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Sephora - flawless
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Sephora - flawless

by Jenn Gidman
May 26, 2008

When the biblically renowned Sephora hotfooted it with Moses on his exodus to the Red Sea, she probably could have used a pitstop at the beauty retail chain that today bears her name—after all, all that time in the arid desert air surely didn’t bode well for a gal’s looks and general hygiene (though Yvonne De Carlo certainly held up well in the Cecil B. DeMille account).


Since its inception in 1969 in France (the first US store made its debut in 1998), Europe’s hottest beauty retail chain was acquired by luxury-products conglomerate LVMH in 1997 and now claims an extensive lineup of upscale skincare, makeup, hair, and fragrance products in a “visionary” retail setting. Customers can shop in-store, online at (boasting more than 12,000 products from nearly 200 brands), or through the brand’s catalog.

Today, more than 500 Sephora stores dot the global landscape (even Serbia, Oman, and Qatar have their own Sephora), inviting customers to browse the wares, spritz on the eau de toilette, and indulge in an afternoon of creative cosmetics, all in a setting where every customer is treated more like the regal Nefertiti than her hard-scrabble romantic rival.

The Sephora apple doesn’t fall far from the LVMH tree. Like its sister brands (LVMH is also the parent company of Louis Vuitton, TAG Heuer, and Moët and Chandon, among others), Sephora tries to lure in a free-spending demographic with dollars to drop on their beauty regimen. But it’s not just the stock on the shelves (including Sephora’s own private label) that draws in the aroma-obsessed crowds—it’s the whole Sephora experience.

Sephora doesn’t want shopping for your cosmetics to be relegated to something you squeeze in between dropping off your dry-cleaning and heading to a dentist appointment—the Sephora svengalis would rather you liken your visit to an afternoon spent at the spa or relaxing at a local coffeehouse. Taken right from the company’s own “Beauty Statement”: “Step in and enter a whole new dimension of shopping for beauty… Each of your senses will be delightfully stimulated in a stress-free shopping environment that celebrates the freedom and joy in exploring and sampling an unparalleled selection of beauty products.” Who needs a hot-stone aromatherapy massage when you can just go shopping?

Adhering to this brand message means making its customers feel like royalty. Sephora tries to extend its “velvet rope” philosophy by offering attentive (but not stifling) customer service, a generous sampling program, and perks like its Beauty Insider card, a customer-loyalty program that offers personalized e-mails, insider-only products, and even a gift on your birthday. It doesn’t hurt that Sephora is also able to track all your purchases through the card so it can more effectively sell its wares to you down the line—Big Brother is indeed watching from under well-groomed eyebrows.

The Beautiful People
The “open-sell environment” that the company promotes means that customers don’t have to feel guilty for laying their paws on the parfum. Instead, they’re afforded full license to handle the goods without the high-pressure sales environment of a department store, yet with more of an upscale feel (and more hands-on access) than your local drugstore. They’re free to explore, experiment, and play to piece together their own individual beauty curriculum—an integral component of the Sephora brand.

The spartan store design promotes ease of use for busy beauties. The major categories (skincare, fragrance, haircare, etc.) are featured in simple glass displays, as neatly organized as a taxonomist’s medicine cabinet, all within easy view (and touch). As long as you know your ABCs (everything’s alphabetically arranged according to brand or designer label), you’ll be able to find your BORBA, Bourjois, and Burberry in short order. It’s a cosmetic shopper’s dream, whether you’re in the mood to spend hours sampling the wares or you actually do need to pick up your beauty products on your lunch hour.

Don’t go searching for Maybelline or Cover Girl here: Some of the store’s most popular brands include Dior, Cargo, and Smashbox, as well as hard-to-find brands such as Fusion Beauty, T3, and Anastasia. They’re all there on the freestanding racks with sticks for perfume sampling, open tubes of lipstick, and a handy bottle of makeup remover to wipe all evidence away before your boyfriend gets back from the Gap and Sharper Image.

