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Digital Transformation Brand Strategy Retail

Retail therapy: How Sephora has reinvented the in-store experience


By Richard Draycott, Associate Editor

May 27, 2024 | 6 min read

As part of The Drum’s Retail Focus, we catch up with retail specialists to find out which brands are serving up the most exciting in-store experiences.


Sephora is leading the way in prestige omni-retail

LVMH-owned brand Sephora opened its first shop in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in 1998 and today operates more than 2,700 brick-and-mortar stores in 35 countries worldwide, with over 500 stores in the Americas alone. The brand also operates a world-class e-commerce platform.

So, what is Sephora getting so right in-store, and why should all retailers dip into its customer experience makeup bag for some tips?

Sephora consistently demonstrates a deep understanding of how to create a brilliant brick-and-mortar retail experience in the rapidly evolving landscape of the global beauty industry. Despite the growing dominance of online shopping, Sephora’s physical stores continue to draw acclaim and whopping crowds, as evidenced by the recent opening of its Manchester megastore, which saw over 2,000 people queuing outside so they could be among the first to to step foot in its shiny new store.

Retail specialists generally agree that Sephora’s success can be directly attributed to its strategic integration of digital innovations with its in-store experiences. This effectively creates an immersive and interactive environment that develops an emotional bond between brand and consumer that keeps them coming back for more. For many, it seems, a trip to Sephora is akin to a trip to Disneyworld, but without the rollercoasters.

Samaneh Zamani, strategy director at Iris, highlights Sephora’s mastery of omnichannel experiences, noting that the brand excels at bringing social media’s influential role into a physical space.

“Sephora is a prime example of a retailer that continues to excel in brick-and-mortar,” she says. “Despite the success of online brands like Cult Beauty, Sephora’s physical presence continues to dominate thanks to omnichannel experiences specifically designed to bring the influential role of social media into a physical space.”

In 2023, Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based agency Metaforce, published Seeing How: Achieving Market Advantage by Transforming the Stuff We Do, Not the Stuff We Buy, a book that focuses on the consumer experience as a competitive advantage. The book came about after Adamson recognized that experience transformation has been outpacing product transformation as a winning business strategy over the last few years. Retailers take note.

“Brick-and-mortar retail has been evolving steadily over the past five years, with changes that may seem minor when viewed in isolation,” says Adamson. “However, when we take a step back and examine these changes collectively, the transformation is striking. The integration between digital and physical retail has become nearly seamless, offering consumers a variety of options such as buying online and returning in-store, buying online and picking up in-store, trying on items in-store before purchasing online, self-checkout, and using smartphones to scan products for more information. The advent of AI is poised to accelerate these changes even further, revolutionizing the retail landscape.”

He adds: “Many brick-and-mortar retailers follow a similar playbook, but Sephora is a prime example of cutting-edge innovation. Sephora’s ‘Swipe it. Shop it’ campaign, inspired by Tinder, engages customers through an interactive experience where they can express product preferences by swiping left or right. The brand’s smaller Studio locations offer personalized services and an intimate shopping environment. Sephora creates a captivating retail journey that fosters customer loyalty across multiple touchpoints by seamlessly integrating advanced technology, interactive campaigns and tailored store designs.”

Gary Jacobs, creative director at Live & Breathe, which counts Morrisons, Avolta and Company Shop as retail clients, agrees that what Sephora has been particularly successful at is bringing its digital and physical brand experiences into a single streamlined experience – essentially discovering it online, live and buy it in-store. “In the ever-evolving retail landscape, Sephora stands out as a prime example of an exceptional brick-and-mortar retail experience,” he comments.

“While the beauty industry’s success is often attributed to the surge in social media, Sephora’s innovative approach to multichannel retailing has been absolutely key. Its stores are more than just places to buy products; they are immersive environments where beauty enthusiasts can explore and express themselves.”

Head of strategy at Via, Sarah Blais, concurs that the way Sephora blurs the lines between digital and physical is the ultimate secret to its success and why customers adore the brand and happily spend hours lining up outside waiting for the doors to open. “When it comes to navigating the vast world of beauty products, the online landscape can be overwhelming. That’s where Sephora’s brick-and-mortar stores truly shine. Stepping into a Sephora is like entering a Willy Wonka factory of beauty delights, where every aisle holds treasures waiting to be discovered.

“Its knowledgeable beauty advisors offer personalized guidance, akin to trusted confidants rather than pushy sales associates. With in-store services and an open-sell concept, customers can engage their senses and explore a curated selection of both established brands and emerging favorites. Sephora’s seamless integration of in-store experiences with cutting-edge digital advancements sets the standard for omnichannel retailing with brick-and-mortar at the center.”

Jump on to Sephora’s website and, if you can bear to navigate away from all the beauty-enhancing potions and lotions, click ‘About Us’ and you’ll see that Sephora aims to be a leader in prestige omni-retail. According to our experts, it appears to be mission accomplished.

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