Ron Robinson has a knack for knowing what’s next. Forty years after launching his brand, he is the owner of two eponymous stores in the Los Angeles area–one on iconic thoroughfare Melrose Avenue and a flagship in coastal enclave Santa Monica–as well as ronrobinson.com. Robinson constantly keeps his finger on the pulse of various categories, including fashion apparel for men, women and children; home accessories; and, of course, beauty. As a result, he has developed a passionate fan base and booming brick-and-mortar success.
So what’s his secret? The legendary retailer consistently anticipates and creates trends, bottling the unique elements his customers crave in-store: a carefully curated product collection that even seen-it–all L.A. natives flock to–all painstakingly presented against an artsy, community-building backdrop. “Product is the key to everything. It’s always necessary to select the right product. But you also want the right canvas or platform so it expresses exactly what we want, and what the manufacturers intended to express,” Robinson explains. “When you see the stores, you get a clear idea of what we do and how we do it; everything has a very selective, curated approach.” Here, Robinson discusses how he lays down the successful strokes of his brick-and-mortar and online outposts like a true artist.
Robinson has spent his life in retail, but his path was perhaps predestined: His mother, father and both grandfathers were in the business, and his on-the-job education commenced while working
for his parents. Harboring a pronounced interest in fashion, Robinson landed a sales position at the elite Fred Segal store in Los Angeles in 1968. He rose from manager to buyer to executive vice president before taking the leap and leasing space within the store for his own retail selection in 1978. “I don’t know if it was in the DNA or what–maybe so–but retail wasn’t something I intended to do,” Robinson confesses. “It’s just something I happened to be good at and, thankfully, became successful with.”
He also soon found himself exploring the vibrant world of beauty. As a buyer at Fred Segal, he was the first to bring color cosmetics to the store around 1975. In his own space, he expanded the collection of fashion apparel to later include, at the outset of the ’80s, a cosmetic and beauty area called Apothia–a mash-up moniker blending “apothecary” and “utopia.” It was a bold move for the time. Consumers bought either luxury beauty at department stores, specialty beauty at beauty supply stores or mass products at drugstores. That was it. Yet his retail store offered a robust beauty selection of innovative, unique luxury products.
And, despite having years of experience, he admits that ownership was a very different game. “The most important learning happens once you own a store, and all of the responsibilities fall on you,” Robinson says. “You have to make sure things are going right and you’re progressing and you’re taking care of your people and you’re finding new product. Then you know what it’s all about. I didn’t know diddly about cosmetics and beauty, but I learn what I know I have to learn.”
“Because of online business, we’re told this idea that brick and mortar is dead. Well, I’m here to say, it’s not dead. Our business is flourishing.”
Robinson also had to know his customers: a forward-thinking bunch in the heart of the nation’s entertainment capital, always on the lookout for new, one-of-a-kind items from around the world. As he built a reputation for stocking trendsetting products, budding brands sought placement on his shelves. Indie beauty may have soared in recent years among the general public, but Robinson tapped into that spirit decades ago. “I could give small entrepreneurs a platform if I deemed their product was right for us–and, in many cases, helped build and launch them,” he says. “Over the years, it became clear that if you’re a unique and up-and-coming brand, this is one of the places you’ve got to go.”
Carefully curating product remains a cornerstone of Robinson’s success, and he credits that ability for his longevity in the business. He committed to exploring multiple avenues to discover the next big thing–whether it’s a local packager tipping him off to a new manufacturer or by-chance meetings with small apothecary owners in New York. (Robinson was the first L.A.-based boutique, for example, to carry a then-little-known brand called Kiehl’s in the early ’80s.) Shunning mass-distributed and department-store labels, he instead mined esoteric brands like Creed and Diptyque. He’d scout out trade shows from Europe to Japan to score the coolest finds for customers.
