Specialty beauty retailers were one of the bright lights in the pre-COVID-19 brick-and-mortar landscape. However, the very thing that differentiated the beauty category—testers, makeovers, treatments—have now become a liability. The retail industry is changing in real time, fast-tracking an evolution that was long overdue and expediting trends that were already underway.
At least initially the in-store retail experience will be as contactless as possible. However, testers, as we know them, may be gone forever. Beauty industry innovators like Base Beauty, Arcade, and Royal Promotion are hard at work reinventing sampling and in-store trial as retailers begin rethinking strategies for the next normal of brick-and-mortar retail.
“Possibly more than any other type of store, the beauty in-store shopping experience has to be completely rethought,” Elizabeth Shobert, Vice President of Marketing and Digital Strategy for retail analytics company StyleSage, told The Daily Beast. “At the core of that experience has been sampling and face-to-face interactions with advisors, both of which are extremely high-risk interactions. Hygiene and safety, and customers following these new rules, are going to be paramount for beauty stores to reopen successfully.”
Sephora was among the first major nonessential retailers to voluntarily limit and ultimately shut down brick-and-mortar locations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 16, Sephora announced on the customer service section of the brand’s website that all retail stores in the US and Canada would be temporarily closed and that they would be implementing remote working for employees in the corporate offices.
On May 22, Sephora began reopening 70 locations in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Georgia, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, and Alabama, which were part of this initial group to open. Sephora stores are expected to open gradually over the next several months with future store openings being based on local government and health guidance. A full list with updated information on store reopenings will live on Sephora Community.
“While the retail environment will feel different and many factors will remain out of our hands, we’ve learned to embrace what we can control. We are taking an intentionally measured and phased approach to reopening, putting the priority on the health and safety of our communities,” Jean-André Rougeot, President and CEO of Sephora Americas, said. “As we gradually reopen our stores over the next few months, we have taken great care in how we welcome back our employees and our clients. We are grateful for our clients’ support the past two months, and we want to safeguard the experience for those who want to return to stores. We will follow guidance from the CDC, government and health authorities in tandem with extensive supplemental safety measures, to formalize our new Sephora Health & Hygiene Guidelines, that safeguard the instore shopping experience.”
The retailer has spent the last nine weeks developing rigorous new safety and client service protocols called Sephora Healthy & Hygiene Guidelines which include 48 safety procedures, employee training, social distancing guidelines in place, and the appointment of a “hygiene leader” in each store.
- Social Distancing and Capacity: All stores will adhere to social distancing guidelines and will have restricted store capacities to allow for this. Clients will be greeted by a line coordinator who will ensure adequate space and service levels, while guiding clients on how to make the most of their visit. Six-foot markers will be placed at lines in front of registers and store entrances. Capacity constraint guidance will be followed and store aisles will be designated for traffic in one direction as locally mandated.
- Deep Cleaning and Enhanced Hygiene Measures: Prior to reopening, all stores will receive a deep cleaning and will be equipped with hygiene supplies and hand sanitizer throughout the space and store teams will be constantly cleaning throughout the day.
- Testers and Services: Testers are now for display only and in-store services are suspended until further notice. In addition to Beauty Advisor assistance, a suite of virtual tools, including Virtual Artist, are available to aid in any product selection process.
- Face Masks: All employees will wear face masks and Sephora will provide disposable masks for clients to wear in-store. In some locations, face coverings will be mandated for entry in-store according to regional guidelines.
- Temperature Checks: Sephora will take all store employees’ temperatures at the beginning and in the middle of each shift.
- Returns: Sephora has extended its return policy and will be accepting returns with receipts for all purchases made just prior to and during the shutdown for 30 days after store opening. Until further notice, all returned products will be destroyed to protect clients and employees.
- Point of Sale: We will be closing every other register in-store in an effort to promote social distancing and encourage clients to use contactless payment options. All payment screens will be sanitized before and after every transaction, baskets and bags will be sanitized, and plexiglass screens will be implemented in all stores.
- Staff Hygiene Training: Each store has designated a Hygiene Leader who will oversee Sephora’s new Health and Hygiene Guidelines at all points of the shopping experience. All store staff have been trained and will work with the Hygiene Leader to maintain safety in stores.
“I am proud of our store teams as they have readied themselves through extensive training and new protocols under the Sephora Health & Hygiene Guidelines to help clients feel both safe and supported,” Rougeot said. “Our people have championed our business, showed immense support for each other and our clients, and most importantly displayed true strength during these last nine weeks. Although many things in retail have changed, some things remain the same—our passion for the joy of beauty, our desire to welcome all, and our focus on the client.”
