An Israeli success story, Laline’s lotions, creams and scrubs are delighting customers across the country and increasingly across the globe.
Walking into a Laline shop anywhere in the world is a sensory affair. The deep scents of creams and body scrubs, the classy black-and-white décor, the knowledge that whatever you purchase will be wrapped and beribboned before being placed in a crisp white paper bag emblazoned with the curlicued black Laline logo.
Those design elements were percolating in the minds of Meirav Cohen and Revital Levi from the time when they opened their first Laline store back in 1999. They wanted to create a space that was warm, welcoming and had just the right atmosphere, to draw in all those potential customers who didn’t even know that they needed the Laline line of products. Because, as Cohen and Levi like to say, while they didn’t have any retail experience to speak of, they had a sense of what would work and could become a trend.
At the time, Cohen was grappling with an unsuccessful partnership in a fledgling candle store on Tel Aviv’s hip Sheinkin Street, while Levi had just had her first child and was trying to figure out what to do next. But over one weekday lunch, the two first cousins – accompanied by their mothers – came up with the idea of a boutique dedicated to body care products.
What especially appealed to the close cousins was the possibility of being their own bosses. They were also attracted to the idea behind an old Hebrew saying that translates as “growing your own lettuce,” and means something like ‘reinventing the wheel.’ They found their first location in Tel Aviv’s prestigious Kikar Hamedina which has always been an address for high-end stores, and opened a small shop selling candles, creams and accessories, all made in Israel.
Like every Laline shop since, the store was decorated in their signature black-and-white “shabby chic” look, as Cohen describes it, and carried just four products, “but in large amounts,” says Cohen, laughing and remembering those first months in business.
Appearance on Sex and the City
When they realized there wasn’t enough foot traffic on Kikar Hamedina for their fledgling store, they brought it to Sheinkin, where the concept immediately took off. Customers loved the look, the products, the packaging, and the whole concept of Laline. After all, at the time, there was nothing quite like it in Israel, or, they felt, anywhere else. What they were riding on was what Israelis had come to know in their travels, England’s Body Shop, America’s Bath & Body Works, and all the other mega cosmetics and body care stores worldwide.
Success begets success, of course. Just before Laline opened, Sabon Shel Paam, known as Sabon (Hebrew for ‘soap’) in the US, began selling its old-fashioned soap-by-the-pound, also on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.
Created by two high-school friends, Avi Piatok and Sigal Kotler Levi, the two wanted to open some kind of store, they told ISRAEL21c, and seeing the success of candle shops and body shop stores, came up with the idea of blocks of soap. Their recipes were based on an aboriginal lavender soap recipe that Piatok’s parents had recreated following a trip to Australia in the 1970s.
The blocks of soap, studded with all kinds of herbs, fruits and vegetables, including rose petals, lavender and slices of lemon, were an immediate success, and the partners quickly launched a line of accompanying creams and scrubs, packaged in recyclable glass bottles to enhance the old-fashioned theme. Sabon now has 20 branches in Israel and 30 worldwide, including in the US, Canada, Romania, Italy, Poland and Holland, and its Manhattan store was even used in a scene for the TV show Sex and the City.
For the Laline ladies and their Sabon competitors, timing has been everything and both are among Israel’s top export successes. They started out just as Israeli malls were flourishing and growing, with stores to fill and customers who were eager to check out the new shopping phenomenon.
Levi and Cohen weren’t always on the respectful receiving end of the mall managers’ queries. “What kind of store is this? Two girls selling creams?” Levi recalls being asked in a disparaging way. But they found their niche and their customers, who like knowing that they can find a Laline in nearly any mall across the country.
Openings in the US, Caribbean, England and Japan
“No one’s like us,” says Cohen, adding that the Laline scents come from Provence, as well as an entire line of products carried in the body care boutiques. All the rest, however, is made in Israel, from the chemists who work with them to create the Laline scents and aromas, to the graphic designers who perfect the labels and packaging.
Some 14 stores later, Laline was approached in 2007 by the Fox clothing chain, which proposed to purchase half the company. Of the several companies that had come knocking at the door, Fox made the best offer. Cohen and Levi wanted to expand beyond Israel, and with Fox behind them they would have the financial stability and the management to make it happen.
That was three and a half years ago. Since then, Laline has opened 56 stores in Israel, has a NIS 67.2 million shekel ($18.6m.) sales turnover and a new store in San Francisco, California. There’s a new CEO as well, and that side of the company handles the employees, sales and finances.
With a brand-new store at San Francisco’s Pier 39, blueprints for another San Francisco store and openings in the Caribbean, England and Japan by the end of the year, the Laline plans for opening abroad are already in progress.
The company had several unsuccessful starts with their first stores in Norway, Bucharest and England, but has now changed its approach and seeks entrepreneurs with retail and financial experience to run the franchises.
In the US, Laline was discovered by Israelis Oren Cohen and Shai Zemach. Zemach, who had come to live in Israel with his family, fell in love with the product line and proposed the idea to his US-based Israeli business partner, Cohen.
It took them a year of working with Laline Israel and their local site to open the Pier 39 store, and now they’re planning a string of other Laline shops in California’s Bay Area, including one on San Francisco’s famed Chestnut Street. But the overall plan is 18 stores in three years, and the next stores could be in Florida and New York, all opened by Cohen and Zemach.
Luck, timing and hard work
“Laline is about return customers and that’s what we liked about it,” said Oren Cohen in a recent phone interview. “It’s very young and fun and unique, and people tend to come back time and again.”
Customers living in non-Laline cities can also buy the company’s products on-line in the US, through the company’s American website. “We’re the underdog with so many monster competitors,” says Oren Cohen. “If we succeed in bringing such a small company that became successful to such a huge place, we’ll feel very proud.”
What’s satisfying, says Levi, is the knowledge that they did it all themselves. They created something that hadn’t existed before, and they put it together from zero, learning everything from staffing to logistics as they went. “I’m not a business woman,” she adds, “I have a business that I put together from zero.”
Asked about the secret to their success, they say they don’t have one. It’s not the Israeli angle, since there’s nothing specifically Israeli about their business, no Dead Sea salts in their products, nothing obviously Israeli in their look.
The cousins point to luck, timing, and hard work. In fact, they’re still somewhat surprised by the scope of their success, sometimes wondering how the two of them came to own one of Israel’s most successful body care enterprises.
“You know what?” says Cohen, “I’m still somewhat taken aback whenever I see someone carrying the white and black Laline bag. I think, ‘Wow, that’s us.’ “