Sometime around 1999 or 2000, a stylish friend mentioned he had an elaborate skincare regime, and instead of mocking him (which would have been normal at the time, people were assholes back then), I was fascinated. So I asked for help. He mentioned soaps and scrubs and moisturizers and stuff for my under eye area.
This was all new to me, as a guy that probably washed his face with bar soap once in a while in the shower if I got super sweaty that day.
I remember him giving me a shopping list for a store in San Francisco that sold an old boring brand called Kiehl’s (“ignore the 1890’s aesthetics on their labels!” he assured me). He even gave me tips on where to find each product, so I didn’t wander in and think the place was not for me before walking out.
Soon after, I did it. I went in and bought it all. I had a daily face soap, a shower face scrub, then shampoo and conditioner and daily moisturizer and nightly stuff too. It was like a high end version of Dr. Bronner’s with ridiculous labels covered in text and their staff dressed in lab coats.
I liked it instantly because my face felt clean and soft and all my oiliness and greasiness that was there was gone. I can’t tell definitively if long term skincare use helps me but I feel better and people are regularly amazed when they hear I’m 50 years old.
I’ve been a customer at Kiehl’s for over 20 years and I still use half a dozen of their products, and each time I visit their stores, I probably spend $50-60. But 20 years on, each visit gets more difficult.
I don’t know anything about the company, but when I first shopped there, they were small, only in big cities, and made a wide range of products that never changed, with old school labels that exuded stability and history (their logo has “Since 1851” featured prominently). My favorite shampoo there was named after some Austrian guy who medaled in I want to say the 1960 Winter Olympics. I remember having to look it up once because I’d never heard of him.
But then I’m guessing they hired someone at the top or passed the company down to younger family that really wanted to go for it. Expand. Expand. Expand. Grow at all costs.
In the early 2000s, they started opening stores everywhere. By 2005 or so, they started launching tons of new products. Around 2010, they launched men’s lines of many products. Each time I visited a store, new stuff was everywhere and it was harder to find the stuff I always liked.
I often call this phenomena: The Curse of MBAs. You can almost sense the Excel sheets when you walk in a store where there are 100 new SKUs that you’re being pushed to try. And when you find out there are 25 local places to buy them instead of two in your entire state, like before. Then you start finding out your favorite items were canceled forever.
I’m sure no one else knew who the skier on the shampoo bottle from 1960 was because it was off the shelves over a decade ago. I moved to a men’s shampoo that isn’t as good but is similar enough. Every year, something I liked and used is no longer available. The face soaps keep disappearing and getting replaced by something not quite right. I’ve gone through half a dozen different hair styling products because none of them stick around.
A few years ago, L’Oreal bought Kiehl’s outright and it became another of their brands in their portfolio. Now the new products and cancellations come even faster. I currently have nothing to put in my hair after a shower to hold it because they no longer produce the gel I once used, then the wax paste, then the non-wax styling paste.
20 years on, I’m looking for alternatives. I hate it when overactive MBAs take over and a decent business that operated just fine for decades suddenly has to grow or die, and long time customers are the casualties.
Years back there was an Anthony Bourdain trip to the northern coast of France. He was talking with one of the best oyster farmers who had always stayed relatively small and never grew. When Bourdain asked by he didn’t expand to keep up with the demand for the great oysters they were known for. The guy responded that he had a product that was high quality and growing may bring money, but quality couldn’t be guaranteed and his happiness he gets from the job he loves would go away.
This comes to mind often when somebody is pushing something to scale. How to have a great product and be consistent at that level often conflicts with scaling.
BTW, I ran into similar issues with the Anthony men’s line. It is harder to find and the line-up has changed a bit. But, I do enjoy the products I’ve long used.
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