This article was borrowed directly from Beauty Matter, an essential daily resource for beauty and grooming industry pros who demand the most current beauty intelligence.
Men’s grooming brands like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s have redefined the shaving category, taking market share from the strategics and resulting in billion-dollar acquisitions. But before these DTC unicorns came the OG of men’s grooming that was an instrumental voice in shaping the conversation around men and products — Grooming Lounge.
The beauty industry has been talking about the men’s opportunity for years, and it finally seems like the category is hitting its groove. We decided to reach out to one of the pioneers of the men’s grooming category, Mike Gilman of Grooming Lounge, to get his take on the category past, present, and future. See what he had to say.
What was the impetus for starting the Grooming Lounge business in 2002?
The company was actually conceptualized in 1999 and we launched our website in late 2000. Our first physical shop, in Washington, DC, opened in March 2002.
The impetus for starting Grooming Lounge really came from some high school friends of mine. I grew up in the beauty industry, as my family ran a large professional beauty distributorship, Davidson Beauty Supply. While I was in college and for years after that, I would travel home when Davidson would host its annual beauty conference or trade show. I would always help out, do some work and grab huge bags of freebies from the different vendors to disburse among my buddies. I would not have then, and still wouldn’t, describe these guys as fastidious about their personal grooming.
However, during all these trips and after doling out all these gifts, inevitably, these beer-drinking and football-watching friends would call me, asking for more of “those bath salts” or “eye creams” or “that stuff to style my hair.” After hearing this enough, a light bulb went off, with the thinking that if these “slobs” were into grooming at this level, imagine what men who really took care of themselves might be yearning for in the world of personal care.
With that in mind, we set out to create destinations where men could get the products and services they really wanted, but might be too self-conscious or unable to get in a traditional salon or department store. Places where men could feel comfortable getting the stuff they needed to look their best and feel their most confident.
What was your vision for Grooming Lounge and how has it evolved?
The vision, from day one, was to help men look and feel their best via a tri-pronged approach of physical Barbershops and Spas, an e-commerce and advice-laden website, and our own custom-formulated products. That vision hasn’t changed, except we initially envisioned having a lot more shops to be able to directly help men across the country with their service needs. What we learned quickly is that running guest-centric, bustling men’s barbershops and spas is a hands-on and “gotta’ be there” business. In the end, we’ve been comfortable having our two wonderful shops in the DC area and making them iconic destinations that serve as the backbone of our company and give us an unrivaled authenticity.
The vision for the website has evolved as we thought it would, with us offering the finest mix of men’s grooming goods from top brands, including our own. We continue to give men the products they need, together with the advice they need to use these products properly.
As for our Grooming Lounge products, thought we’d have 6-10, but we now have 18+. More on the way. Making great products is a passion of mine and our team.
Who is your target consumer? Is the customer that comes into the shop different than the one online?
We always say it’s just men who want to look great and feel great—it doesn’t relate necessarily to age or other demographics. That said, the majority of our guests tend to fall in the 30-55 range with upper-level incomes.
Surprisingly, the shop and web guests seem to be very similar demographically, other than their locations. Obviously, our online store covers a wider region and it’s surprising to note our #1 location for web orders is southern California, not an East Coast area or city near our physical shops.
What sets Grooming Lounge apart in the current men’s retail and service landscape?
I’m beyond biased, but our points of difference are quality, service, and authenticity. Whether you’re getting a haircut in our shops or purchasing a product online, we are laser focused on making certain the quality is top-notch—every time without fail. We’re into the WOW factor with everything we do, and every guest interaction with Grooming Lounge should be “an experience”—not a “transaction.”
Our authenticity is certainly something that sets us apart as well. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we’re not a venture-backed group of business school guys who are looking to flip a company. Instead, we’re rooted in the men’s business in all aspects. Our shops, and experts in those shops, help us develop our own products and pick the products that are right to carry.
You have witnessed big shifts in the men’s category since launching Grooming Lounge. What changes have been most important to your business?
Since the day we first went live online until this morning, there have been weekly stories in the media about how “men’s grooming is the fastest-growing segment of the beauty industry.” I guess that’s true and it’s great that people are still so high on the category.
The major shifts in our business have really just been the heightened awareness and acceptance of men’s grooming—and I know that’s based on the proliferation of men’s brands, men’s grooming shops, and the media coverage of all things men’s style and grooming. It’s made it OK for guys to take care of themselves without “shame” and helped get more and more men into the men’s grooming funnel.
This emergence is both great and not so great for business. Great in that you’re always getting new customers—not so great in that you’re always gaining new competitors. But at the end of the day, “the rising tide” concept makes us feel good about where the industry is heading.
How have you managed to keep the brand and business relevant?
By doing great work. You can have fancy, decked-out barbershops … but if the haircuts and spa services aren’t great, no one is going to spread the word or come back.
With our Grooming Lounge products … they work great. That’s the special sauce. Great packaging and marketing campaigns won’t do anything if the goop in the bottles isn’t top flight.
Lastly, you stay relevant by having great people running the show. We’ve been blessed to have most of our staff for 5 or more years and many for 12+ years. These special people know what we stand for and the service we want to deliver.
