Beauty enthusiasts will already know that Sephora recently opened its first UK store to huge excitement (and an impressive queue). This is a particularly interesting move for the retailer, at a time when beauty brands, tutorials, and advice are all increasingly concentrated on digital platforms, and customers are becoming more and more comfortable with shopping directly from social media. In many ways Sephora is the opposite of this; essentially a beauty department store, it is known for being a one-stop beauty shop that carries a mix of established and up-and-coming brands, as well as its more affordable own brand. However, visiting the store on opening day gave us insight into how physical retail can still provide important touchpoints for customers, and how customer experience and physical touchpoints reinforce and enhance brand values, which ultimately build allegiance, trust and excitement around a brand.

A Helpful guide

One of the most prominent features of shopping in person in Sephora is the staff, who even on a busy opening day would approach, answer questions, and make recommendations. These are staff who listen to what you are looking for and guide you to the right brand, and give out samples with purchases providing a chance to try something new with no risk. A key part of this is that the staff are able to assist across the entire range, not just one brand, so that as a customer you feel like you are getting a one-on-one session with someone passionate and knowledgeable. And as they are clearly encouraged to express their own personal makeup style at work, it has the effect of a two-way conversation which sets the experience apart from other stores, and from digital platforms where reviews and tutorials online would only be one-way.

Likewise in self-guided journeys customers experience displays and embedded comms showcasing favourite products, best sellers, and explanations of how and why they work. There is a “hot on social media” bar showcasing products shoppers may have not been ready to purchase directly from TikTok without trying them. The “why we love it” comms are reminiscent of small bookstore staff favourite reviews, giving a personal voice and a reason to believe in the products. These provide a sense of guidance and expertise so that customers make informed decisions based on their own needs and preferences, gently helping to navigate a seemingly endless array of choices.

Through these touches (as well as the free hand massages and lollypops we received waiting in the queue to get in), the brand feels genuinely there to help. Visiting the store is an opportunity to connect with someone who can sell you the right product for you, explain it, and teach you how to use it, positioning Sephora as a helpful guide, and expert curator, able to cut through the beauty review noise and provide tangible reassurance that digital touchpoints are typically lacking.

A space for inspiration and exploration

Another key element of the Sephora experience is the opportunity to explore, experiment, and try things out before committing. Crucially, of course, nearly every product on display has a tester, providing the chance for customers to get hands-on, and try things they might not normally purchase. One of our favourite examples of the exploration opportunity, though, was the “lipstick bar”, a long round table which featured a huge array of lipsticks in different shades, from all the brands Sephora offers. It provided a unique opportunity to experiment and compare products side-by-side, rather than needing to know a brand, shade, or product type ahead of time and seeking it out. Likewise, the miniatures selection towards checkout provides a similar opportunity to beauty product enthusiasts; whilst it borrows from the impulse buy aisles in supermarkets, it also allows customers to pick up smaller versions of items they might have been unsure about, lowering purchase risk and playing into the joy of experimentation and product testing that is so inherent in many beauty shoppers’ product use.

Inclusivity and empowering self-expression

A commitment to diversity is also visible throughout the space, even without the direct representation of individual people. A benefit of having products displayed on shelf also makes it even easier to demonstrate the range that each brand is offering – and when it comes to foundation, for example, being able to easily visualise the range of shades available emphasises that many of the brands Sephora stocks (e.g. Fenty Beauty, which has 60 shades of Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation, or their own brand which has 48 shades in the Best Skin Ever range) cater for a variety of skin tones. This not only makes shopping easier for a wide range of people, but also codes Sephora as inclusive purveyors of makeup for all, and the instore experience as tangible verification of this, allowing customers to sample shades for themselves and find the perfect, quasi-tailored fit. Further, shelf space devoted to gender-neutral brands such as Patrick Starr’s One/Size makeup line or Malin + Goetz fragrance and personal care products show that Sephora is on the side of moving away from restrictive binaries in the category, although this could be further reflected in their own-brand/instore visuals.

This commitment to inclusivity is backed up with the ‘Express all of you’ tagline which is displayed across the store, e.g. with on-shelf callouts as well as in video shown on large screens behind the tills. As well as the text, this footage includes visuals of a range of people (different skin tones, face structures) wearing overtly decorative/artistic as well as naturalistic makeup looks, reinforcing that Sephora’s stance on makeup and ‘beauty’ is more about choice and creative self-expression for all than conformity to narrow aesthetic standards. Furthermore, at least some of the faces shown belong to local store employees, as a look on the website will tell you. Online, members of the UK team are photographed showcasing their individual makeup looks, shown next to a personal bio and feature allowing customers to shop products they have each selected (e.g. “Mashia’s edit”). This emphasises members of staff’s individuality, personality and agency, positioning the team as a diverse line-up of expert, creative curators and coding Sephora as champions of self-expression.

From website

 Overall, while this expansion of the bricks and mortar retail estate may initially seem counterintuitive for Sephora in a growing world of online beauty information sharing and shopping, a visit to the store shows that the brand has seized an opportunity to develop an experience that helps set Sephora apart by showcasing its values – and beauty enthusiasts were ready for it. So far, the store reinforces Sephora’s brand identity and values, while creating a space where consumers can access interactive, personal expertise from an attentive team, get hands-on to explore products through creative play, and where many will hopefully see themselves represented and catered for by a brand that understands the beauty sector as what its diverse range of devotees make it.

Ultimately what can brands learn from the new Sephora store?

  • In physical environments, think about how staff interact with customers; how do you want to show up for people, what role do they need your staff to play? These interactions ultimately represent what the brand stands for, and who it is to customers.
  • Physical and digital touchpoints should be working with, but also cutting through the social media noise to be a trusted destination.
  • In order to create the most meaningful engagement, ensure you understand how your customers use the product, the subcultures around your brand, and what the brand or products means to the people who will participate: for example, makeup is about artistry and self-expression as much as ‘beauty’, and people come to play and explore, not just shop.

Isobel Grad, Project Director
Maria Victoria, Project Director
Sophia Lucena Phillips, Senior Semiotician

Sephora Retail Opening: A beauty brand that understands its diverse devotees