by Karen Alberg Grossman

How to revive a 73-year-old fragrance brand after a natural disaster destroyed their St. Thomas production facility? Rhys Moore, CEO of St Johns fragrance company, had several ideas when he joined the company a few years back. Unfortunately, in September 2017, two hurricanes in five days intervened: their small-batch factory was devasted and the island’s palm trees were stripped of their fronds (used to decorate their fragrance bottles). But miraculously, despite the pandemic, business is bouncing back, due in large part to upgrading the factory, improving logistics and distribution, adding new products, and prioritizing retail partnerships.

A brief history of the brand: More than 70 years ago, U.S. Naval officer John Webb, stationed in the Virgin Islands during WWII, became intrigued with bay leaf oil, long regarded as a health and beauty aid by island natives. Mixing this essential oil with exotic Caribbean spices, he created a distinctively masculine fragrance, St Johns Bay Rum. He packaged the bottles by hand and had local weavers create the “FishPot ” weave, reflecting the baskets used by the island’s fishermen.

With a current distribution of mostly specialty stores and “hipster apothecaries,” Moore attributes recent growth to strong partnerships that work both ways. “Our resort business was lost after the hurricanes but our men’s specialty store business continues to grow. We’re committed to supporting our retail partners: I believe customers want to feel the bottle and smell the fragrance; that experience cannot be replicated online.” In addition to creating distinctive product, St Johns Bay is one of few brands to actively support wholesale accounts. “We continuously update our Store Locator on our site. We include “Featured Retailers” on our home page. We feature our wholesale partners on our Instagram. We send emails announcing new retail partners and events. We offer 55 to 60 percent gross margin on most of our items.”

That said, the product itself deserves much credit. Bottles and candle vessels are still hand-woven in the islands. (Price on a four-ounce splash or spray bottle is $22.50 cost for $50 suggested retail.) Bay Rum and West Indian Lime, the most popular classic scents, have been joined by No 77 and Vetiver, more sophisticated but still island-y fragrances. (Several of the newer scents are considered gender-fluid.) A recent addition to the collection, $20 stocking stuffers feature travel-sized spray fragrance and matching soap; these sell well in baskets near the cash register or as gifts-with-purchase.

David Hodgkins from David Wood in Portland, Maine is among many satisfied retail partners. “St Johns Bay is our number one fragrance brand. We’ve carried it for a long time; Rhys and his team are a pleasure to work with,” he confirms.

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