By  on September 9, 2011

With a chandelier made from distorted fragrance bottles, a gaggle of mirrors with six light settings, custom-designed modern art and — perhaps most surprisingly — no cash wrap, Sephora is kicking its business model into the future with its new Meatpacking District store.

Located at the corner of Ninth Avenue and West 13th Street, the 5,000-square-foot store — with 3,500 square feet of that devoted to selling space — will be the first Sephora in the U.S. to feature a completely mobile checkout model, said David Suliteanu, chief executive officer of Sephora Americas, in an exclusive interview this week. The store is Sephora’s 16th in Manhattan and 293rd in the U.S. and opens on Sept. 16.

The mobile checkout system — which Suliteanu plans to add as many as 50 stores to by year-end 2011 — works with an internal Wi-Fi network and a scanner that looks like a handheld phone. “It works on touch screen and does just about all of the same things a cash wrap can do in a smaller format,” he explained. “It communicates wirelessly in the store to connect to whatever data is needed, including credit card authorization, and throughout the store there are a number of mobile printers. The handheld talks to the printer, the cast member pulls out the receipt, which looks like what you’d get from a register, and it’s all very efficient and very convenient.”

To the question of shoplifting, Suliteanu said he believes the handheld system actually makes it less likely. “Our people are more engaged — the activity is more evenly dispersed around the store. If anything, I would say it would help a little bit in increasing the vigilance of our people and their connection with clients.” It has another benefit as well, he noted: “It dramatically reduces the amount of floor space that we devote to that big monster cash wrap and replaces it with exciting products and services.”

To that end, the Meatpacking store will house several new-to-Sephora vendors — including cosmetics brands Giorgio Armani, Koh Gen Do and Ellis Faas cosmetics. Another group of new brands will be housed in a Global Beauty gondola, a first for the retailer. The fixture includes Tatcha Blotting Papers from Japan, Absolution Eye Cream from France, Omorovicza Thermal Cleansing Balm from Hungary and Phillip Martins Maple Wash and Rinse from Italy. “We’ve carefully curated the number of brands in this store,” he said. “We have our existing brand partners, but we’re also keeping in mind that this is Manhattan and this is our 16th store in Manhattan — and the client walks into this store and is expecting to see new brands.” All in all, he said, about 12 new vendors, from all over the world, will join the fray at the Meatpacking store. Suliteanu hopes to take the Global Beauty sku’s that sell well to other Sephora doors.

The retailer has taken a lead in incorporating mobile technology. An iPhone app was launched last October, while an iPad app — which, among other features, brings together exclusive Sephora social content, e-commerce, an interactive catalogue and how-to videos — was introduced in July.

The mobile checkout was piloted on a smaller scale at the retailer’s store at 58th and Lexington this summer, in conjunction with the physical cash wrap. “With the combination of the team getting excited about it and clients loving it, we estimate that about 90 percent of the transactions [in that store] are being done now on mobile,” said Suliteanu. “If that experience is any indication, I think the client experience at the Meatpacking store will be a positive.” Mobile POS will be rolled out to about 50 additional stores by year-end 2011 and to a yet-to-be-determined number of stores in 2012, said Suliteanu. “Whether or not it is as extensive as what we have in Meatpacking I can’t say yet, but at this point, we would probably say that the next generation of stores would probably have fixed POS devices but less of them, in a smaller footprint, and would expect our transactions to be a mixture of fixed and mobile POS.”

In the Beauty Art Studio portion of the Meatpacking store, four double-sided glass, chrome and black fixtures with LED screens on each side dominate. Each station features lighting that is adjustable to six settings: daylight, moonlight, candlelight, fluorescent light, incandescent light and studio lighting. Smaller versions of the mirrors are installed at the end of each cosmetics gondola. The Meatpacking store also includes a Sephora Nail Studio Art + Lacquer Services featuring XpresSpa installation, a concept the retailer introduced at its 5 Times Square and Powell Street San Francisco doors on July 25. The installations feature nail art services, using Sephora by OPI, Illamasqua, Dior, Nars, Nails Inc. London, Perfect Formula and Sephora Collection products.

“We’ve been very careful with the way we’ve approached the service part of our business,” said Suliteanu. “The Beauty Studio is the hub of our service offering — that is built around the services our cast members are trained to provide, from 10-minute express services to a personal beauty consultation that can take two to three hours. That’s in every store; that is the anchor of our service commitment. And then we’ve investigated and have experimented with other independent freestanding service offerings. The one that we’re currently piloting is the nail bar. We strongly felt that the world didn’t need another basic nail salon, so the orientation of this particular nail service is very much around fashion nail looks, which are the rage right now.”

