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Sephora Is Experimenting With A Boutique Format To Prepare For The Retail Apocalypse

The makeup retailer’s large-scale stores are still thriving, but a new intimate location in Boston shows that it’s thinking about its next act.

If you’re out at a shopping center, you’ll likely spot one of the more than 400 Sephora locations around the country. In fact, you can’t miss them. They’re sprawling storefronts, lined with rows and rows of shelves and filled with products from different brands for customers to test out. Store representatives mill about, offering advice and even full makeovers at special stations. Typically, the locations are brightly lit with loud pop music that gives the space a fun, energetic ambiance.

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This format has worked well for the brand, which has been thriving in the midst of a major downturn in brick-and-mortar retail. But today, Sephora announced it is tinkering with a new kind of store: an intimate boutique embedded in a neighborhood.

The very first of these stores, which will be called the Sephora Studio, is launching on Newbury Street, the charming upmarket shopping street in downtown Boston, full of historic brick and stone buildings. The store is across the street from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Ralph Lauren, and a local coffee shop called the Thinking Cup. While most Sephora stores make a big statement with their large storefronts, this small store attempts to blend into its locale.

I visited the store a day before it would be open to the public on July 21. It had some of the hallmarks of Sephora’s branding, including the bold black and white color palette, but with a few local tweaks. “Hello Newbury Street” is etched in cursive on the marble floor as you enter, signaling that this store was custom-built for this location. The walls are full of exposed brick that draws from the surrounding architecture. And it generally feels more serene and peaceful than a traditional Sephora.

“We picked Newbury Street because it is a classic neighborhood shopping street,” says Calvin McDonald, CEO of Sephora Americas. “There are streets in cities all over the country that are just like this, where people like to take a stroll on the weekend to pop into little boutiques.”

[Photo: by Richard Cadan, courtesy of Sephora]
This new store is an experiment of sorts. McDonald explains that Sephora’s larger format stores have been successful, but the company has noticed that consumers’ shopping habits are changing. “Many, of course, prefer to shop online,” he says. “Others want to go to a store, but they don’t have time to go to a big shopping center. They want to pop by somewhere closer to home, but many of these shopping streets offer much smaller storefronts than malls.”

Rather than shrinking a regular Sephora store into a smaller space, McDonald says the brand was very selective about what they would include here. At the center of the store, there are eight makeup stations where customers can book personal consultations. The product assortment is much smaller, focused on makeup, although there is a small selection of perfumes and skin care. Staff members will be well-versed in Sephora’s broader product range and may direct customers to products that can be shipped to them for free.

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“We had to make difficult decisions about what we would keep and what we would nix,” he says.

This store will also debut some new technologies. There are no cash registers, since staff members can process payments digitally, on their phones. At makeup stations, beauty advisers can take pictures of the client, then note all the products they test together, which is then emailed to the client and added to their online profile. “The goal of the Studio is to foster personal connections between our clients and our beauty advisers,” says Mary Beth Laughton, Sephora’s SVP of digital. “But we’re using technology to ease that relationship building. We’re not interested in using technology for technology’s sake.”

[Photo: by Richard Cadan, courtesy of Sephora]
The success of Sephora’s brick-and-mortar stores has been surprising in the midst of the retail apocalypse that has overtaken the U.S. Foot traffic is down in malls across the country, transforming many shopping centers into retail graveyards. There have been hundreds of store closures this year, including brands like Macy’s, Sears, and RadioShack that were once anchors of the brick-and-mortar world. McDonald attributes Sephora’s success to its savvy approach to “experiential retail,” a buzzword that refers to giving customers a delightful in-person experience that is about more than buying a product.

“Customers come into our stores to tap into the expertise of our advisers,” he says. “They come here to play with products and have a good time.”

The Newbury Street store is the first of many, McDonald says. The brand is about to launch other small-format stores in similar shopping streets in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Hoboken in New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. These stores will not replace the bigger store format, but rather complement them. “Eventually, we could see as many as 80 of these sprinkled around the country,” he says.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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