NEW YORK, United States — Four flavours of lip balm sit on a table at Glossier’s headquarters: mango, elderflower, watermelon and peach. Nearby, executives begin testing them, trying to figure out which one they should release next spring as the newest beauty product for millennials to covet. “Peach is hot right now,” one product development worker says. “The emoji alone!”
Their boss, Emily Weiss, 33-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Glossier, grabs a flat stick with a glob of salve smeared on one end. In order to keep your palate clean, she warns, you need to smell your elbow pit between tests. These kinds of pronouncements are not uncommon for Weiss, who made her mark on the beauty industry by figuring out how to get people to buy beauty products without trying them first.
Almost all of Glossier’s business is done online, a rarity in makeup and skin care. It lures customers through savvy marketing — such as debuting its new Lidstar eyeshadow on Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards — and products like makeup pouches designed as TSA-ready pink bubble wrap. It releases a new product every six to eight weeks and hypes items as if they’re a hot new sneaker drop from Nike. Everything it sells is packaged pretty, from $28 bottles of niacinamide serum, which promises to calm such skin-disrupting triggers as junk food and stress, to tubes of $22 dew-effect highlighter made of coconut, castor seed and sweet almond oil.
Now, with an additional $52 million in venture capital funding injected in February, Glossier is preparing to enter what Weiss calls “Phase Two,” one that will carve out a larger slice of the $445 billion global beauty market.
To do that, Weiss plans to create a social-selling website for beauty. “Social commerce” is a broad buzzword for a growing retail segment that’s combining social interactions with e-commerce, such as shoppable pins on Pinterest, as well as Poshmark’s online boutiques made up of clothes from other people’s closets.
Planning is in very early stages. Glossier’s Instagram account has more than 1.4 million followers, but Weiss wants to build her own version of a social media and shopping mashup, something that will allow shoppers to get feedback from other users to find beauty products that are right for them. This is not a social network that sells ads for revenue: instead, Glossier will sell its own beauty items on the platform. Last month, Weiss hired Keith Peiris, a developer who led teams at Instagram, Facebook Inc. and Oculus, as Glossier’s product chief and tasked him with spearheading the new site.
Cosmetics have been slow to make the shift online because shoppers often want to try a product first to see if it works. Subscription box services such as Ipsy and Birchbox, which drew more than $190 million in combined venture capital investment, gained substantial followings by sending samples right to members’ doorsteps in an attempt to get shoppers to buy the full-price items afterward.
But sites such as Glossier indicate that a bigger change is underway in the beauty industry. Legacy players such as Estee Lauder Cos. and L’Oreal SA are buying up smaller labels in an effort to hit the jackpot and find the next billion-dollar brands. Over the past two years, Estée Lauder invested in “abnormal beauty” company Deciem and acquired cosmetics brands Too Faced and Becca, which stand in contrast to its massive traditional labels, Clinique and La Mer. In May, L’Oréal bought South Korean beauty brand Nanda and Pulp Riot Hair Color to help it keep up with the booming trend favouring the country’s beauty products.
Meanwhile, the rise of such speciality shops as Sephora and Ulta Beauty Inc., beauty bazaars with wide arrays of both mass-market brands and prestigious names, have shaken up beauty retail. Department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Kohl’s and Barneys New York have redesigned their beauty floors with services like spa rooms and blow bars to make shoppers more comfortable, rather than accosting them with spritzes of perfume and endless color swatches. Macy’s acquired retailer Bluemercury in 2015 to bolster its beauty presence as J.C. Penney expanded its partnership with Sephora.
Despite all the changes, Weiss says that when it comes to the beauty industry, “the customer experience is pretty broken.” To search online, women still primarily must navigate a rabbit hole of reviews. “In many ways, we are placing women’s search in the land of 15 tabs on the internet,” she says.
Glossier started as Into the Gloss, a beauty blog, in 2010. Weiss, who had previously worked as an assistant at Teen Vogue, wrote about beauty products and routines, makeup bags and lip stains. In 2013, she began selling her own products and raised a $2 million seed round. Forerunner Ventures, which has also invested in skin care brand Curology and Prose hair care, was the initial backer.
Within four years, the company attracted more than $86 million in funding. Its 150 or so employees work out of an airy 19,000-square-foot headquarters on the 10th floor of an office building in downtown Manhattan. Inside, the barely noticeable scent of Glossier perfume wafts through a workspace as Instagrammable as the cosmetics. It’s a far cry from the early days, when the company was hand-delivering orders from burner phones on the top floor of an apartment complex.
Glossier didn’t disclose revenue numbers, but said it tripled in size in 2017, compared to the year prior. The company sells one of its “Boy Brow” eyebrow shapers every minute, an estimated $8 million in sales per year. Rumours of a initial public offering began to simmer in February, after the last funding round, but Weiss wouldn’t comment on a potential exit. In March, Glossier acquired digital design studio Dynamo for an undisclosed sum. Katrina Lake, the chief executive officer of Stitch Fix, a fashion service that went public last year, joined Glossier’s board of directors in June.
Now the focus is on the new shopping platform. Weiss has identified several archetypes of online beauty shoppers and wants to build the site to serve them. Some customers want to fix a problem, such as some element of their appearance or discontent with a product. Often, they just want to find something for an event, such as hair care for a humid summer wedding. Then there are those who just want to play around with some makeup.
Either way, if Glossier gets people talking about beauty on its upcoming site, those conversations will help build the trust needed to buy a full-price product without first trying a sample. More than three-quarters of Americans look at reviews before they buy something, says Weiss, and a vast majority trust other people’s comments as much as they trust the opinions of friends and family. There’s not yet a time frame for when the platform will go live.
The company has started dabbling in physical retail, and pop-up shops have become a signature. It’s taken products overseas, with temporary locations in the United Kingdom, Canada and Denmark. It opened its first permanent store in 2016 out of its old office in New York, then unveiled a second earlier this year, in Los Angeles. Weiss says she has no intention of selling products at department stores or at Sephora. But a widespread store fleet is not planned either, says Weiss, though she may consider additional flagships in other big cities.
The stores are as photo-friendly as everything else at Glossier. The new LA spot, glazed in pink, has a “Glossier Canyon” filled with desert sounds for visitors to snap pics and record videos. In the New York location — also pink — customers stand in line outside to wait for an elevator to take them up to the hidden trove of skin tints and blush.
Back at Glossier’s headquarters, several blocks from the showroom, Weiss takes a whiff of watermelon — after clearing her palate — as the rest of the table awaits her verdict. “I don’t like watermelon-smelling things,” she says, “but I like it.”
It may not matter how good it smells, however. Online, a product can fail just because people are turned off by the name. It’s one of the hazards of the makeup e-commerce business, Weiss says. “Because they are not trying it in person or smelling it, then they might just not buy it.”
By Janine Wolf, Kim Bhasin; editor: James Gaddy