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Try-Before-You-Buy Beauty Retailers Pivot in the Age of Covid-19

As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, the in-store makeovers and testers that brands rely on to win customers are suddenly no-gos. But there are alternatives.
Customers receiving makeup tutorials inside a Sephora. | Shutterstock
  • Holly Siegel,
  • Chavie Lieber

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NEW YORK, United States — At the heart of most beauty retail experiences is touch: trying out products, picking up perfume bottles to test their fragrances, or receiving a makeup tutorial from a salesperson.

These experiences are one reason Sephora and Ulta stores are often packed. But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when “community spread” is top of mind for many consumers, those intimate moments are becoming a major liability.

On Wednesday, Sephora cancelled in-store makeup and skincare services and classes. The LVMH-owned beauty retail giant said its employees would be showing customers how to apply makeup using “face charts” and digital tools. In a separate message, Jean-André Rougeot, chief executive and president of Sephora Americas, told customers the company was "regularly disinfecting all high-touch areas including workstations, product displays, and hygiene stations, with a hospital-grade disinfecting cleaner."

Ulta Beauty is pressing ahead with in-store demonstrations, though Chief Executive Mary Dillon said in an email to customers that they should “reschedule if you’re not feeling well” (while also noting that employees will be disinfecting stores regularly). Macy’s MAC and Dior have adopted “no-touch policies,” according to internal documents published by Estée Laundry. Space NK adopted a similar policy on Thursday, ending makeovers and skincare treatments at its stores in the UK and Ireland. Walgreens said on Friday it was removing all beauty testers from stores.

The industry is hastily rewriting their retail playbooks as Covid-19 cases swell. Worldwide there have been over 120,000 cases and over 4,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering's Centers for Systems Science and Engineering, which has been compiling the data.

Italy has shut down all stores selling non-essential items. In the US, where shops remain open, over 30 percent of consumers said they were avoiding stores, and 58 percent said they planned to steer clear of public areas altogether if the outbreak worsens, according to a Coresight Research survey.

Meanwhile, health experts are warning against touching one’s own face — let alone allowing a stranger to do so — and avoiding unnecessary travel or visits to public places. That advice seemingly rules out the most common approach to beauty retail today — whether at Ulta, Beautycon, or a Goop pop-up — which involves allowing customers direct access to products, and often free touch-ups and tutorials.

Coronavirus will not change the way people choose brands and products but could change the way they shop.

“Coronavirus will not change the way people choose brands and products but could change the way they shop,” said Odile Roujol, an industry veteran and founder of the FaB Fashion and Beauty Tech community.

Beauty brands and retailers are addressing the virus as best as they can in stores, with multiple hygiene stations featuring alcohol, sanitiser, and disposable applicators as well as safety-trained staff.

CAP Beauty, a natural beauty retailer with locations in New York City and Los Angeles, sent customers an email on Monday: “We saw less people coming in and people with concerns and wanted to address them,” said Kerrilynn Palmer, founder and chief executive. “We have hand sanitiser on the floor, which I’d never used before in my life. We have a really nice one coming in soon. And we’ve been letting people use our sink.” Soap company Lush has also made their soap and sinks available in select locations.

Testers — the communal sample jars that are ubiquitous in beauty stores — are a battleground. Sephora continues to display testers, much to the dismay of some customers, who took to Twitter to vent.

“What’s the least comforting coronavirus email you’ve gotten? Sephora continuing to have testers and offering free shipping for 2 weeks is hall-of-fame level,” one user wrote.

What's the least comforting coronavirus email you've gotten? Sephora continuing to have testers.

Ulta told customers in an email that if they wanted to test products, they had to “ask an associate to assist you."

The communal experience of shopping for beauty — so essential to direct-to-consumer brands — is also tougher to pull off when consumers are self-quarantining. Beautycon, a convention featuring numerous independent brands, has postponed its LA edition from August to December. Sephora cancelled its annual beauty festival, Sephoria, this year.

Brands can also double down on marketing techniques that don’t involve in-store demonstrations.

Sampling, offering trial-size amounts of product online with purchases or in-store upon request, has been an alternative to physically swatching product. Though always a part of the beauty marketing playbook, samples haven’t caught on as a substitute for the in-store experience. Companies that send boxes of single-use beauty products to subscribers, like Birchbox, have struggled. Samples also tend to come in plastic packaging, which raises the hackles of environmentally-minded consumers.

Some companies have experimented with digital tools meant to simulate the in-store experience online. Prose, a direct-to-consumer hair brand, asks customers to answer 25 questions that are then used to create personalised products. This approach helps build a connection with the customer, much like a store employee would.

“The big challenge we’re working on at Prose is how we create this emotional bonding through a digital experience,” said Arnaud Plas, the brand’s co-founder and CEO.

The big challenge we're working on at Prose is how we create this emotional bonding through a digital experience.

Virtual makeup apps like Modiface and Glamst, which allow customers to digitally try on makeup, are getting sharper and can directly link to checkout (Sephora and Ulta both have this tech embedded in their apps). Beauty search engines and online communities dedicated to discovering and evaluating new products can also replace elements of the in-person shopping experience.

Over the long term, it’s hard to say whether any of these changes will become permanent. A recession might push consumers to choose mass-market beauty products over prestige cosmetics, and they may not all switch back when the economy starts growing again (Leonard Lauder famously dubbed this phenomenon the “lipstick index,” noting that women tended to buy more of that product when times were tough.) E-commerce was already making inroads in the beauty market before the outbreak and may see its share grow faster.

“We haven’t seen an increase in online sales yet,” said Palmer. “For now, people are thinking more pragmatically.”


Revlon to cut 1,000 jobs to boost profitability. The US-based cosmetic company hopes the move will save up to $230 million by 2022. It has seen sales declines for at least five quarters, as it struggles to attract younger consumers in an increasingly competitive beauty market.

Rihanna opens Fenty Beauty house for TikTok influencers. The musician opened the doors of an LA mansion to the platforms' top beauty influencers to promote her makeup collection via videos posted to the Fenty Beauty TikTok page.

The Gummy vitamin trend isn't going anywhere. As the vitamin market continues to grow, and consumers increasingly draw a connection between nutrition and appearance, the brightly coloured candy-like supplements are becoming a fun alternative to traditional capsules.

Amazon stops selling dangerous skin lightening products. Following a year of activist pressure, the e-commerce giant removed 15 products that contain toxic levels of mercury.

TikTok drives beauty sales. The social media platform transformed DTC beauty brand Urban Skin Rx into a viral sensation — all it took was a single post from TikTok influencer Ashley Boggs, whose "before and after" video about the brands' cleansing bar saw product sales spike 220 percent.

Waitlists for hand sanitiser continue to grow. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, brands like Touchland have seen demand for its product surge. The company sold more than 250,000 bottles in the past few weeks and has a waitlist of more than 10,000 orders.

Wander Beauty co-designs products with customers. The brand enlisted the help of shoppers to decide the shades for its new Wanderess Escape eyeshadow palette.

Zit stickers take over social media. Patches from brands like Starface and Squish, which claim to bust zits and combat acne prone skin, are taking over social platforms from Instagram to TikTok.

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