When Marla Malcolm Beck moved to the East Coast, she was disappointed to realize her favorite brands from California were nowhere to be found. The limited selection and discriminatory selling practices at department stores were less than what shoppers deserved, so she founded Bluemercury, a luxury skin care and makeup retailer and spa.

With 28 locations in 12 states and the District of Columbia, the last nine years have been good to Bluemercury. It employs 400 people and yields more than $50 million annual revenue, and the company has plans for new locations in the near future, maybe one in your neighborhood. At this point, Beck says opening new locations is part of the routine, but the challenge remains in providing the high level of service she envisioned at the beginning.

“Store by store, we do what we’ve always done: focus on hiring people who love product and love helping customers find the perfect product for them,” said Beck.

She draws a clear distinction between the shopping experiences at Bluemercury and a department store. In the latter, sales associates sit behind counters dedicated to a specific brand, which may or may not be what a customer needs for her skin type or lifestyle.

At Bluemercury, the sales associates get to know customers and stand beside them in front of shelf after shelf of products and brands that Beck has personally tested and approved for sale in the stores. Beck describes the experience as more like shopping with a friend, which means better results for (and more loyalty from) customers versus shopping with a commission-driven sales associate.

“We’re breaking the mold, which is refreshing for a lot of customers,” Beck said. “I’m not from a retail background, so I don’t think about what is and isn’t done. I think about what I would like if I were shopping and figure out how to execute that.”

One of Bluemercury’s most recent, innovative approaches to retail is its sneak-peek customer loyalty program. Beck negotiated with some of the company’s vendors to send advance two-ounce samples of her favorite picks of their latest products to the company’s top 5,000 clients—those who spend $3,000 to $10,000 annually at Bluemercury stores. Beck includes a personal note explaining why she likes that product and invites clients to e-mail her with feedback.

She reported that the response has been phenomenal, generating hundreds of long, thoughtful e-mail reviews of the products and thanks for the gift. Some of the feedback Bluemercury sent back to vendors to let them know how their launches were going. Beck, however, is not surprised.

“Retail today can be so impersonal; you just grab what you came for, swipe your card, and leave. People spend thousands of dollars at some stores, and all they want is a little recognition for their loyalty,” she explained.

Smiling faces

Beck emphasized how important each Bluemercury employee is to providing the service today’s shoppers crave. She personally interviews all potential managers and associates to make sure they will be friendly, honest experts for customers. And Beck visits each store on a regular basis, making sure all her employees are up to date on the latest products.

She explained that Bluemercury uses quick-hit training techniques, delivering the specifics about a new product or beauty tool quickly and concisely. “We’re constantly training on new products, and not just what they are, but what ingredients are in them, what they do for your skin, and how to apply them,” said Beck. “My favorite question to ask associates is what they’re favorite new product is because it encourages a great dialog.”

Another dramatic difference between Bluemercury and department stores is the opportunity for development. The emphasis on hiring “product junkies” and continuous training results in knowledgeable staff members that Beck wants to be sure stay with her. Beck said she hires only full time employees because she, unlike department stores, is willing to spend a little more and give them better salaries and benefits.

“I want our people to have a career with us so their knowledge stays in the company, and because well-taken care of employees take care of customers better. We have associates who have been with us for five years now, and they are a familiar face for the customer, someone she trusts,” said Beck.

Hard work behind the scenes is the second half of Bluemercury’s dedication to quality customer service. In the last 12 months, the company has completely updated its IT systems, especially inventory, as well as the company Web site.

“I think to give great service you need perfect operations behind the scenes. Then you aren’t worried about stocking or payroll, and you can focus on whatever the customer needs,” said Beck.

She said that as the company grew faster and locations became more disparate, the need for a national, Web-based IT program was apparent. Today, managers can access data from anywhere and spend time crunching the numbers they need, instead of pushing out report after report.

The new system enables the store to deliver another unique customer service: every location has access to all purchases a customer has made at any other Bluemercury location. If you forget what color foundation you bought in Georgia, a sales associate can look it up in Boston for you, Beck explained.

Last fall, the company also overhauled its Web site. Bluemercury customers, according to Beck, had been using the company’s Web site and the Internet generally to learn more about products or brands before coming into a store and trying them out. Today, Bluemercury’s Web site centers on what products do and how they should be applied, rather than simply what is for sale. Ultimately, the company has plans to add an instructional video feature to the site.

Beck also publishes a personal blog on the site with the goal of giving her customers a sense of the reality of the cosmetic industry. “All the cosmetic companies focus their advertising on the promise a product will bring customers a certain lifestyle, but in reading e-mails and talking to customers in the stores, I learned they want it the other way around: they want to know what products will fit into their lifestyle. So my blog is a reflection of what it is like to use these products in the real world.”