Lush Cosmetics Australia buyer Elisia Gray reveals how she began her career on the shopfloor, the ins and outs of her role, how she overcame imposter syndrome. Inside Retail: Describe a typical day at work for you. Elisia Gray: As a buyer for Lush, sometimes I think it might look like I am prancing around in lavender fields, but the reality of my day-to-day role is very different. I can be doing anything from attending a meeting about a product launch, getting quotes for gift wrapping paper or
per or writing a buying report for staff to engage with. Sometimes I can spend a mere few hours sourcing a material that we need 1000kg of, to a whole day trying to find 1kg of an abstract material. I generally would visit a supplier about once a week, or do a longer trip to meet a few suppliers in the same region. This often means catching a plane to a remote airport, jumping in a hire car and driving three hours inland. A driver’s license is essential for this role as many suppliers are located in rural areas. Since the impact of Covid-19 I haven’t visited a supplier in quite a few months. IR: Tell me about how you worked your way up from the shop floor to your current role at Lush. EG: I had not returned home long after living in Japan for three years teaching adults English, it was approaching Christmas time and I had decided that I was happy to pick up any job, but knew I’d be happier if I liked the company. I had always enjoyed the tactile nature of Lush and had liked smelly things. As a kid I cherished the scratch and sniff stickers if I were lucky enough to get one from a teacher. My university degree had aspects of learning and development in it and after working for Lush for six months I had decided I did not necessarily need to forsake my degree in education and that potentially I could work in some capacity in a training role. Having this vision gave me purpose and the motivation to go above and beyond in my current role. I said yes to everything, whether it was a PR event for a new product launch or helping set up a new store. I eventually worked in various Lush stores and sat in a store manager role for Lush for quite a few years. I think the types of experiences you get from managing high volume and flagship stores are very formative and this is where I had the opportunity to really flex my skills as there were always challenges. There is no room for sloppy organisation skills and it is truly a course in time management. When a training role became available at Lush head office, I thought ‘this is my big chance’. I remember at one stage in the interview process having to conduct a training session in front of one of the directors and a recruiter. It was a nerve-racking process. I remember after being unsuccessful, being told ‘you aren’t quite loud enough’. I was left wondering what was left for me. I continued on being a store manager and with several years under my belt, I finally stopped having imposter syndrome, became a more confident person and worried a lot less about the people issues, which often left me sleepless earlier in my career. I am unsure, whether it was a level of emotional maturity that kicked in later in my 20’s or perhaps I had weathered enough storms in retail that had resulted in greater resilience. This contentment and quiet confidence saw me successful in applying for a role as a retailer with Lush. A Lush retailer is often likened to an area or state manager. Being a retailer at Lush was not too dissimilar to being a store manager, but with a big business mindset. I enjoyed the responsibility, and, being a global brand, it allowed me to travel the world. At the time, there was only one role that would ever tempt me to change roles and I secretly harboured hope that it would become available at some point within Lush Australasia. I had never really told anyone in my personal or professional life that I had desired to become a buyer for the brand. At the time Lush had a procurement team, but no one on the front end that could fully commit to resourcing and managing the relationships with suppliers. There was little time for the procurement teams to do their own roles, let alone source materials with local growers and producers. I sometimes look back and wonder how they managed to do it all! Many aspects of buying at Lush were quite community and environmentally orientated. While completely content in my retail role I knew should this position ever present itself I would in turn present myself. In my spare time I read a lot of literature and put myself through short courses, one being with Milkwood permaculture in an ‘Introduction to Permaculture’ course. These external experiences put me in good stead for a buying role, despite not having the same industry experiences others had in this field. My attitude was a lot healthier in my late 30’s. I no longer thought the world owed me anything just because I worked hard. Even though I had invested time in gaining skills for a role I might not ever get, I thought to myself ‘at least I will know a lot about soil’. I have been a buyer with Lush for about three years now. IR: What were the valuable lessons you learnt on the shopfloor that you still use today in your current job? EG: The relationship I have with suppliers is very different depending on the nature of the material and whether you are dealing with a large company that distributes many materials or a grower that supplies you with a locally resourced material. I think the skills you learn on the shopfloor, with what is essentially speaking with strangers every day, really teaches you how to develop a warm rapport, be amiable and yet professional. The type of communication one customer will need, can be different to the next person that walks in. I particularly enjoyed stock management within Lush. By making small changes in retail stores, I learnt the satisfaction of seeing results improve and saving money. I still get the same sense of fulfilment but this might be from making a small change in supply that has a positive financial impact. IR: What do you love about your role and what does it involve? EG: Undoubtedly it is working with local