Innovative Retailer – Sephora

Brought to you by Retail Insider and PCMS Group

Name: Sephora

The Place: Well, it’s part of LMVH which is French but most people think of America when they think of Sephora on account of it being the number one beauty retailer over there. Although actually it operates in more than 30 countries.

But nothing in the UK? Sore point. Once a year or so Cosmopolitan readers go into meltdown because a rumour surfaces that Sephora is going to open a UK outlet, normally in Westfield, and then it, like, so doesn’t happen and they have to somehow pick up their lives and carry on. Which is ironic.

Why? Because Sephora started out in Paris in 1969 as a joint-venture between Nouvelle Galeries and…UK high street stalwart Boots.

Who knew! Back to the story: Beauty. Ah, it’s a funny old industry. You spend your whole retail life training your staff to be totally knowledgeable in one makeup line with orders to sell, sell, sell that one line and then what happens?

Err: It’s a rhetorical question. And then this happens: customers decide that it’s all about trying loads of different products and they would rather listen to some vlogger teen they’ve never met than talk to your nice lady with the crisp white coat, very red lips and lots of perfume on.

It’s a sad and cruel world: It certainly is. But Sephora is totally showing the rest of us how to surf the fickle customer wave with an almost constant launch of new innovations in its bricks and mortar outlets in the US. Oh, and don’t forget the subscription service. And the Virtual Artist app.

Oho, buzzword alerts:  More of those later. Right now, I’m talking about Sephora Studio.

Right, let me guess – Sainsbury’s Local for beauty: Stop interrupting or experience my stern face. There are 400-plus Sephora stores in the US and they have until now had a fairly standard look.

Which is? Big, loud, and bright. Think makeup fairground turned up to 11. Back in the 1990s the chain was one of the first to move away from static counters where consumers waited for advice from beauty consultant and instead encouraged the ladies to apply the lippy themselves in a fun, relaxed ambience.

Sounds good, why are they changing it? Well, those won’t change and to be honest they have weathered changing retail patterns better than most but some trends cannot be ignored.

Such as? Online, and increasing time constraints leading to a preference for smaller, localised shops with a fraction of the stock lines available but everything findable on in-store tech.

OK, I feel the words ‘assistant with tablets’ are going to surface shortly. That is correct: The new dinky stores seek to be all about the relationship between advisor (you see, there is still a point in training your cosmetics lady after all) and customer. The assistants have the tech to process all payments on phones so that the whole till space is saved.

And that space is now used for? Partly the make-over stations of which there are many clustered in the centre – so instead of going to the counter of the individual brand you are interested in the assistants do personalised makeovers for customers where they can try on all the different lines in one place. With their tablets staff then take pictures of the finished article, and send that to the client together with a list of all the different products that made up the look.

It makes your average beauty shop sound a bit dull now doesn’t it? Absolutely. Sephora is hoping to open up to 80 of these in the States alone. This is more of your girls’ sleepover experience with extra sales experience thrown in.

 Can we move onto the app business: Ah yes, Sephora Virtual Artist. This is clever.

I’ll be the judge of that, thank you: It’s a mobile app (although it can also be web-based), which allows the consumer to virtually try on hundreds of products using their camera, if you like the lipstick you are virtually trying then you can immediately purchase. As a second layer, whole looks can be applied to your photo at the touch of a finger giving you an instant indication of how you would look. Again, the purchase list of the products used in each look are immediately buyable.

And I have decided that it is… clever: Huzza. The app also features virtual tutorials, colour matches for celebrity looks (kind of like Asos for makeup) and a swatch facility where you can compare hundreds of eye shadow shades instantly.

Where do they get all these ideas from? Easy. The Innovation Lab.

OMD, there is an actual factory where they make ideas? Yes, it’s near San Francisco and its sole purpose for the past two years has been to mix mobile apps with in-store shopping and come up with winning combos of the two.

I’m getting quite exhausted with all this newness. But hang on to your hats – let’s move onto subscription services: Of course. Play!

There’s no time for that. Tell me about the subscription offering: No, it’s called Play! The monthly box. It costs $10 and it comes with five new sample products each month in a cute bag with tips on how to use. And every time Sephora designs the box personally for each individual based on answers given in initial profile building.

Love it: I know. And lemme tell you – all the other major beauty retailers are completely watching whatever Sephora does.

Except the ones in the UK: Yup. They don’t need to bother. Because it’s not here. Because they hate us. Because they won’t open in Westfield.

Are you actually crying? No, alright yes.

PCMS is a global provider of IT software and services for the retail industry. PCMS offers a full-range of integrated commerce solutions across selling touch points and also provides turnkey managed services and cloud hosting. Its client list includes John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Whole Foods, as well as Walgreens in the US and fashion brands including Prada and Ferragamo across Europe