Though don’t be surprised if your man sticks around once he’s inside: While most guys wouldn’t be caught dead getting a makeover at the Bloomie’s cosmetics counter, somehow it doesn’t seem odd to see an alpha male sampling Peter Thomas Roth botanical buffing beads inside Sephora. Age knows no bounds within the Sephora realm, either: You’re just as likely to rub elbows with a teenager picking up a Juicy Couture gift set as you are to see her grandmother making a Clinique or Lancome purchase.

The Big Sell
While there are always Sephora staff on the ready to help you with your selection, you don’t have to run through the front entrance to avoid being attacked by the “spritzers” or have to butter up the salesperson to find out the price of that Stella McCartney tote. Employees are all well versed in the art of the subtle sell, knowing when to approach and offer beauty tips, and knowing when to let you enjoy your makeup demo in peace.

In fact, Sephora's hired hands (or “cast members,” as they’re called) are one of the other factors the company hopes to differentiate themselves with. Each team member undergoes intensive training in a skincare, hair care, and general beauty program to assist customers with their inquiries.

In October 2007, the company opened the doors to Sephora University, a 25,000-plus-square-foot training facility with more than 30 programs for employees, including Science of Sephora, a weeklong class in general beauty; Encore classes, an additional weeklong session that allows employees to specialize in skincare, color, or fragrance; leadership courses; and product master classes provided by individual cosmetics brands themselves to teach specific techniques unique to each brand (though, unlike department store counterparts, Sephora consultants aren’t “encouraged” to push certain brands on their unsuspecting clients).

To pump up their workforce (and ostensibly pump up its image as the “beauty authority”), Sephora also recently conducted a nationwide talent search of its employees and put together its first Pro Beauty Team, which now represents the company at in-store events and fashion shows nationwide (the chosen members also claim bragging rights as anointed beauty gurus in their hometowns).

Strategic Alliances
While it’s positioned itself as the ultimate beauty expert, Sephora isn’t above aligning itself with leaders in other industries to strengthen its own brand position. The first major synergistic relationship it formed was with the J.C. Penney department store chain, creating a “store-within-a-store” retail concept that positions each Penney’s Sephora in the center core of the store, staffed by Sephora consultants. This offensive strategic move indicated the cosmetics giant wasn’t content to passively compete with the department-store cosmetics counter across the mall aisles—it was ready to invade and vanquish from within.

The Home Shopping Network (HSN) was next Sephora’s next co-branding conquest. Starting in February 2007, five hours of HSN programming each month was committed to Sephora shows, featuring Sephora experts presenting a plethora of new products and brands. This enterprise proves lucrative for both companies: HSN ups Sephora’s visibility factor by bringing the brand into more than 89 million households (the network’s increasingly sophisticated 25-to-54 female demographic has long since moved beyond appliquéd cat sweaters and cubic zirconia), and Sephora offers HSN an extensive and popular beauty channel to add to its portfolio.

But though Sephora is all about looking good on the outside, it also recognizes that beauty really comes from within, leading to its teamwork with Operation Smile, a not-for-profit medical organization that offers help to kids with cleft lips and palates. As part of this alliance, Operation Smile’s logo was positioned on Sephora products, raising awareness and funds for the charity (a portion of each sale went to the medical organization).

Of course, high-profile promotions, “university”-trained staff and customer appreciation cards do not a luxury brand make. While Sephora is trying to sell elements of the high life, some in the industry fear that it represents a “dumbing down” or devaluation of true luxury items—after all, where else can you get a hedonistic makeup consultation, then head across the mall to Dave & Buster’s to grab a Bud Light and a game of Skee-Ball?

So far, though, mainly through word of mouth and viral campaigning, Sephora has managed to bridge the gap between drugstore drudgery and department-store counter coercion to enjoy the sweet smell of both its perfumes and its branding success.


Jennifer Gidman lives and works in New York.

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