Constantly topping consumer polls for customer service and products, Lush champions natural skincare ingredients and cruelty free living. But, where other beauty brands have sold out on their ethics over the years, this is a business showing no signs of giving up the fight.
A four-deep queue is snaking its way down Buchanan Street on a Thursday afternoon, the kind ordinarily only seen for boybands signing debut albums or pop-up kitchens giving away free food. It is in fact neither of these: it's the preview opening night of the new Lush premises, located opposite and down a little from the old store (now shut) in Glasgow city centre. So why the enduring popularity of brand that has been around for almost ten years, and why is it different from others on the high street?
Loading article content
Anyone who visited the original store will remember it, arguably, for all the wrong reasons - far too small, which amplified the famous Lush shop aroma into something almost too strong to bear in such a poky space. There was an upstairs department selling skincare many customers didn't even know existed. It was not a good place to experience the reasons behind the company's huge successes in recent times.
Lush recently topped a Which? 2014 poll of favourite high street shops and seems to have a cult following of customers who are staunchly loyal to the brand for its unwavering stance on animal testing, ethical buying, and being vegetarian-friendly. It has proved itself as a market leader on championing these things since its creation almost ten years ago.
The new Glasgow store is the opposite of its predecessor. It is all open plan floor space and units made from reclaimed, sustainably sourced wood. Very Lush. Rachel Reid, who works a Saturday at the store, is also very Lush, because it seems there is a definite type of person who is employed by the company.
"You hear things from people, working at Lush" Rachel says. "Deep things. Tough things. You take on people's confidences because you're spending time with them and people tell you things that are very personal to them. I started off coming in as a customer and ended up talking to the staff who made me feel special. Now, that's what I try to do with the people I meet."
It is not the kind of shop you quickly nip into to buy something. It is possible to, of course: "we read people's body language" Rachel explains. "Some people you approach won't give you the signs and that's fine. You might look back later and they'll be talking to another member of staff, and that's also fine." The company's returns policy is something quite different from anywhere else, though. "If it doesn't work for you, we take it back. Not if it doesn't work - as in, if it's faulty. If it doesn't work, for you."
Rachel explains that the skin is an organ with needs that change over time. She would know: after she had a baby, her 'wonder product' - Lush's Dream Cream - didn't work for her any more, and she had to amend her skincare routine. Her relationship with the brand started as a young woman when her mum trawled internet forums in the hope of buying something natural for her daughter's skin to clear up the three skin conditions brought on by bullying. One day, she brought home Dream Cream.
Many people online turn to Lush products as an alternative form of support for issues such as anxiety, depression and insomnia, but shopping at the store is about more than just what there is to buy. "When you're spending a chunk of time with each person, that brief segment feels like a relationship" Hailey Jenkins, the store manager says. Like Rachel, she turned to Lush to help her mend things, and in turn she was made to feel special when she visited. We talk about the range of make-up and there is no mention of what can correct or hide either in our conversation or on the packaging, though of course that is part of the offering. Unlike many other cosmetic ranges, it is not a case of telling you your flaws as a woman and selling you back the solution at a premium price. The make-up at Lush is about show colours and sparkle. It is more concerned with drawing attention to the wearer, rather than away.
Sacha Wilmot is 45 and has visited Lush since it first opened. She is what Lush call one of their 'superfans' and was invited to the preview event (a crowd of press, bloggers, and loyal customers) by Hailey.
"I heard that all the other staff members chose me when they were asked which superfan they should invite to the night. It made me cry. It made my day.
"For me, even just walking into the shop is lovely. I feel like it's always been there and when I come out each time I feel like things are brighter and sharper. Lush is a major part of my life. It takes a very special kind of person to work there, and I feel like they're all part of my family."
Lush isn't so much a shop as an experience, and one that might be too personal for some. But for the people who do visit, and who do like it, it is a kind of therapy. If that sounds hyperbolic then let me explain: I went back to the store in search of a hair mask and I was in there for over an hour. I sat on a stool opposite the assistant, Jess, while she bathed my hands and arms in hot soapy water. She massaged in three kinds of shampoo and conditioner just to see which one I liked the smell of best. She carefully dried between each of my fingers after she'd finished with tissue and sprinkled over some special talcum powder. I found myself telling her things about my life, and in return, while she washed my hands, I heard about when she'd lived in the jungle, and about how she was looking forward to seeing her mum for the first time in years. Both of these disparate and personal life stories involved Lush in some way.
And all this in the middle of a packed shop floor on a bank holiday weekend. Yes, I bought the products but it was more than that. It was an hour of wonderful skin-on-skin contact from another human being whose company I felt comfortable in. It costs nothing to be touched and to be listened to, but not everyone has the privilege to have access to these things. In an ideal world it is the kind of experience that should be bottled and given to those in much more desperate need than me.
Lush is the kind of company that gets under your skin, and for its employees and customers, is a vital part of their lives. I'd argue we need this company on our high street because in an age of faceless brands it has created mini communities in cities all over the country of people looking to each other for support and guidance in the most unusual of settings. Bonding via bath bombs? You better believe it.
The new Lush store is located on 111 Buchanan Street, Glasgow G1 3HF.