When beauty retail employed the open-sell model, it was a revelation: “Sephora and Ulta have tapped into every little girl’s dream of being able to open up their mom’s makeup bag and just play,” one financial researcher said. These stores pioneered the retail shift from transaction to product discovery and trial.

Now we're in the midst of a new retail revolution, putting the fundamental role of brick and mortar into question. With big hitters like Amazon and CVS making everything cheaper or more convenient, specialty retailers — like beauty — are struggling to stave off these one-stop-shops. This threat means beauty retailers can’t rest on their laurels or continue to grow their store count with the same (now formulaic) format. And they can’t just race to replicate these big companies.

The thing is, cold one-click, one-stop experiences kill the magic of beauty. Cheap convenience alone completely misses what’s at the heart of an excellent beauty experience. The beauty category is teeming with deep decisions about personal identity.

Beauty plays an essential role in how identity is presented to the world, how we discover and understand that identity, and how we send the message about who we are. Beauty has carried powerful messages in the past — at the beginning of the 20th century, the suffragettes took to the streets of NYC to march for their right to vote, and they wore red lipstick as a reclamation and exclamation of their feminine power and willingness to fight. In fact, Elizabeth Arden herself marched past her Red Door Salon on Fifth Avenue and provided bold red lipstick to the suffragettes. Beauty retail is uniquely positioned to take a stand, to take the lead, and to do something that matters to society.

Today beauty is entwined with a few of the biggest social topics — racial diversity and gender identity. Both topics have strong links to our physical appearance and attitudes towards beauty. Respect for racial diversity has been a recurring issue in foundation and other cosmetics products, and in Queer Theory, presentation (physical appearance) is one of the three fundamental components of identity (along with gender identity and biological sex). This link is the opportunity to do something meaningful rather than merely new. So what sort of things should beauty retail do?

First of all, beauty stores must provide for the needs of diverse customers — meaning they must carry a greater variety of products. We’ve seen this already: after Sephora began using a technology called Color IQ in 2014, the company realized many of the 121 most common skin tones didn't have foundations to match. The retailer then worked with brands to build out a more diverse offering of shades – eventually adding 2,900 skus. The Rihanna-led brand, Fenty, was built in a way that prioritized diversity (like offering 40 shades of foundation). In one month this year it did $72 million in sales and was recently named one of TIME’s 25 best inventions of 2017. This presents a new, exciting challenge for beauty retailers: how do we manage the explosion of inventory that comes along with this shift?

The opportunity: going forward, stores should use in-store analytics technology to provide a clearer view of how customers engage with products. This will unlock insights that can influence store design and inventory decisions, better meeting the needs of customers.

 

 

Second, with more awareness of gender fluidity, the paradigms of store organization, navigation, and aesthetics need to be questioned. Other categories have already made shifts: toy stores have stopped categorizing their toys as boy or girl specific, mainstream brands have released unisex clothing lines. In beauty, influencers like Gigi Gorgeous (transgender model with over 5M followers across Instagram and YouTube) and James Charles (first male spokesmodel for Covergirl) have opened doors for beauty icons that don’t fit past archetypes. In fact, at the end of January, Manny MUA (a significant beauty influencer and the first male ambassador for Maybelline) demanded more. He blasted beauty brands for ignoring ‘beauty boys’, urging them to recognize and respect new non-gender-conforming behaviors from this important group. Marketing campaigns have made some good first strides – NYX brings gender diversity to its instagram feed, and the great “Blur the Lines” ad campaign from Milk used gender-neutral and male models. Now it’s time to consider how this same blurring happens in physical space. As self-identification becomes more fluid, and makeup less restrictive/normative, people will think about their appearances differently, and navigate beauty in new ways.  

The opportunity: Beauty retail should make sure it is tapped into consumers’ attitudes towards beauty – reorganizing based on their mindsets and how they want to find products. Someday, stores may be laid out differently – imagine a section focused on androgynous looks. The next spaces should avoid gender normative aesthetics.

 

 

Third, beauty must consider its role in relation to social behavior: at a time when Apple is reframing its retail as “Town Squares” and Starbucks continues to establish itself as “The Third Place” — can’t the beauty retailer stand for something more than serums, powders, and creams? Walk into a Sephora today and you’ll see there’s more happening than people picking products and paying for them. Folks are trying products, interacting with staff, and exploring with friends. They are rethinking normative choices, making decisions about beauty, and shaping their presentation to the world.

The opportunity: rather than tight rows of tightly packed shelves, stores should make room for open and free interaction with other people. Not just tiny makeover kiosks, there should be space for play, discovery, and spending time. This sort of redesign will activate the potential for meaningful moments tied to self-image. Stores could also have areas conducive to events, and programming to activate those spaces. Interestingly, the beauty store is a place frequented by some of the most important voices in social issues today – women and LGBTQ individuals. If beauty stores were to provide space for coming together, they could become the site for some of the most significant social thinking today. It’s a role beauty is well suited for – like last November at the Miss Peru pageant, in a country where a beauty contest can garner as much attention as a top soccer match, when contestants were asked to announce their measurements, they instead called out statistics of the violence against women and sexual abuse in their country. It was a gut wrenching use of the power of beauty to stir dialogue and action around a crucial issue. Beauty spaces could be supportive of these conversations.

 

 

The things that make beauty special can make the beauty store a place with enduring importance. There are plenty of innovations a beauty retailer could enact to make lots more money – but context calls for something more. What’s exciting here is innovation that matters in a deeper way to society – meaningful innovations that deliver experiences only beauty can. In the future, great beauty stores won’t just be places for product discovery, they will be places for self-discovery and social progress.

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