Refining Treatment would give Clarins Beauty Flash Balm a run for its money.
How have Superdrug managed to create high-quality ranges at a fraction of the usual price? First, there are no point-of-sale fanfares about their benefits and no done-up saleswomen tries to flog you a make-over. Theresa Sainsbury, Superdrug's senior buyer for skincare, is the antithesis of "Something In The Beauty Industry". She's wears no make-up, apart from a touch of mascara, while her face is framed by a neat shoulder-length bob. She's 33 but looks 23. Who needs adverts?
"We don't advertise our skincare ranges and don't have any trained staff like they do, say, at Boots for No 7," she explains. "Customers can come in and browse and nobody gives you the hard sell. We're cutting out all the marketing that is supposed to work and just putting the bottles on the shelves."
Many would say that this is the way forward in the beauty industry. The days when we could spend hours with a beautician discussing the nuances of lipstick shades are long-gone. The future of skincare is in a "rush- and-grab" approach, where we choose our beauty regimes from the shelves and pay for it along with our newspapers and lunch.
Theresa Sainsbury knows this no-nonsense approach is essential and has no posh words for beauty products. Her last job was as a lingerie textile buyer for M&S and knows that buying skills are transferable between products. She's involved in the whole skincare development process, from experimenting in the lab with "recipes" to deciding the final packaging, and the whole process can take between nine to 12 months to complete.
Her enthusiasm for test-tubey things is palpable. "It's like being in a chemistry lab," she enthuses. "I was amazed at the level of technology. There's this heat treatment room where they treat products with different heat levels for six months, so that when they're on the shop shelves they won't deteriorate under the lights."
Then there are all those jars of raw ingredients. "Vitamin C is incredible because it's just a white powder, and tea tree is just a clear liquid with this very powerful smell."
Since Sainsbury's arrival, she's managed to put four or five new ranges into development. "I work very closely with our technologist," she explains. "We had a few run-ins to start with because I have a commercial view that is extremely difficult to replicate in the lab. I had to work very hard to get him into a more commercial way of thinking. Now he goes shopping with me to Space NK, Lush and Liberty and is much more up with the latest trends."
Another reason why Superdrug's skincare ranges are so cheap is because they contain ingredients like AHAs (a posh name for fruit acids), which were once the preserve of exclusive skincare regimes. "When these ingredients first came on the market they were hugely expensive," she explains, "but as the mass brands took them they became more popular and cheaper."
Sainsbury is refreshingly candid about her methods. "We can take a rival product and have a pretty good stab at putting it together ourselves," she continues. "Expensive creams can take up to four years to develop because the companies are pioneering something. That's why premium products are so much more expensive."
Her latest fascination is vitamin C, the anti-oxident which was kick- started by Lancome and Helena Rubenstein, and which now is used by Synergie. A Superdrug vitamin C own-brand range will be out in April next year (she's keeping schtum about the others).
But what makes the products so good is the customer research and testing methods. "After we've tested the product in the lab for six months, we patch test it on real people, where the products are put on parts of the body other than the face," she explains. "Then we send it to a toxicologist and finally we test it on the face."
Theresa has put together a team of "real" people with whom she goes shopping. They talk to her about their skincare habits, why they buy what they buy and the brands they like. She is constantly sourcing, testing, recording customer feedback and acting on it. Such is her dedication that she even has Superdrug storming sessions in the evening where her researchers discuss developing products.
"I get little pots labelled up through the post from the labs for me to test as well," she adds. "It's nice to be able to say that you've tested ranges, and that you were happy with them."
And judging by their success, so is everybody else.
Superdrug have stockists nationwide. Call 0181 684 7000 for further details
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