Sephora said it will continue to pay store employees and provide their benefits until stores are reopened.
Ulta Beauty reopened 180 stores beginning May 11, and several offer hair services in its salons in select states (Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah) and offer curbside pickup at 700 locations.
“Throughout the last few months, we have navigated the fluid dynamics of COVID-19 with the safety of our guests and associates at the heart of every decision we have made. That commitment to safety has guided our thoughtful, phased approach to reopening,” said Mary Dillon, Chief Executive Officer. “In the last few weeks, we have introduced curbside pickup in more than 700 locations and this Monday [May 11], we will reopen approximately 180 stores in select states. Our focus has been on how to reopen safely—not just when—throughout our preparation and planning to ensure we are confident to welcome guests and associates back to Ulta Beauty.”
To create safer shopping environments in-store, Ulta Beauty worked with government and health guidance to inform safety policies and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) to collaborate across the industry and share best practices that inform how guests will experience shopping. These best practices, Shop Safe Standards, include but are not limited to the following:
- Face Coverings: All associates will wear face coverings in-store; the company asks all guests do the same while shopping.
- Social Distancing: To limit contact without forgoing the unique Ulta Beauty experience, guests will find visual cues, such as signage or floor decals, to ensure six feet of separation are maintained. Additional measures include limited occupancy, safely spaced registers with protective barriers, and options for contactless payment.
- Salon Service Safety: By appointment only, hair services will be available in select stores. Safety measures for salon services include required face coverings for guests and associates, gloves for associates, increased laundering of capes and aprons, staggered stations to support social distancing, and added sanitization processes.
- Testers: Product testers are not available for use in-store. Open product is now for display only and guests will find signage throughout stores reinforcing the new policy. Products remain on display only to showcase colors offered and hand sanitizer continues to be readily available throughout the store.
- In-Store Cleanliness: Ulta Beauty has committed to elevating its already strong practices in-store with increased protocols for regular cleaning and disinfecting public spaces throughout the day. For guests, additional hand sanitizer stations are installed throughout stores to reinforce best practices.
- Associate Wellness: As the heart of the Ulta Beauty in-store experience, the company recognizes its responsibility to protect associates. They will participate in mandatory wellness checks before the start of shifts, have physically rearranged break rooms, and will learn and execute safety training on new policies.
“We know we cannot do this alone and this journey continues to shed light on new learnings and concerted efforts to keep moving forward safely in collaboration with government and health officials as well as other retail industry leaders,” Dillon said. “It is our responsibility to create store environments that are safe for our guests to enjoy the shopping experience and for our associates to work confidently. We look forward, with cautious optimism, to welcoming all back to Ulta Beauty.”
Bluemercury announced on May 12 it was getting ready to reopen 115 stores the following week in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio, with curbside pickup only and with limited hours. The plan is to slowly roll out curbside service to other states through the beginning of June with hopes of having all 171 locations open by mid-June. While online sales were reportedly up 600 percent, the sales haven’t replaced the lost revenue from in-store shoppers.
“We’re lucky that we don’t have mall locations, so we can go outside and put products directly in the trunk,” Chief Executive Officer and cofounder Marla Malcolm Beck told WWD. “If they want to try something new, they can touch or smell it curbside—or be shown swatches through the glass [of a car window.]”
The retailer’s fleet of store associates has been furloughed for some time, following Bluemercury’s decision to shutter its brick-and-mortar stores on March 18, and Beck is hopeful she can bring back those who want to work.
The Bluemercury plan is to reopen, slow and steady, with the following:
- Branded face shields will be worn by all store associates. The choice of shields vs masks allows staff to show they’re wearing a full face of makeup.
- The number of customers allowed in-store will be limited.
- Product testing won’t be allowed.
Beck predicts Bluemercury will be able to get to a point where its 2020 sales are even with last year’s. According to WWD, Macy’s hired Goldman Sachs mid-March, before the COVID-19 shutdown, to shop the 171-store Bluemercury asset with private equity firms among the players interested.
Credo, Cosbar, and Detox Market are all reopening select locations for curbside pickup as the first step of reopening.
While many are hoping pent-up demand will drive consumers back into stores, many brands and retailers have leaned heavily on discounts during the pandemic, leading many to question if consumers have stocked up, which might further impact sales in the short term as retail reopens.
Photo: via Sephora video screenshot