From plumes of powder to spritzes of perfumes, the department-store beauty hall has remained in many ways unchanged since Harry Selfridge first moved personal-care products to the front of his Oxford Street store early last century. But in the face of a difficult retail landscape, with the British high street suffering closures and losses as footfall dries up, the beauty industry is fighting back against the mass exodus of consumers from bricks-and-mortar stores to online retailers. How? By putting exclusivity and experiences at the heart of its offering – whether it is receiving makeup tips directly from Pat McGrath or getting your hands on products you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
So far, it’s working. According to market research company The NPD Group, British high-street stores still accounted for 80% of prestige beauty sales in 2018, while, in fashion, Mintel reported that online sales already made up almost a quarter of total spend back in 2017. Same-day delivery and add-to-basket ease might make online shopping the more convenient option, but when it comes to beauty, nothing quite compares to the ability to sniff, play with and try products in the flesh. Nars’s new highlighter might look like any other highlighter online, but have you seen, in person, what it can do to your cheekbones?
The British chain Boots is facing the online challenge head-on. Following reports in May that the company could close up to 200 stores over the next two years due to competition from discount retailers and online specialists, Boots has retaliated by completely overhauling its cosmetics offering. That has meant refitting 26 stores in key locations, including Sheffield, Lincoln and Hull, to make way for a “beauty playground” in which cult brands such as Fenty Beauty by Rihanna and affordable skincare range The Ordinary are stocked alongside stalwarts such as Revlon, Rimmel and Maybelline.
“Shopping in-store is all about the experience,” says Joanna Rogers, commercial director and vice president of beauty and gifting at Boots UK. “We’ve removed the big-brand counters and replaced them with trending zones, discovery areas and live demonstration areas.” In addition, a “concept” store complete with YouTube studio and water refill station has also opened in Covent Garden, London, with more expected to follow around the country.
The modern consumer looks for personalised services like customisable makeup, exclusive products and events such as live tutorials and meet-and-greets, as well as an Instagram-worthy retail environment that is enjoyable to spend time in – and to snap.
For a lesson in how to do this well, look to make-up artist Pat McGrath who, in April, debuted her eponymous cosmetics line in the UK via a three-month pop-up at Selfridges’ Oxford Street, London store, taking over 155 square metres of its precious ground-floor space and offering tutorials with members of McGrath’s team. The limited time frame in which the space was open gave it an element of exclusivity, while the physical environment was – literally – social media gold. You could shop the products online in your pyjamas, but would you have been able to take a selfie in front of a gilded sequin wall after your makeover? Selfridges achieved the best daily cosmetics sales in its history, with a Pat McGrath Labs product selling every 40 seconds.
For department stores, using the physical space wisely is particularly important. By the time the third stage of its expansion is completed in January, Harrods’ new beauty hall will be 90,000 square feet in size, 53% larger than its previous home. Instead of a series of counters jostling for room, the new space is a calm, high-ceilinged emporium with a beauty concierge, world-exclusive product offering and a series of AI-powered “Magic Mirrors” in which customers can virtually apply makeup to their own real-life reflections.
Put simply, engaging the consumer is about generating Fomo – soothing our collective anxieties about not being up-to-speed by offering an experience that marks you out as part of the beauty scene.
This desire to be a part of the action is particularly prevalent among Generation Z. Those born since 1995 might be the most tech-savvy generation yet, growing up in the internet age, but, tellingly, beauty is the one shopping experience they prefer to undertake in person. A US study, by investment bank Piper Jaffray, found that 90% of female teens prefer to do their beauty shopping in-store. The pre-shopping research might take place on smartphones and laptops – 80% said they look to influencers online for tips before taking the plunge – but for the purchase itself, it’s all about the IRL experience.
Naomi Pike is editor of the Miss Vogue section of the British Vogue website, which is aimed at Millennial and Gen Z readers. She puts it down to the fact that: “Saturday shopping trips with friends provide plenty of time to trial and sample products – there’s less of a need for the ease of internet shopping when it’s a social event.” Of course this could ring equally true for clothes shopping, but, as Pike points out, websites don’t always offer the opportunity to change your mind. “You can return a pair of jeans that pinch, but once you’ve used a foundation that then turns out to be the wrong shade, that’s it.”
One brand that has harnessed the IRL social aspect of shopping particularly successfully is Glossier, a digital-first brand with a direct-to-consumer model and an Instagram following of over 2 million. The brand’s first London pop-up in November 2017 saw more than 10,000 visitors in one week (a second is arriving this autumn), while the first shoppable showroom in New York was open for almost two years, and earned more revenue per square foot than the average Apple store. Mirrors printed with “you look good”, location-specific interiors – Art Deco details in the Miami store, a Glossier “canyon” in Los Angeles – and store-exclusive products all add to the sense of Instagram utopia, and ensure queues of selfie-snapping customers around the block.
The cult-like devotion parallels that of the streetwear movement in fashion, in which brands such as Supreme and Palace carefully time “drops” of new products in-store to induce maximum retail frenzy, with so-called “hypebeasts” willing to cross the country to shop them. Pike says that teens are as likely to pay a visit to their favourite bricks-and-mortar beauty destination when they travel as they are to any other sight.
“Beauty-destination shopping is a big deal,” she says. “A trip to Europe is never complete without a visit to Sephora, nor to New York without going to Glossier.” Both Glossier and Supreme have been valued at over $1 billion.
Beauty e-commerce is of course growing rapidly – up 6.3% compared to June last year – and while the high street is still responsible for the vast majority of sales, footfall is likely to decrease further over the coming years.
Ultimately, Pike believes that the future of beauty is online – once the industry finds a workable way to introduce try-before-you-buy options. Brands know it, and in order to future-proof their success, they are tentatively investing in the one beauty category that truly cannot be replicated online: treatments. The new Harrods beauty hall will, when complete, be home to 13 private treatment rooms, ensuring that customers with a long beauty to-do list need never leave the building, and stores such as Neal’s Yard Remedies, Aveda and regional Harvey Nichols stores already offer spa-standard treatments. In short, nothing quite compares to the human touch when it comes to facials, massage and make-up application, and that is something that beauty will have to bank on long-term.