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Gen Z Buys Everything Online, Except Beauty Products

American teenagers overwhelmingly prefer to buy beauty products in stores. A recent visit to Ulta Beauty and Sephora in the New York City suburbs reveals why.
Inside a Sephora store | Source: Courtesy
  • Rachel Strugatz

NEW YORK, United States — Teens watch more YouTube than cable and are increasingly likely to buy clothes on Amazon or Fashion Nova rather than walk into a boutique. But there's one holdout: beauty, where 90 percent of purchases still take place in stores, according to a Piper Jaffray survey of American teens. This figure has not changed in years.

As an “older millennial,” this came as a surprise. It’s hard to believe that Gen Z, the first digitally native generation who spends the majority of their waking hours attached to a mobile device, are averse to shopping for beauty online. In an effort to better understand why teens still shop in their local Sephora or Ulta Beauty, I rented a car and hit the suburbs to see for myself.

Isabella Dominguez, 14, was eyeing the new Fenty Beauty Body Lava “body luminizers” at a Sephora in an outdoor mall in Nanuet, NY when I approached her. She told me Fenty Beauty and Anastasia Beverly Hills are her go-tos, and she’ll only buy them in-store. She’s open to the idea of e-commerce if there were better tools to assess or predict how makeup will look on her skin. And she’s not on Instagram – her mom won’t allow her to use the platform.

Next stop was an Ulta in Montvale, NJ, where the store was different but the complaints about online beauty shopping were the same.


“If the tools online were more sophisticated I’d very strongly consider it just to save the hassle and the drive,” said 24-year-old Nathalie Rodriguez (though not a teen, she still qualifies as Gen Z), of ordering foundation online. “It has to look very, very real. I still miss seeing the actual product [online], sometimes a lot of things are very misleading.”

Variances in the lighting of product shots, as well as texture, have made buying foundation in-store a must for her.

Rodriguez, along with cousin Kiara Farfan, 19, told me they buy clothes and “pretty much everything else” online, but usually go to Sephora or Ulta to stock up on beauty. Rodriguez opened a charcoal body scrub to show me the texture, pointing out that she “actually physically wants to see the product,” but, once she knows she likes something, is open to buying it online.

“I like looking at makeup online, but I like shopping in store,” said Karfan of foundation, adding that she even likes to feel the texture of eyeshadow in store.

What I quickly realised is that the reason beauty is the last e-commerce holdout is pretty much the same for Gen Z as it is for my 62-year-old mother: a desire to touch, feel and shade match in person transcends an effortless online shopping experience. Beauty’s a replenishment category online, which means that to acquire new customers, brick and mortar is still where the action happens.

Ulta and Sephora know this. They’ve cleverly blurred the lines between mass and prestige, Ulta especially, transforming themselves into one-stop shops for Gen Zers who use “drugstore brands” like Nyx Professional Makeup interchangeably with Tarte.

The rise of these chains has been a blow to CVS and Walgreens as well as department store beauty counters. But they haven’t won the battle yet.

“Drug store has gotten so much better, they’ve improved a lot,” said Karfan, who is a fan of Wet n Wild’s $5.99 foundation. She doesn’t see much of a difference between this and prestige foundation lines that are five to seven times as expensive.


Rodriguez and Karfan’s beauty picks might be a mix of high and low – Kylie Cosmetics, e.l.f cosmetics, Nyx, Fenty Beauty, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Tarte and Too Faced – but being “cruelty-free,” they say in unison, is the single most important quality a brand can have.

Karfan cited a brand with “beautiful lipstick” but because this label also sells mink lashes she refuses to support it. “I wish I could,” she said.

I was impressed that she talked about veganism and beauty with such conviction when most of my peers are quick to buy whatever looks best on their skin, paying no heed to a founder’s personal beliefs as long as the product makes them look younger or less tired.

The internet still plays a huge role in driving sales, even if those sales aren’t actually happening online. One Sephora employee, herself a member of Gen Z, told me teens come into a store knowing exactly what they want because they’ve already seen it on Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat. They don’t need the help of a sales associate.

Rodriguez said she gets all of her beauty intel from Karfan, who in turn gets her knowledge from Youtubers KathleenLights and Jaclyn Hill and Instagram account Trendmood, which highlights the latest product releases.

Karfan and Rodriguez ended up buying two kinds of L.A. Girl lipliner, an Essence eyeliner pen and an Earth Therapeutics charcoal scrub.

Whoever said retail is dead hasn’t been to a beauty store on a weekend afternoon.



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