Interview with a Chief by Rituals - Enjoy the little moments in life

The famous Dutch home and body cosmetic brand Rituals is the newest Gold Member of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. We were delighted to interview Neil Ebbutt, Director Global Travel Retail at Rituals about their Asian expansion plans and more.

By Zuba Adham-Bos

Please tell us a bit about yourself

I’m Neil, 53 years old, originally from the UK but I’ve been living and working in the Netherlands for 22 years now. I’ve been at Rituals from its start twenty years ago. I met one of the founders at a get-together before Rituals was even founded. As my background is in personal care - I had worked at Unilever and Gilette - he reached out to me later to join Rituals. At that time, my wife and I were about to migrate to Australia, but we followed our gut feeling to stay and for me to take the role at Rituals. It has been a good choice; Currently, I’m Director Global Travel Retail at Rituals, where I’m responsible for the global travel retail business.

Rituals has plans for expansion in Asia. What does Rituals want to bring to the Asian market?

We are currently mainly a European brand with a small footprint in the Middle East and the US. Our travel retail is available in 90 countries and we have stores in 28 countries. Our dream is to become a global brand. In new markets, we usually start with standalone stores for the full brand experience. As you may know, we have a few shops in Hong Kong already. We have had bigger plans for our Asian expansion for the last 1.5 years but they are on hold due to the pandemic.

In general, we would like to replicate the success that we have achieved in Europe. Our concept remains the same as it has worked well for us and our consumers since the beginning: Rediscover the magic in every day and turn everyday routines into more meaningful rituals. What we mean is to enjoy the little moments in life instead of living life on auto-pilot. That message works just as well in Europe as in Asia. People are very busy and have little free time, but it is important to enjoy and be aware of everyday moments.

Also, our concept is inspired by age-old knowledge and traditions from different Asian cultures. We are moving towards where it all started and where the research and our inspiration comes from, so we have to be authentic and it has to be correct. We have seen great consumer response in our Hong Kong stores, on Tmall and our travel retail representation.

Are there big differences between the European and the Asian market?

Yes and no. As I explained, the concept remains the same and we sell luxurious yet affordable home and body products. We do see a difference in our regional assortments. Whereas in Europe and the Middle East the main pillars are body and bath care, in Asia our three main pillars are air care (fragrances, candles, sprays, etc.), sleep and natural. The most important lines in Asia will be our private collection and the Ritual of Jing. That is a ritual inspired by the ancient Chinese concept of Jing, which stands for peace, quiet and rest.

Congratulations on the opening of House of Rituals in 2020. How did you pull this off in such an unusual year?

Thank you. This holistic shopping and lifestyle concept was a few years in the making. The assortment sourcing took about four years, with many travels of our procurement team to Asian markets. We worked on the store concept for three years.

When the pandemic hit, we had to make a choice: will we open the House this year or not? Many of our stores were closed and we didn’t know how long for. We took a good look at our finances and decided to go for it. The project was a bit delayed but we did a soft opening of the first two floors, which house a large store and a restaurant, in October 2020 with a small group of press. House of Rituals has four floors in total; The mind and body spa each have their own floor and will launch at a later moment.

How has Rituals adapted during the pandemic?

Our sales are the lifeline of our company, so it was hard when at some point 520 of our 820 stores were closed. However, like many businesses and places in the world, the consumer’s drive to shop remained but moved to online. Fortunately, we have seen a steady demand for our brand; people like to pamper themselves and self-indulge during difficult times.

Our e-commerce business has developed very fast and partly compensated the losses at our physical stores. We have embraced several digital opportunities such as click & collect, an online fast lane for gift sets and a booking tool for private shopping. We also started ‘ship from store’ where we deliver online orders directly from our stores’ stock – often by bike! During Christmas, our store employees took to the streets en masse to deliver packages.

Rituals NL was awarded the Top Employer award for the third year in a row. How do you set yourself apart from other employers?

We aim at a combination of hard work and having fun at Rituals. Rituals’ employees are continually challenged to constantly improve but also to celebrate successes. We have an on-boarding programme, called “Rootcamp”, where senior leaders present key aspects of what has built Rituals and they take time to connect with the new employees to make them feel part of the family from the start.

For two years we operate what we call ‘FOAM’ – a nod to our shower foam – which stands for Frontline, Ownership, Aim big and act small, and Making the connection. We aim to have responsible employees to take ownership and put the customer first, who dream big and follow small steps to make their dreams possible by communicating and working hand in hand with each other.

What is your favourite thing about working at Rituals?

It is fantastic to be part of building a global brand from nothing and having a great connection with our customers. We have multiple “small companies” within the overarching company which keeps us agile, quick to market and quick to making decisions.

I started at Rituals in my early thirties and I still enjoy working with young and like-minded people. It creates a great energy and atmosphere in our offices.

Which trends do you expect in the coming five years in your industry?

Over the past year, the digital transformation has been fast-forwarded with five years. It has become increasingly important and it’s here to stay. Another emerging trend is that since the pandemic, people value their home surroundings more and are looking for ways to make it look and feel nicer. For us, this has resulted in a higher demand for the air care category.

From a consumer perspective, we will see an increasingly critical consumer; they want authenticity, cool brands and more innovation. They are also looking for brands that care about the world and sustainability.

From a business perspective, the question is when travel will return. Corporate travel might take a while, but I think leisure travel will be up to speed very quickly as soon as it is possible, which will be good for the travel retail industry.

Anything you would like to say to our readers?

I sincerely mean this: Hong Kong is my favourite city in the world and I hope to be able to visit soon. It’s great to connect digitally but physically experiencing a city and having authentic contact with clients and customers remains great. I’m looking forward to building a beautiful Dutch brand in Asia!