Why You Should Give Department Store Makeup Counters Another Shot


I’ll never forget my first trip to the department store makeup counter. It was my 12th birthday, and my mom took me to Bloomingdale’s for a special visit to a local Bobbi Brown artist. After 30 minutes, an arm full of swatches, and my first lesson in Beauty 101 basics, I left with my very first very "big girl" makeup collection, all zipped up in a classic black Bobbi cosmetics case (which I still have today, by the way). 20 years later, I still get nostalgia walking through any Bloomingdale’s beauty department — a feeling I'm sure I share with just about everyone who grew up in the '80s. Despite the resurgence of new digital-first beauty brands infiltrating the marketplace, there's something undeniably charming and familiar about the beauty counter experience. It’s customized, experiential, and gives beauty lovers the opportunity to connect with their favorite brands on a more personal level, complete with the guidance and expertise of a professional brand adviser.

However, as consumers continue to spend more time immersed in the digital world, the allure of the in-store retail experience has dimmed. The initial draw of try-before-you-buy was trumped by convenience and immediacy which came from web and mobile eCommerce, which could offer things like free shipping and free returns in place of the two-day shipping time wait. It's estimated more than 1,000 department stores will close in the next five years, yet the online beauty category is set to grow almost 28 percent in 2019 alone, according to the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI). Furthermore, share of beauty is up 17 percent in specialty beauty stores like Sephora and Ulta, but down nearly 11 percent in department stores, Brand Keys confirmed, per its CLEI. It's clear the beauty counter has been ripe for an overhaul and with that, major beauty retails are re-imaging the consumer beauty journey, reviving the appeal of brick and mortar shopping through unique, interactive, and customized in-store experiences. Here are the very cool ways that your favorite beauty retailers are peeling consumer attention away from mobile screens and drawing them into a memorable real-world experience back at the beauty counter.


The Interactive Layout

As a pioneer in experiential beauty shopping, Bluemercury was the first open-sell beauty store staffed by beauty experts to exist outside the department store makeup counter. “I wanted Bluemercury to be about discovery, expertise, tips, and tricks,” CEO and co-founder Marla Beck explains to The Zoe Report. “Our mission was — and still is — to be the best at giving advice. We have always preferred our customers leave with a handful of samples, rather than a product they are unsure about, which is why we can make a sample of everything on our shelves.” The try-before-you-buy mentality has been prominent since the millennium. Beauty meccas like Sephora and Ulta, subscription sampling boxes, and recent next-generation retail experiences like Atelier Beauté Chanel's interactive beauty and fragrance New York City workshop, are fueling the customer expectation and desire to test and play with products before committing to purchasing them.

With more product options than ever before, retailers continue to play to customer adaptation through experiential in-store activations. “It is so important that we provide our customer with an opportunity to experience and play with the product first. New build-outs in-store have been designed as a modern space with a large central table, testers, and open shelving for customers to self-select and experiment,” notes Stefanie Tsen, Senior Vice President, Omnichannel Customer Experience, at the Neiman Marcus Group.


The Evolution Of Product Testing

While it’s now the norm for beauty retailers to provide physical samples for swatching and dabbing, many brands have reimagined the entire in-store flow and design to encourage play and discovery, as was the case with Bloomingdale’s recent beauty floor renovation at their flagship 59th Street store in New York City. "Modern product displays in open-sell environments encourage shoppers to touch, feel and try out products. Moving away from traditional counters to an open environment with play tables allows our customer to shop with as little or as much guidance as they feel comfortable with,” Stacie Borteck, Bloomingdale’s Vice President and DMM of Cosmetics, tells TZR. To further encourage product try-on and testing, Bloomingdale’s introduced virtual beauty try-on stations at the Lancôme, Tom Ford, and Estée Lauder shops to help shoppers test out products with the touch of a button. “The accuracy of augmented reality and artificial intelligence technology have enabled customers to become increasingly confident in making purchase decisions based off virtual try-ons,” notes Alice Chang, founder and CEO of Perfect Corp, the company behind the virtual beauty app, YouCam Makeup. “Virtual beauty lends itself to ease of discovery and experimentation inviting customers to try on 60 shades in 60 seconds, which would never be possible with physical try-ons,” she explains.


The Rise Of In-Store Beauty Services

As the world becomes increasingly digitalized, brands are challenged to create an enriched in-store experience that is more and more interactive. “As retailers, it’s up to us to curate meaningful assortments that engage customers both online and in-store,” Tsen says. For Neiman Marcus, this meant expanding beyond the traditional makeover and incorporating a menu of other beauty services for consumers to experience in-store. Their recent partnership with the specialty beauty service platform Hudson BLVD Group introduces a new concept department store that completely reinvents the traditional full-service salon. The personalized in-store beauty experiences (available at Short Hill Mall in New Jersey and coming soon to Hudson Yards in NYC) include Pucker eyelash extensions, DreamDry hair styling and blowouts, Valley Nail services, and Spruce & Bond brow and skin treatments. “Not everyone wants a full makeover. We also offer many express services like polish change, eyebrow shaping and lip wardrobing to meet the needs of our clients,” Tsen adds. The convenience and experiential nature of in-store beauty services is continuing to change the way consumers view and approach the retail shopping experience for good.

Neiman Marcus

The Shift To Education

However, as customer behaviors continue to evolve, retailers must be quick to adjust their approach. “We must continue to tailor the in-store experience to meet our customer needs. What works today may not work tomorrow so we are going to remain nimble and learn from our customers as we continue to implement new products, techniques and technology,” Bree Richmond, Vice President of Retail at Beautycounter shares with TZR. Even the appeal of the in-store makeover experience is changing. “We see more customers using the makeup application services as a learning moment. Customers are using the services to find confidence in color selection and application technique to be able to replicate in their everyday lives, as opposed to using the services for a specific look or event,” Richmond adds. As retailers continue to rethink the education value of their in-store consultations, they are also finding ways to help that resonate beyond the 30-minute counter visit. “We record everything we use during the appointment and follow up with the customer. After one-on-one consultations for skin and makeup we and the customer all feel most confident in her selections,” Follain founder Tara Foley explains to TZR.


Bridging The Gap From In-Store To Online

Many of the top beauty retailers are approaching the in-store and online experience in tandem. The personal touch doesn’t stop in stores. Instead it’s as an opportunity to create a more seamless shopping journey that continues to resonate with shoppers even after they leave a physical store location. Clean ingredient retailer Credo Beauty integrates beauty consultations into its online experience through Credo Live video chat. “If you can’t make it into a store, those same clean beauty experts are available through our website," Annie Jackson, co-founder and COO, explains to me. "They have video capability and can shade match or demonstrate product usage and skincare regimens live from one of our stores, make product recommendations or just chat about your questions. You can sit on your couch in Austin, TX and get expert advice from our Soho, NYC store live." Similarly, Follain recently introduced an interactive skincare quiz on their website to help match customers with the right products for their skin concerns, the same way they would in-store.

A visit to the beauty counter has always been a personal one, but these elevated in-store experiences take beauty shopping to the next level. With highly personalized, service-driven in-store offerings, retailers are reinventing the in-store experience to feel more like an interactive playground, rather than a traditional retail storefront. Despite the plethora of Instagrammable moments that these new concept stores may invite, take a moment and treat yourself to a visit... not for your followers, but just for you — because yes, you deserve it.