Shiseido Co. is pumping up its e-commerce presence amid a “deep crisis” in the beauty business, with the Japanese company looking to its China strategy as a post-pandemic model for growth.

The 148-year-old beauty giant sees its online proportion of overall sales growing to 30 percent in two or three years if current conditions continue, from about a fifth right now, according to Chief Executive Officer Masahiko Uotani.

“From a business standpoint, we’ve been trying to come up with solutions to the current situation and use this as an opportunity to go at a faster pace with some reforms,” Uotani said in an interview in Tokyo on Tuesday.

The reforms for Shiseido, which has relied heavily on department store sales, involve training beauty consultants to use livestreaming and social media, working more closely with retailers on the technology-enabled shopping experience, and investing in new marketing content for online, Uotani said. All are strategies the company has implemented in China.

“We need to merge online and offline to get people to buy more. Beauty products are different from others in that a human touch is very important, so we need to think about a structure that allows that,” he said. “There’s a lot we can learn from what’s going on in China.”

Uotani’s focus comes as the beauty industry faces unexpected challenges due to the global pandemic that are different from previous downturns.

Measures to control the spread of the coronavirus have melted away social norms like putting on makeup in the morning or spritzing on perfume before a night out. As people stay home, the need for beauty care has become a lower priority, making it difficult for businesses to bounce back quickly.

The situation has also been complicated by department stores and beauty salons closing during lockdowns, sending consumers to seek cheaper cosmetics brands online.

Shiseido’s sales fell 17 percent in the first quarter and operating profit plunged 83 percent, mostly due to clampdowns on movement in China — where it does a fifth of its business — and a hit to tax-free sales to Chinese tourists in Japan.

The company withdrew its annual forecast, acknowledging it would be unable to hit its mid-term goal of more than ¥1.2 trillion ($11 billion) in sales by 2020. For the second quarter, analysts are expecting Shiseido to swing to a loss. The stock is off more than 8 percent this year.

“The near-term earnings outlook will be difficult,” said Ritsuko Tsunoda, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. “But I think Uotani will leverage that for any material structural change that he couldn’t have implemented otherwise.”

Transitioning beauty-product sales online isn’t an easy step for an industry built on consumer preferences and dominated by the image of rows of samples at physical retailers that encourage trying and buying on the spot.

Shiseido is training its sales staff in Japan to follow the example of Chinese employees, turning beauty counter ladies into mini-influencers. In China, department store consultants have taken to social media to stream the newest products that have arrived. Interested customers are then directed to the website of the department store to purchase the products.

China has developed a booming culture for live video merchandising, and companies are beginning to catch on to the trend.

Uotani sees China’s e-commerce sales hitting 40 percent of revenue from the region this year, jumping from 30 percent currently.

In April, after the strictest lockdowns ended, China saw sales of high-priced prestige brands returning to pre-coronavirus levels. According to Uotani, China’s fast recovery could bode well for other regions.

The focus in the short-term will be prioritizing the firm’s high-end beauty brands that can generate cash flow to invest in e-commerce, he said. The company, which owns NARS and Laura Mercier makeup, is looking to speed up expansion of its Drunk Elephant brand, which it bought in an $845 million deal last year, as prestige skin care products have been resilient during the pandemic.

Dealmaking, such as selling off non-core assets or buying businesses that can support the focus on prestige and e-commerce, is also part of the equation, Uotani added.

“It’s a very deep crisis for our business, and we need to protect employees and the company,” he said.

At stake is the legacy of Uotani’s tenure. When he took the helm of Shiseido in 2014 following stints at companies including Coca-Cola Japan, it was a rare instance of an outside executive joining the C-suite in a nation where managers are typically elevated through decades of service to one firm.

Analysts and investors have praised Uotani’s efforts at Shiseido, the value of which had more than quadrupled during his tenure before the coronavirus hit. After such success, the current crisis is shaping up to be his biggest test.

“In my 40 or so years working in business,” he said, “the unexpected and uncontrollable impact from the global pandemic is the biggest I’ve dealt with in my career yet.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.