Your marketing has always been distinctly male and pushed the envelope—do you find you’ve had to tone things down in this “woke” time?
Funny you mention, as yes, we have indeed toned things down over the past two to three years for fear of offending someone. But, we had a big team meeting about a month ago where pretty much our entire team asked that we go back to being a little more “in your face” or “edgy,” as they get a kick out of it, and they said their guests do as well.
To that end, our current store windows feature a poster with the words “LOOK LESS UGLY.”
Goop has added a Men tab and monthly newsletter. While the women’s beauty space has been fully “goopified,” do you think men are ready for this type of entry point into grooming through wellness?
It’s probably a great idea, and if the tips and products work, I’m betting guys will stick with it. It’s all about solutions for issues or problems—and if Goop or similar sites deliver the results, that’s probably all that matters. I think that Gwyneth is pretty smart.
What were the biggest differences in the men’s category 17 years ago compared to today?
Awareness, options, competition, and media coverage. When we started, there were few options for where men could go to get groomed in comfort and class. Now, there’s thousands.
When we started, there were 5-6 men’s specific brands. Now, there are thousands.
All those years ago, men’s grooming got a little section in magazines or online. Now, men’s style and grooming magazines and blogs and sites are big business.
What do you think it takes to build a successful brand in the men’s category, now and in the future?
I think it’s all about focus, quality, and consistency. With focus, it’s very hard to build a successful men’s brand if you’re doing 20 other things. Sure it can be done, but chances for success are less and authenticity certainly takes a hit when you’re also making cufflinks, women’s razors, and tequila.
In terms of quality, that’s what changes the game. We’ve partnered with plenty of brands that have great names, celebrity endorsements, and more, but the quality of the product just isn’t there. If the product really makes a man’s hair look better, skin feel softer, or shave irritation disappear, it’ll win eventually.
What is your criteria for launching new brands and products into your merchandising assortment?
This has certainly changed over the years as nearly every brand now prefers to be DTC and small retailers like us are certainly second fiddle. So, for us to launch, a product either needs to be wildly popular and “googled,” but with minimal distribution—or, something out of nowhere that really produces results when used. Something we know will get purchasers to come back again and again. But of course, eventually, that brand will want to do mostly DTC. That’s OK, it’s business and we understand.
What makes a brand or product a success at Grooming Lounge?
Producing great results—having great juice inside the bottle or tube makes all the difference. But, to enable people to get their taste, sampling is essential. Men are reluctant to jump into a $50 face cream without testing it first, so sampling is key. Also, being a good partner. Little things like offering Gifts With Purchase make a big swing—it’s just another way to get more of a good product in consumers’ hands and hair and beard, etc.
In our shops, you have to win over the Barbers and Skin Care Experts. They use products on their guests dozens of times a day and if they like the products and the people behind the product, they’re much more likely to recommend to the folks who sit in their chairs or lie on their tables.
How has the “Amazon effect” impacted your online business?
You love Amazon and sometimes you don’t. But, it’s clear every brand must embrace it in some way or be left in the dust. For our business, Amazon has been good as we offer our own Grooming Lounge Products through an exclusive storefront on the marketplace. It’s good business and exposes our goods to thousands of people who might not otherwise know we existed. And after trying our stuff, the hope is they’ll make more purchases from Amazon or, just as good, visit our .com and become a customer.
The PRIME factor affects everyone too, including us. We’ve adjusted our shipping rates accordingly to get somewhat close to what Amazon provides, but it’s an expensive game to play. Just have to suck it up and let your margins take a hit as FREE or low-cost shipping is now a non-negotiable.
What trends do you see emerging in the category?
I think making things simple for men is a big part of the future of the category. So, whether that be auto-fulfillment programs, systems, or sets of products as opposed to à la carte or multi-use/2-in-1 products, solutions that save men time while helping them look great, are going to be key.
I also see men’s haircuts and barbershops returning from the “steak over sizzle” trend. I think there’s a ton of shops that have emerged based on looking great, with expensive features and furniture and technology. But, it always come down to giving great technical and customer service. It’ll be the places that treat their guests right and give them great service that win—not the ones that look the coolest or hippest. But, if you can do it all (which many today are doing) … watch out.
What excites you about the current state of the men’s grooming industry?
The shear opportunity (no pun intended). There are just so many men out there who either haven’t really started a solid men’s grooming routine or those who are looking to take the next step. As much as the market has grown, I don’t think we’ve touched the surface. 20 years ago, men had no clue why they would use a moisturizer. And now, they’re starting to get picky about what ingredients their three different must-have moisturizers have or don’t have.
What’s in store for the future of Grooming Lounge?
We’re just going to keep helping men look and feel their best via our outlets and products. And we’re going to continue to lean on the Barbers & Skin Care Experts in our shops to guide the way as to what men want and need to do this. More Grooming Lounge Products are coming soon to cover additional categories, our website is being refined and tinkered with to improve the personalization and user experience, and lastly, another shop might be on the horizon in the coming year.
And did we mention the “Men’s Grooming Podcast?”