Masks are coming off and full capacity has returned for beauty retailers, but the pandemic has meant beauty shopping is less hands-on and more digital.
Restrictions are lifting, but hygiene protocols remain
Classic features of the beauty shopping experience, including product testing and in-store makeovers, are still limited.
Other retailers such as Sephora, The Detox Market and Credo Beauty have brought back testers, but customers can no longer touch them application must be administered by staff.
Customers that enter beauty stores are also increasingly going back into browsing mode, after pandemic store visits were generally quick in-and-out trips to pick up specific items.
We've seen, in the past two weeks, a drastic change in the behavior of clients, said Romain Gaillard, founder and CEO of The Detox Market. Previously, pandemic shopping habits had meant people coming into a store all wanted specifically to buy something. So, you had less traffic, but I would say 100% conversion. Store foot traffic began to pick up at the end of May. In the past 10 days, he said the retail situation has gone from customers being super careful and not wanting to touch stuff to now, [where] no one wants to wear a mask and they want to touch all the testers. He does not plan to make the testing restrictions permanent, saying that if the pandemic recovery continues successfully, product testing will get back to normal eventually.
While mask mandates in most U.S. states are either completely lifted or lifted for vaccinated people, some staff members are still interested in wearing masks. Ulta Beauty staff members can notify the company they are vaccinated in order to forego the mask requirement. But with the Delta variant spreading and new mask guidance being issued in some states, the company added that protocols can change daily.
I'm hearing from them when I'm visiting stores, and some of our associates still really want to be able to wear their masks because they have children at home that aren't vaccinated yet, said Steelman.
Stores get smarter
While physical product try-ons have remained limited, in-store digital features have proliferated.
QR codes, for example, are being adopted by a growing number of beauty retailers in the U.S. Ulta Beauty has increased the presence of in-store QR codes that link to its mobile app, which offers features such as product information, virtual try-on and skin analysis. Credo Beauty is also adding QR codes to shelves in-store.
We've introduced the QR codes in a much broader way throughout our store, said Steelman. People's behaviors and how they look at shopping in the actual, physical store format is continuing to evolve.
The customer is hungry for more information, said Annie Jackson, Credo Beauty COO. She added that restaurants popularized QR codes during the pandemic, making incorporating them in stores a total no-brainer.
They're kind of expected now, she said.
Ulta Beauty added thousands of new SKUs to its GlamLab virtual try-on feature, and downloads of its app doubled in 2020. While Ulta Beauty's model is to allow users to virtually try on products through their own phone, other retailers such as MAC Cosmetics have embraced the installation of in-store screens for virtual try-on.
Virtual consultations with store staff are another feature retailers are expecting to keep. After the pandemic began, beauty retailers including The Detox Market, Deciem, Cos Bar and Heyday launched virtual consultations by store associates through the Hero platform. They joined a handful of retailers that had already had virtual consultations in place, such as Credo Beauty.
Curbside pickup significantly expanded during the pandemic. Both Ulta Beauty and Sally Beauty, for example, added curbside pickup to their existing buy-online, pick-up in-store options. Sally Beauty also offers a ship-from-store option for certain stores. According to Brenda Rutenber, group vp for Sally Beauty, these omnichannel features will stay in place, even as its foot traffic picks up.
They've been extremely well received, she said. The customer expects a fluid experience between the site and the store. On one day, they may want to buy online and pick up in the store. Another day, they may have more time and want to go in and connect.
According to Rutenber, Sally Beauty sees its store presence in all 50 states as an advantage, because it allows us to do same-day delivery, and a lot of retailers can't do that.
Physical retail is here to stay
Even during the pandemic, beauty doubled down on physical retail. For specialty beauty retailers, big-box or and department store partnerships remained a popular model as Sephora partnered with Kohl's and Ulta Beauty announced that it would be launching at Target.
One of the things that definitely changed this year was our partnership with Target. We're going to be seeing that coming out later this summer, so it just goes to show that we still do believe that a physical shopping presence is important to our consumer, said Steelman. Another wave of the virus brought on by the Delta variant would not deter investment in physical retail, she said.
We've seen that our very best shoppers are those that shop online and in-store. There's not a tradeoff of one or the other. It's very loud and clear that we think physical is an important part of Ulta Beauty.
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