Big Interview: Sarah Miles, CEO, Feelunique

Amazon Fashion's former apparel and private brands director Sarah Miles took the helm at Feelunique in 2019. Speaking to Retail Gazette, she talks about "exciting growth opportunities" for the online beauty retailer, how makeup sales have fared amid the pandemic, and more.

Sarah Miles Feelunique Amazon online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown
Sarah Miles took the helm at Feelunique in 2019.

Sarah Miles is “feeling very confident about the future”.

The chief executive of Feelunique told Retail Gazette that the online beauty retailer expects to grow this year against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is despite Globaldata research last year predicting the UK’s cosmetics industry would decline by 10 per cent.

An ongoing opportunity for Feelunique is to further improve the online customer experience.

“This has been a major focus since I joined the business – we have invested in enhancing UX, integrating more beauty content and improving personalisation through analytics,” Miles explained.

“Tech is incredibly powerful. We’re lucky at Feelunique because we have our own ecommerce engine, which means we have our own developers, and we will continue to invest in that.”

Sarah Miles Feelunique Amazon online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown
According to Miles, beauty had a 10% ecommerce penetration rate at the start of the pandemic.

Miles expects a rise in shopping for beauty in the ecommerce space – even as shops across the UK begin to reopen in the coming weeks.

“Beauty only had a 10 per cent ecommerce penetration rate at the start of the pandemic,” she said.

“The beauty industry here in the UK is relatively underpenetrated by ecommerce in general, predominantly due to the challenge of replicating the high level of personalised service that customers have enjoyed in stores.

“That is changing, and has accelerated exponentially over the past year as a result of Covid-19.

“The consensus is that when everything opens up again, that number is going to be very different.

“Either way, ecommerce will have either doubled or tripled in size by then.

“I’m not belittling bricks-and-mortar as I know some people will be rushing back to shops such as Primark, which doesn’t have an online channel.”

However, Miles warned there would be some instances when someone may have a skin problem and would prefer face-to-face consultation.

“If you think about beauty, often you want to try on a new cream, and this is also true in apparel fashion when customers want to try on an item before buying,” she said.

“As people have started to try things online, we’ve really seen a step change in beauty.”

Miles believes that as a 15-year old business, Feelunique has accumulated a large number of loyal customers, which she banks on supporting the retailer’s growth.

“We had to work really hard and make sure we were doing our job really well by having great brands available for our customers, making sure they were easy for them to search for and navigate on our site, and making sure we delivered them well,” she told Retail Gazette.

Miles’ work ethic comes from her time at Amazon where she built her experience around ecommerce. Prior to Feelunique, she worked as the online retail giant’s home and garden director from 2014 to 2016, before being promoted to apparel and private brands director for Amazon Fashion in 2017.

Since joining Feelunique in 2019, she said many of the assumptions she had about the online beauty retailer proved to be true, such as the “strong brand relationships, loyal customer base, and good ecommerce engine”.

“People have moved from the high street to ecommerce”

In an effort to maintain loyalty, Miles said rewards were really important.

“Being around for 15 years means it has been a long time to build relationships with people,” she explained.

“Our rewards programme is a really important component of that. In terms of promotions, we do quite a few more of those than a number of our competitors.

“We try and do them around particular themes, and during particular times of the year, and then we work with the brands on those.”

Miles’ experience at Amazon taught her “how to make 1000 good decisions a day” and gave her a sense of “restless discontent”.

“Even if nine things go well in a week, what’s the tenth thing that could go wrong? And how can you learn from it?,” she reflected.

“Amazon gave me that energy for finding ways that aren’t quite doing things optimally for the customer and how you can improve with that continuous push.”

Miles also learnt “first rate ecommerce skills at Amazon” and joined Feelunique at “the perfect time” given the beauty sector was changing.

“As we can see, people have moved from the high street to ecommerce and department stores – which traditionally offer beauty counters – are unfortunately struggling,” she added.

Following the collapse of 242-year-old department store chain Debenhams, which sent shockwaves through the retail industry, Miles was adamant that it was a “fascinating time for ecommerce”.

“When [the first lockdown on] March 23 [last year] came, we knew we needed to first and foremost make sure every single one of our employees were safe,” she said.

“We then had to ensure everybody was set up working efficiently from home. We needed to close our stores and make sure that we introduced new policies around protection and distancing in the distribution centre.

“Then we were faced with a real step change in demand. We have seen some interesting trends under that, such as home spa treatments now that people are working from home.

“We are also seeing an interesting trend in makeup – nose upwards – such as eye make up, and this may be due to people wanting to be prepared for Zoom calls.

“We found that people are staring at themselves all day on these video calls, and have become more aware of their wrinkles, therefore they have become actively engaged in looking for advice on certain topics.

“Skincare is a strong category for us. Although traditionally people think that make up has had a tougher time, our make up sales have been very resilient.”

Sarah Miles Feelunique Amazon online shopping covid-19 pandemic lockdown
Sales of make up have risen at Feelunique.

Miles added that Feelunique was witnessing similar trends over in the US.

“We’ve seen quite significant consistency across international markets in terms of what people are buying,” she explained.

For the 12-week period to January 3, Feelunique saw its overall sales grow 39 per cent to £28 million, while active customers over the period rose 41 per cent to 1.3 million.

The online beauty retailer said sales of skincare products boosted the overall company’s growth, with sales up 57 per cent, while sales through Feelunique’s third-party marketplace channel increased tenfold year-on-year.

“This progress was supported by investments in our technology and our focus on expanding the number of brands available through our platform,” Miles said.

At the time, Feelunique said it was on track to exceed £100 million in sales and achieve positive EBITDA for its financial year ended March 31.

Miles added that Feelunique would also undergo brand expansion, with its website, mobile site and app “continuing to improve”.

“We’re honoured to be able to represent over 800 brands already. That’s substantially more than anyone else in this space,” Miles told Retail Gazette.

“It’s a big part of our push both through retail and the marketplace. We are always in conversation with new brands to bring them on board.

“We are currently in final stages with some really exciting brands that we’ll be able to reveal very soon.”

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