growers and producers. I am incredibly proud to be able to tell our staff that we get locally sourced olive oil from the Grampians in Victoria or that we purchase only Australian and New Zealand honey. Moving a global ingredient to local is hard work. It involves research, signing our non-animal testing forms, price negotiation, trialing the material in a small scale batch, micro testing, sending samples to our UK head office for approval. It usually takes about two months before we can start using a local material. What are some of your favourite retail brands and why? I am a creative person and love art, nature and anything tactile. If I have any down time I will spend it painting and reading. For these reasons I am attracted to brands that have a defined aesthetic and smart copywriters. A brand that has done this well is wine subscription brand Good Pair Days. They have really nailed the unboxing experience with humorous phrases on the inside of boxes that are shareable on Instagram and personalised messages in parcels becoming one’s own personal brand to share. Inside the lid is shareable content such as “your friends don’t care if your house is clean, they care if you have good wine” or my favourite “wine may not solve your problems but neither will water”. I admire different brands for different reasons. I think Cue is admirable with the majority of their garments manufactured locally, which is incredibly rare in Australia. I always stop by Nike’s store windows. Whoever is in charge of their visual merchandising and campaigns is incredibly talented at creating a story and a stop-and-look visual. IR: If you could swap jobs with someone for a day, who would it be and why? EG: I would love to work in the brand team to see how a campaign comes to life. It would be interesting to see how an idea or initiative then branches out to PR, events, activations, website, and social. IR: If you could give advice to anyone who would want a role like yours, what would it be? EG: I learnt that if all my efforts were focused on one role and I didn’t get it then you can easily become purposeless or disenchanted. So while it is good to have a dream role, I would always recommend that purpose can be found in any role if you want to do a good job for your own self esteem. Many buyers within Lush globally come from different backgrounds. Some have been hired externally and worked as buyers in fashion or other industries, others have come from a procurement background and a few like me have grown within the company. I would recommend starting with a short course in procurement and looking for entry level roles, such as an assistant buyer for a brand that you like. IR: What are some of the skills that you need as an ethical buyer in particular? EG: Our one non-negotiable is non-animal testing. In this day and age it is unacceptable to test cosmetics on animals for shinier hair or plumper skin. We ask all new suppliers to sign our non-animal testing forms. There is some heavy lifting with paperwork for suppliers that provide us with higher risk materials, such as synthetics and then much simpler paper work to confirm non-animal testing with growers and producers. Aside from non-animal testing, we generally are willing to work with suppliers where they are at and grow with them as a business. The types of things I will look for ethically will change depending on the supplier. For something like a large distributor, I will look at workers conditions, demarcation lines on the factory floor and especially the measures they have in place for those hot Australian days. For a grower, I will look for something local, with a lower carbon footprint and ask a lot about soil and find out how they manage their crops. No one is perfect and we certainly aren’t either. I think when you put yourself on a pedestal you really open yourself up for criticism and as a brand and a buyer we are constantly learning and trying to better ourselves and our process but have a long way to go. More often than not I am bringing great ideas back to our manufacturing business from visiting suppliers. IR: What’s the process like of trying to source sustainable and ethical ingredients? EG: Sometimes searching the internet is my friend and other times sourcing comes from building relationships with producers, who in turn recommend other producers. I’ve always got my eye out while driving, and if I am in a rural area and see something interesting I don’t hesitate to pull over and check it out. If I am at a health food store or a farmers market I’ll take a photo with my phone of the label or producer to remember later. The coffee we source for Lush actually comes from me enjoying a quick coffee and breakfast and sparking up a conversation with the owner of the café about fair trade before visiting another supplier. IR: A lot of businesses now are trying to source more ethical ingredients and products. What tips would you offer them? EG: I would create a matrix of high impact and low impact activities to direct your energies. For example, sourcing ethical stationery for your company might be important to you, but moving all plastic packaging over to 100 per cent recycled plastic would have a more significant and positive impact on the environment. There is so much you might want to do, and some things you might not have the budget to do this year, but listing out all of these ideas is important as it will help organise your thoughts and filter through which activities will have an authentic positive impact on the environment. It’s important to not become easily frustrated if you don’t have the budget to do everything that you want, as everyone is truly in the same boat and the current retail climate is trying; so celebrate the small wins as you tick them off. I think a lot of buyers are spoilt for choice when it comes to great suppliers, so understanding the importance of telling the story of your suppliers, creating an affinity internally so staff feel a sense of connection to supply chains can be just as important when trying to convince stakeholders to change supply, as we are in an incredibly price conscious environment.