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L'Occitane: Preserving Provence

To those familiar with L'Occitane, the word means more than just "the woman from Occitanie." (Occitanie is a region in France more commonly known as Provence.) To many, the Monasque, France-based L'Occitane boutique has become synonymous with words such as natural, simple, quality and quaint. The bath and body manufacturer and retailer captures the essence of the South of France within each of its store's small parameters. Reminiscent of a shop in Provence, L'Occitane creates an atmosphere its well-traveled, sophisticated patrons have come to relish.

In 1976, at the ripe age of 23, Olivier Baussan founded L'Occitane. The young French entrepreneur, using traditional methods of extraction, developed various products based on essential oils from plants local to Provence. In turn, Baussan sold his products, such as shampoos, in local markets. In 1989, this wholesaler built his first store in Monasque. In 1994, Baussan's company was bought by Reinold Geiger. Today, Geiger is CEO of the company while Baussan remains founder and artistic director.

Currently, the United States is host to 36 L'Occitane stores with 11 more planned to open by year's end. In addition to its presence in the U.S. and France, L'Occitane operates almost 200 stores in Hong Kong, India, Canada, Australia and other international locales. The goal for expansion in the United States is to open 20 stores in each of the next three years, says Stephanie Guinard, vice president of L'Occitane. The worldwide goal is to open 400 stores (United States included) within the same time period. None of the stores in the United States is franchised. The retailer intends to keep all stores company-owned.

Another objective is for each store to embrace the ambience of the South of France. With this in mind, L'Occitane prefers street-front locations. The stores are small, warm and quaint. The wooden storefront opens to circular-patterned, mosaic tile floors and yellow painted walls made of limestone. French-made fixtures display candles, an extensive home collection, make-up, hair care, French-milled soaps and the No. 1 seller, shea butter hand cream. The stores are intimate, authentic and even environmentally and socially conscious, says Guinard. For example, L'Occitane's packaging is made of harvested seaweed from the cleaning of the Venice lagoon. Also, in addition to ink-written labels on the packaging, Braille is often used.

The same compassionate customers that frequent L'Occitane may also be found perusing the company's co-tenants, which include high-end lifestyle stores such as Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma or Illuminations.

Customers tend to be well-educated, well-traveled men (30% of its customers are male) and women ranging in age. After all, everyone uses soap.

Regarding competitors, Guinard suggests, "Any bath and body store could be referred to as competition but our roots set us apart. Because of our history, the look of our stores, our sophisticated clientele ... we stand alone."

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