How Sephora Is Thriving Amid a Retail Crisis

Ms. Grant estimates that two out of five women between ages 18 and 54 wear five or more makeup products every day. “It defines the selfie-obsessed, image-driven culture of our time,” she said.

Deborah Yeh, Sephora’s senior vice president for marketing and branding, said: “The lady at the counter has been replaced by hundreds of people on YouTube. There are more voices. And we are trying to cut through the confusion,” in part by allowing customers to try before they buy.

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Want to try 50 shades of lipstick without getting chapped lips? There’s a mobile app using augmented reality for that.

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Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Sephora, which is owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH and has more than 2,300 locations in 33 countries, offers digitally savvy customers enough technological doodads and computer displays to make a Silicon Valley engineer blush. Want to try 50 shades of lipstick without getting chapped lips? There is a mobile app using augmented reality for that. Customers can scan their faces to get their Color IQ, a reference number used to find products that match their skin tones, or sit at digital workstations to take classes in contouring cheekbones. Sephora even has its own version of Smell-O-Vision, a touch screen with a fan that lets visitors smell the scents — floral, earthy — that characterize most fragrances.

Rebecca Pahle, a writer and editor in Manhattan, visits the two Sephora stores near her Times Square office twice a month. “It is easy to kill time, play around with things and then spend more money than I should,” Ms. Pahle said. “I am experimenting a lot, trying to figure out what I like.” She doesn’t shop at department stores. “I don’t associate them with makeup,” she said.

What she appreciates most is autonomy. “At Sephora they ignore me, which I like,” Ms. Pahle said. “I don’t like the hard sell.”

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Gardel Espinal, left, and Greg Bailey sample Jo Malone fragrances.

Credit
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

In 2015, Sephora opened its Innovation Lab in a converted warehouse in San Francisco to experiment with ways to combine mobile apps and in-store shopping into a cohesive experience. As a result of their efforts, customers can have as little or as much personal contact they want in stores like the one at Herald Square, which Ms. Yeh called the company’s “store of the future.”

Now department stores are scrambling to follow suit. In a few months, Bloomingdale’s will begin a major renovation of its cosmetics department, which could take as much as a year to complete. “The new in-store experience will have more technology and an ability…

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