Of course, the modern world moves at a much faster clip than before, but Robinson rolls with the punches–and his longtime approach resonates perfectly with today’s consumers. “Today, I can go to a show [and discover a product], come back and already four people have published it in a magazine, and two have knocked it off,” Robinson says with a chuckle. “You can go on Instagram and find things you never knew about; information is so rapid. Because of online business, we’re told this idea that brick and mortar is dead. Well, I’m here to say, it’s not dead. Our business is flourishing.” To this day, the beauty section at Ron Robinson–whether online or in-store– remains a place of discovery, where the consumer can find new and exciting skin care, fragrances and cosmetics from both domestic and international brands.
A CURATED COMMUNITY
Successful mass-market retailers now know the importance of drawing online shoppers away from their computers via in-store events, but happenings for consumers and industry insiders have been a part of the Ron Robinson ethos for decades. In the early 2000s, its Fashion Fragrance gathering drew a sold-out crowd for a breakfast with speakers from Givaudan, the world’s largest fragrance house, and a tour through the store’s unique collection. In 2018, Cosmoprof North America chose Ron Robinson's flagship to host a preview of exciting, trending beauty products scheduled to exhibit at its Las Vegas trade show. Hundreds of professionals from the West Coast's vibrant and bustling beauty industry attended and networked. “These events bring new people into our store, but, more importantly, they connect us to the fragrance and beauty industries in a new way and at a much higher level,” Robinson notes. “You’re not just talking the talk–buying product and putting it on the shelves–but you’re walking the walk, doing something that makes a difference and connects people. And those connections pay off for us in the long term.”
In-store events have turned Robinson’s Santa Monica flagship store, entering its fifth year in 2019, into a community touchstone. Soaring ceilings allow plenty of space for a rotating art gallery, with receptions ushering in new artists every six to eight weeks. In the courtyard, Saturday morning yoga classes bring together dozens of devotees and visiting instructors from Southern California for a free workout session followed by healthy drinks and snacks. “It’s all part of the environment I built in retail: creating that place where people want to be,” Robinson explains. “When I was growing up, a cool, vibrant boutique was a great social experience, a community experience. You’d see a hot guy or girl, a cool new fashion. That’s gone away from retailing, but we still have it.”
“When I was growing up, a cool, vibrant boutique was a great social experience, a community experience. ... That’s gone away from retailing, but we still have it.”
Ultimately, Robinson believes that shopping for beauty products is better in-store where customers can feel, smell and apply them–an “immediate and accessible” experience, he says. But for those who can’t visit in person, ronrobinson.com offers that curated, intimate feel to fans across the globe. Back in the late ’90s, when Robinson created his online space, he never imagined sales would skyrocket as they have. “We’re focused on the brick-and-mortar experience, and we try to portray that experience online as well,” he says. “We’re a privately owned boutique doing everything ourselves, so it’s a balance, but we spend a great amount of money to make sure we get seen online. And, for the amazing amount of customers we’ve developed over years in-store, they can access us anywhere, so it’s a very important part of what we’re doing. We still do more business out of the retail stores, but the website is growing at quite a fast pace.”
THE SMELL OF SUCCESS
Robinson's early online presence and digital community played a key role when he decided to venture into fragrance as both a retailer and a new manufacturer. Having a natural affinity for fragrance and packaging (which he developed as a youngster from admiring his grandfather’s cologne collection), Robinson decided to add a single fragrance to his beauty offerings. It was an unknown brand, which initially sold, one bottle at a time, through word of mouth. But when a major celeb mentioned it in a magazine article, phones rang off the hook!
Luckily, Robinson had the foresight to get online in late ’98–never dreaming it’d be a viable avenue for selling fragrance. But amid the celeb-induced frenzy, staff members were able to direct wannabe buyers to the site, generating orders from around the country.
Suddenly (long before crowdsourcing was de rigueur), Robinson had an idea: Why not tap into this group of customers who clearly appreciate and purchase unique fragrances? “So I wrote 100 of them a letter: ‘How would you like to be part of a group that helps me create our own signature fragrance?’” Robinson recalls. “Back then, I wasn’t thinking of using the internet to generate business, but to communicate with my customer–not knowing that that was the future. Today, everybody wants to communicate with the customer, create community and create ideas together.”
