LONDON – British beauty lovers queued for hours on Wednesday to experience something that would be completely mundane in almost any other major city: set foot in a Sephora.
Located in Westfield, a giant shopping center in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, the store is the first UK location for the LVMH-owned cosmetics company since withdrawing from the country nearly two decades ago. The retailer has been announcing its return for months, and in October it launched digital sales there.
While waiting to enter the store, visitors were entertained by performances by the pop band The Sugababes and Sephora’s professional dancers. Brand representatives handed out coffee and branded black and white lollipops during the long wait. Once inside, they were given makeovers, facials, and cumshots while browsing Sephora’s “Hot on Social Media” range and the well-known “The Next Big Thing” edition. For the first time, UK shoppers could shop in person at Sephora’s exclusive lines such as GXVE Gwen Stefani, One/Size by Patrick Starrr and Skinfix in person in the UK.
Much hinges on the opening of the store: after a bumpy online launch six months ago, Sephora has to work to rekindle the hype and excitement around its brand, especially in such a dense and competitive market. Read The Business of Beauty cheat sheet to find out everything you need to know.
Simply put, the beauty industry in the UK represents a $13 billion opportunity for Sephora, according to research firm Euromonitor International – and one of the last big markets it hasn’t yet hit.
However, this is not the first time the retailer has tried to break into the UK. Sephora first appeared in 2000 with a few stores in mostly suburban shopping centers such as Bluewater in Kent and Brent Cross in Hendon, North London. He left just four years later.
This time Sephora took a digital approach. In 2021, it acquired Feelunique, a UK-based online retailer. In October, the rebranded site relaunched with the announcement of new Sephora brick-and-mortar stores.
Many go to Sephora, nailing the in-store experience.
The digital launch had many initial problems. When Sephora celebrated its re-entry into the UK, it did so by hosting a large-scale pop-up event in Marylebone the week of its launch. There, members of the public could come and discover the many brands offered by Sephora online. But technical glitches and stock issues plagued UK Sephora’s website; frustrated users complained about blurry images, dead links, and stock shortages.
“When they launched, it was more of a polite buzz than a buzz,” said Jo Jones, a PR and brand strategy expert. “I expected it to be bigger and bolder.”
The lack of shops also contributed to this. With the acquisition of Feelunique, the retailer immediately gained access to millions of British cosmetics consumers and their data, including their shopping habits – giving Sephora a head start in retail. But Sephora is ultimately a store-run brand known for its intense, experimental environment. Many UK beauty shoppers were already familiar with retailers’ stores after coming across them while on holiday in the US or France, said Wizz Selvey, founder of Wizz & Co.
“It’s very important as a shopping experience,” she said. “Without a shop, it was hard for the customer to see what [the experience] it was supposed to be”.
The location of the new store is not Times Square or the Champs-Élysées. If the retailer wanted to make huge publicity, the giant store in central London would be much more conspicuous. High-traffic shopping destinations such as Oxford Circus and Regent Street attract many global flagship brands such as Coach and Calvin Klein, and are within a stone’s throw of department stores such as Liberty and Selfridges; Meanwhile, Covent Garden has developed a reputation as a beauty shopping hub, with brands ranging from Chanel and Tom Ford to Deciem and Glossier opening stand-alone shops.
Instead, Sephora seems to be cautious about brick-and-mortar retail. For its first store, Sephora chose an area of 6,000 square feet in one of the largest shopping centers in Europe. Although Westfield is away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, it attracts thousands of shoppers every day.
“It seemed like a good first step,” said Sarah Boyd, managing director of Sephora UK. “We felt it was a safe option for us to make sure we were successful.”
The strategy is to use this new Westfield store as a test case to help shape a broader UK retail strategy going forward, Boyd said. The Sephora team has yet to decide how many locations it plans to open or where, although a presence outside of London is the order of the day.
“This first store will be a really important data point for us to look at how we envision our future in the UK,” said Boyd. “It’s going to be a very, very important barometer.”
Sephora is starting from a strong position thanks to its high brand awareness and reputation as a beauty authority.
Nevertheless, the British cosmetics market is highly competitive and has a very fragmented distribution network. British shoppers have plenty of options, from drugstore brand Boots to specialist retailer Space NK and luxury department stores such as Selfridges, Harrods, Liberty and Harvey Nichols. It’s more than beauty e-shops like Cult Beauty, known for editing sought-after independent brands, and Beautybay, which targets a younger audience who is social media-savvy. Meanwhile, Look Fantastic caters to a wide clientele with a wide range at competitive prices.
However, the collapse of UK department store chains such as Debenhams and House of Fraser during the pandemic has left a gap in the market, particularly in key regional cities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol. Sephora has a chance to fill this gap in the market, especially since customers can’t wait to return to stores after the pandemic. After all, what Sephora does best is brick and mortar.
Sephora also has to work hard to feed British beauty customers with popular brands that can only be found in their stores and on their website. While the retailer has introduced new brands to the UK – including Ilia Beauty, Makeup by Mario and the GXVE Gwen Stefani brand, which have been strategically positioned in the front of the new store – many other popular brands have already introduced US-only UK distribution partners . For example, Fenty Beauty is available at Boots and Harvey Nichols, while Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty is sold at Space NK.
Meanwhile, Sephora is betting on experiences to bring shoppers to the store. She strategically placed the “Beauty Hub” – a makeover space offering facials, makeup tutorials and other consultations and services – right at the heart of the Westfield store. Elsewhere, visitors can get eyebrow treatments or a haircut, or even personalize perfume bottles with a special engraving.
“It’s about a unique, experiential beauty,” said Boyd. “[We’ve created] a door that is open to absolutely everyone to come in and play and experience and find out how they can reimagine beauty for themselves.”
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