Suliteanu declined to discuss sales projections. Industry sources estimated that the Meatpacking store could do upward of $6 million in retail sales in its first year of operation.

Given the neighborhood, Sephora felt strongly about incorporating an art vibe into the store design. The key piece — a flamenco dress with suspension techniques distorted to represent the raw energy of a tornado — is by Manhattan installation artist and sculptor E.V. Day. The piece, “Flamenco Tornado,” is the first in a series commissioned by Sephora. Free-form metal balls top the metal fixture for the store’s rollerball fragrance lineup, while a curved fixture intended to represent the brand’s signature flame holds the Sephora Collection’s brush lineup. Portland, Ore.’s Esque Studios created the striking fragrance chandelier, developing the bottle treatment to be evocative of perfumery bottles and custom-blowing them to the shapes and colors Sephora required. Twisted white pieces of glass commingled with the bottles are a wink to the Sephora brand’s signature flame. Even the barricade hiding the storefront from public view includes art: a lenticular mural called “Transforming Beauty,” which will come down on Sept. 13. Created by David Ellis in collaboration with female artists Maya Hayuk, Sasu and Yuri Shimoho, the 10-foot-by-100-foot piece comprises 10 frames of animation of flowing leis, which constantly change, showing images of feathers, fruits and flowers.

“This particular store is very unique because of where it is,” said Suliteanu. “The historical nature of the Meatpacking District, the strong influence of art in that community, has definitely influenced us to create a store that was designed to fit into that community. Are there prototype ideas there? Yes, and we’re delighted to be able to globally launch those in Manhattan. And the design itself is so uniquely tailored to the location in which it exists — both of those store environment considerations are going on at the same time.”

Suliteanu noted that the retailer has wanted to open in the Meatpacking District for several years. “It’s an exciting, vibrant area which combines a growing retail presence with a lot of entertainment and art,” he said. Finding the right space, however, wasn’t quite as easy. What sold Sephora on the space: a visible street location and a high building presence, said Suliteanu. “Also, it’s not easy to find a footprint large enough for what we want. It took us some time.”

Manhattan has the highest concentration of Sephora stores in the U.S., noted Suliteanu. “Because of that, and because of [Manhattan]’s visibility, there’s definitely a focus on what happens there,” he said, adding that the team refers to Manhattan internally as “the United States of Manhattan. We almost look at Manhattan as a separate country. Because of its prominence in this country and its connection to fashion and art, it occupies a special place in our strategy.

“We have not opened a new store in Manhattan in a few years, so our thinking relative to the client experience has evolved a lot during that time frame,” continued Suliteanu. “This store gives us an opportunity to put our most current thinking into Manhattan, and that thinking includes some things that haven’t been tried before. Notably, the advancement of the Sephora Collection brand for the first time into a true unique brand experience which combines both makeup and accessories with some very colorful and uniquely designed fixturing and our first use of video technology. That’s an example of something we’ve been thinking about for awhile, but is a worldwide premiere at the Meatpacking store. [It is] the first permanent installation of the Sephora Hot Now, those fixtures that stand along the street wall, another global launch.”

Sephora opened its first U.S. door in SoHo in July 1998, followed by a 21,000-square-foot Rockefeller Center store opening in October 1999. More than a decade later, Suliteanu acknowledges that the beauty landscape is completely different from what it was then. “The change has been dramatic,” he said. “Our thinking about the beauty industry has evolved on three fronts. One is the store itself, the second is the product that we carry and the third are our people and the kind of service we deliver. Truthfully, on all three of those pillars on which the business has been built, the change has been huge. If you were to take a snapshot of a store which we built in 2001 — and we have some that are left — and fast-forward to that store in Meatpacking or the store we just built in Aventura, Fla., it couldn’t be more different. So much more dramatic, more visually powerful, easier to shop, cleaner. The product itself — we’re still in the same businesses. We still stand for fragrance and skin care and makeup, and now hair care — but the evolution of the product mix, the brands over a 10-year period, has been dramatic. From our standpoint, there was a time when we opened that we didn’t have many of the department store brands. Now, we have most of them. The smaller brands that we grew up with, most of them are still with us, but they’re now bigger brands, and we’re introducing a whole new community of brands including ones we’ve created ourselves, like Hello Kitty and Kat Von D. And on the service front, we have 10 years invested in education. We’ve opened Sephora University. We’ve made all of that come to life in our new Beauty Studios in the last 12 months. The Beauty Studios are a hub of service activity.”

Suliteanu noted that further innovations are on tap for Manhattan Sephora stores in 2012. “This is part of our belief in and commitment to Manhattan. We have several major capital investments,” he said, declining to give specifics, “that we are going to make in Manhattan in 2012. Meatpacking is a great example of that, but you’re going to see several more in 2012.”

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