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Why Department Stores Are Supersizing Their Beauty Floors

Harrods, Bloomingdale's, Saks are among the retailers that have built out enormous beauty floors stuffed with exclusive products and services to keep shoppers inside their stores and away from the competition.
Harrods unveiled a new beauty hall this week | Source: Courtesy
  • Rachel Strugatz

Harrods this week gave shoppers a first look at what it says is its most extensive remodel to date: a beauty department that will span a sprawling 90,000-square-feet when it's completed in December. The new floor will be 53 percent bigger than its predecessor, stocking almost 61,000 ounces of perfume and 97,000 tubes of lipstick, including Gucci's new range.

The retailer is the latest department store to make a sizeable investment in its beauty floor. In January, Bloomingdale’s flagship Manhattan location unveiled an updated 36,408-square-foot beauty department on its main floor with an additional 1,100-square-feet throughout the store. Last year, Saks Fifth Avenue expanded space devoted to beauty at its New York flagship by about 40 percent. The 30,500-square-foot floor features 15 spa rooms, a beauty concierge and an apothecary. Harrods' London neighbour, Harvey Nichols, refurbished its beauty floor three years ago, and now offers blowouts, manicures and concierge service at its 13,000-square-foot space.

Pat McGrath at Selfridges | Source: Courtesy, Lewis Ronald

By their own admission, the department stores are playing catch-up.

“If you think about all the change that’s happened in beauty in the last five years – whether it’s customisation, personalisation, the rise of K-beauty and J-beauty ...  I actually think the retail space has been relatively less innovative,” said Annalise Fard, director of beauty, accessories, fine jewellery and watches at Harrods.

The new beauty floors share a few elements in common: they're bigger, of course, and share a similar "luxe" aesthetic (think a champagne colour scheme and lots of glass and brushed gold metal fixtures). A few exclusive brands are a must - Gucci at Harrods, Pat McGrath Labs at Selfridges and FaceGym at Saks. And they are going all-in on experiences, from blowouts and manicures to Saks' yoga classes with Hilaria Baldwin and facial workouts.

It’s all about inducing FOMO — fear of missing out — in consumers who, thanks to e-commerce, have infinite options. Whether it’s a buzzy exclusive product or a one-of-a-kind treatment, if you aren’t regularly visiting your nearest Saks flagship or popping into Harvey Nichols on your next trip to London, the thinking goes, you're not part of the beauty conversation.

That’s the pitch to shoppers, at least. Behind the bespoke makeup chairs and magic mirrors, there are larger forces at work on both sides of the Atlantic that are driving these remodels.

American retailers are using their new beauty floors to win back customers who have switched their allegiance to Ulta Beauty and Sephora, and to reverse a store-wide slide in foot traffic brought on by e-commerce.

The UK is another story; department stores are thriving there, and specialty beauty chains aren’t a factor. Harrods’ supersized beauty hall is more about one-upping Harvey Nichols and Selfridges than fending off Sephora or Ulta (neither have UK stores) or Amazon.

To win at selling beauty comes down to exclusivity.

Gucci Beauty lipstick exclusively at Harrods | Source: Courtesy

At Selfridges, the Pat McGrath launch was its biggest ever in terms of units sold and overall sales. The makeup artist’s 150-piece line was the store’s best-selling beauty brand in the month after its launch, with one product sold every 40 seconds. Harvey Nichols scored similar results as the exclusive UK brick-and-mortar vendor for Fenty Beauty: it was the top selling beauty brand in every door the month it launched, with one bottle of Pro Filter Foundation sold every minute. Next week, Harvey Nichols will open a Goop shop.

Harrods can count on Gucci for a similar sales pop, but is also leveraging its size to create unique customer experiences.

As one of the “makeup artist brands” featured at Harrods, Bobbi Brown received double the space in the new hall — 400 square feet. Gold-embossed logos are etched into black marble counters, all offset by champagne gold metalwork and mirrors with adjustable brightness settings. A miniature stool sits beside each custom makeup chair, designed for holding the customer’s handbag.

“Department stores … across the world have become very cut and paste,” said Quita Davis, vice president and general manager, Bobbi Brown UK. “You’re seeing the same interpretation [and] no inspiration … from an artistry point of view, [Harrods] is a different level.”

In the US, the fight for exclusives is fiercer, as the half-dozen luxury department store chains are competing with Sephora and Ulta, which have a combined 1,600 locations and have been stealing market share.

The new beauty halls mimic the specialty retailer experience. The notion of selling via a “beauty counter” is passé; the way to hook customers today, especially those who have decamped to their local Ulta, is through “experiential retail.” This means the selling space has to be “immersive,” replete with grooming services and a section for discovering emerging brands. There also needs to be tactile elements that allow for self-discovery, the very antithesis of the department store staffed by helpful salespeople.

La Mer at Saks | Source: Courtesy

Department stores are fighting an uphill battle. They remain the go-to destination for fragrance, but skincare hasn’t performed as strongly, and specialty stores are runaway winners in the makeup category, said Larissa Jensen, executive director of The NPD Group.

“They’re [US department stores] doing some good initiatives and that’s starting to reverse the trend … but it doesn’t mean it’s going to completely reverse it,” Jensen said.

An open selling format, “play stations” and increased product displays that customers can be “fully immersed in” are central to Bloomingdale’s new beauty department, said Stacie Borteck, Bloomingdale’s vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics in an interview earlier this year.

Glowhaus, a Gen Z and young Millennial focused concept, and Well Chemist, a clean beauty assortment of “safe but science-backed products,” have launched in select doors to attract younger customers.

It’s only been a year since Saks opened its revamped beauty floor to the public, including moving the section from the ground floor to a higher one. The company’s efforts are paying off, said Kate Oldham, the retailer’s senior vice president, general merchandise manager of beauty, jewellery and home. She declined to give figures but said the store is exceeding expectations on all fronts, from units per brand sales to average total purchase values.

“We said, ‘If we’re going to do something new, we really want it to be different,’” said Oldham. “The bold and brave thing to do was to really start from scratch.”


Unilever bought Tatcha. The beauty giant acquired the skincare brand for $500 million.

Pat McGrath is expanding her collection. Pat McGrath Labs will launch 36 shades of foundation next month.

Bespoke beauty is coming to the masses. Startups like Prose are making personalised, custom-blended haircare for customers based on online quizzes.

An influencer comes under fire. Jaclyn Hill's followers are complaining that her new line of lipsticks are bumpy or full of holes.

This beauty bar has ambitious plans. Alchemy 43, dubbed "The Drybar of Botox," plans to open 50 more stores over the next six years.

Kim Kardashian has a new body foundation. The KKW Body Collection, which goes on sale June 21, is comprised of a foundation and two shimmers.

Drunk Elephant opens a US pop-up. The skincare brand's "House of Drunk" opens later this month on Crosby Street in New York City.

On-demand beauty apps join forces. BeGlammed and Priv announced a merger, making the new company the market leader on in-demand beauty in the US.

Birchbox is trying to differentiate. The beauty subscription box service's new "You" campaign will focus on "the casual beauty consumer."

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