Within days, Robinson received 100 yeses. He also reached out to some celebrity fans, such as Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Garner, to pitch in. With help from a perfumer and a clinical psychologist, he assembled survey questions, created a dozen fragrances and selected three labeled A, B and C to be sent out to the test group. After several rounds of reading and interpreting responses, then tweaking accordingly, they landed on a scent that eight of 10 participants agreed upon. The fragrance, also called Apothia “If”, launched in Ron Robinson stores in 1999, soon surging across the States and finally overseas to Europe and Japan in the early 2000s. “We now have about 50 accounts in the United States and a huge market in Japan, where people said we wouldn’t sell; we can’t keep it supplied fast enough there,” Robinson says. “We created Apothia in a way that was much different than anyone else ever had–and I don’t know of anyone who’s created a fragrance like that ever since.”
“Things change, and are changing more rapidly today than ever before. But as retailers, we have to be challenged by that change, anticipate it and direct ourselves to a place where we can be activists of change.”
The Apothia fragrance business has since expanded to candles (winning an award for Interior Scent of the Year from The Fragrance Foundation); new formats for its first scent, If (including roll-on, aromatic diffuser, candle, body wash and lotion); and three additional fragrances. The retailer has made sure to reflect its in-house ethics in the manufacturing process. For example, when making Apothia Hand & Body Wash, Robinson shunned sodium lauryl sulfate for apricot kernel oil, a much pricier but healthier alternative. “I learned over time that we have to be honest and true to who we are and what we’re doing,” he says. “If we’re going to talk about being forward thinkers and progressive people, we have to deliver that in the product we produce. And I learned that if you believe in something, put it out there. Say it, stand behind it, let everyone know you believe in it. Don’t assume everybody knows everything you’re thinking or doing–because they don’t!”
Finally, when it comes to fragrance as a whole, Robinson follows his customers’ shopping habits. For example, he doesn’t carry anything labeled “for men” or “for women,” noting that fragrance is highly personal and the dichotomy of male/ woodsy and female/floral is now passé. “It’s an independent decision; they buy based on what they like or don’t like,” he explains. “We’re not judges, we’re fragrance people. You decide what you want.”
Robinson looks at everything he does, from beauty to home accessories, under the lens of art and fashion. That translates to putting a premium on design, from beautiful bottles to eye-catching graphics. He’s also able to cross-pollinate his knowledge, with ideas garnered from one category informing another. And, like any successful entrepreneur, he knows that on-the-job learning never stops. “It’s amazing that 40 years have passed so quickly, and I can’t believe that I’m still learning stuff today,” he marvels. “But it’s all about good product. It’s efficacy and whether I provide something that’s cool, as well as the customer and how they’re treated.”
For Robinson, juggling multiple categories, omnichannel success and a still-growing legion of fans from around the world are all in a day’s work–and all part of the ever-changing retail landscape. “Things change, and are changing more rapidly today than ever before, but as retailers we have to be challenged by that change, anticipate it and direct ourselves to a place where we can be activists of change,” he says. “That way, we’re not only prepared, but we can say, ‘Here’s where we think you’re going to be.’ That keeps us fresh and on top of things. It’s a difficult task, but what choice do we have?”
Coming from a legendary retailer with true staying power, this is wisdom to heed.
Retailer Ron Robinson shares key advice that he has gleaned from more than 50 years in the business.
- “We all love the creative part of what we do, but if you’re not running a successful business behind it, it’s a hobby. I love creativity and design—it’s a life-changer. But I also have to pay the rent. Artists who are most successful understand art from a business standpoint.”
- “Getting the right employees is a major challenge everywhere. I look for someone with an open mind who understands our ethos and character, and how we want to deliver it, even as they have the freedom to deliver it with their own personal character.”
- “The four-letter word is care. That’s what makes the difference. Sometimes we need only one customer. Did we do what we intended, did we care for that customer, did we deliver our experience 100 percent to whoever came in that door? When that happens, it doesn’t matter if there’s one or 100 customers; you’ll get results.”
[Top photo by Armando Sanchez; others courtesy of Ron Robinson]