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Experience Matters: Sephora Goes Bigger on 34th Street

The location is outfitted with a slew of interactive and digital elements.

NEW YORK — If not a miracle, Sephora hopes to achieve the ultimate retail experience on 34th Street.

The retailer has opened its largest store in North America on the street — an 11,300-square-foot space housing a host of new digital innovations and the largest product assortment of any of Sephora’s 385 freestanding doors on the continent. There are 13,000 products for sale — nearly 3,000 more than a typical Sephora store footprint, including newly added brands Jo Malone London and La Mer.

In addition, a 9,000-square-foot door opened on Fifth Avenue last week, making the two stores the latest additions to the retailer’s Beauty TIP (Teach, Inspire, Play) Workshop concept. Locations on San Francisco’s Powell Street, Boston’s Prudential Center, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue (the third-largest Sephora door in North America at just over 10,000 square feet), Santa Clara’s Valley Fair and Toronto’s Yorkdale are home to various education-driven and experiential beauty services.

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“The bigger idea behind a store like this…and the vision we want to create is an unbiased experiential retail through ‘teach-inspired play’ across all of our channels: store, digital and home,” Calvin McDonald, chief executive officer of Sephora Americas, said during an interview at the 34th Street store.

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The “teach-inspired play” for Sephora, he said, continues in color with Color IQ — which launched in 2012 to help customers find foundation and concealer matches — but is quickly extending to skin care and fragrance with dedicated hubs for each. Beauty TIP Workshop stores contain The Beauty Workshop, billed as the “heart” of the store, where customers can come to take classes and watch tutorials on integrated iPad stations. Sephora Beauty Studios, located at the center of the store, is the home for makeovers with senior artists. (The 34th Street and Fifth Avenue stores have two studios each with a total of 12 seats.) The two new doors will also be the first to have the Moisture Meter, which measures the moisture in one’s skin to make for better skin-care recommendations.

The Skincare Studio, with a working sink, four stations and a touchscreen with access to the Skincare IQ diagnostic, facilitates education and offers services like mini facials. A Fragrance Studio uses sensory technology, InstaScent, to enable the exploration of 18 fragrance families.

Interactive virtual experience, Tap and Try, facilitates the “trying on” of lipstick and eyelashes in-store using Sephora Virtual Artist’s Technology combined with RFID scanning. With one endcap dedicated to each, customers can “try on” any lip or lash product that instantly appears on their digital likeness.

The store, according to sources, could generate an estimated $30 million to $40 million in sales during its first year. This is about 50 percent more than the reportedly $20 million to $22 million the previous 34th Street door down the block saw in retail sales last year.

McDonald declined to comment on sales, but said the reopened 34th Street will see significantly higher volume than its predecessor, which didn’t “maximize” the location or “express the brand how we wanted to.” He said there is potential for the store to be the number-one door in North America.

The new location, he continued, is the truest representation of the retailer’s vision to maximize “interconnectivity.” Sure, e-commerce is a cornerstone of Sephora’s business and is its number-one door, but the in-store experience is the culmination of the beauty community McDonald is building.

“When a lot of retailers think of omnichannel, they think of just the flow of goods — buy online and pick up in store — but we look at everything we do,” he said, acknowledging that although classes in-store translate to more purchases, the sales are just a “byproduct.” “How do you demystify contouring and highlighting? There are tutorials on YouTube…and they can come to a physical place. Play by Sephora starts in the home, but it’s interconnected.”

Play by Sephora, the retailer’s monthly beauty subscription box, contains samples, a Play Pass to encourage in-store learning and a Play Book of tips. Stores also host monthly Play Date meetups for subscribers.

For McDonald, the greatest benefit to operating a store in a highly trafficked environment like Herald Square extends far beyond customers “just buying stuff.” Locals and tourists can explore Sephora as a brand — taking part in any number of in-store experiences from classes to Play Date meetups. He acknowledged that sales volume is a plus, but it’s Sephora’s ability to express itself as a brand in a physical space. The door also serves as a learning tool for what the company can then “bring into the fleet,” whether it’s an investment in larger studio space or figuring out which product resonates on a local level.

McDonald prides the company on an “attainable prestige” identity, noting that catering to a broad number of clients and “middle class [customers] that aspire to be beauty junkies” is who Sephora’s selling to.

“We are an unbiased, zero commission sales environment. Our cast is heavily trained…[but] as a brand, you need to perform; we don’t guide the client….She comes in and we ask what her needs are,” McDonald said. “We are focused 100 percent on growing prestige by creating demand. I don’t think of how I can steal [market share] or take a client from a competitor of mine. [It’s] how do we grow the prestige pie?”

It does so with brands such as the Estée Lauder-owned Tom Ford Beauty, for instance, which saw success last year when Sephora, in addition to fragrance, started to carry the company’s color cosmetics range. The 34th Street store is the first to sell La Mer and Jo Malone London, both part of the Lauder portfolio as well.

“La Mer, Jo Malone London and Tom Ford give us the credibility in what we’ve been doing in the categories we’ve been winning in,” McDonald said of extending Sephora’s partnership with Lauder.

Other brands he called out as successful launches to recently enter Sephora include Pat McGrath’s Pat McGrath Labs, Huda Beauty, Sunday Riley and Drunk Elephant. McDonald noted that much of the growth in skin care that Sephora is experiencing right now is driven by “niche, exclusive brands” like Drunk Elephant that bring a social media element into skin care, which traditionally, has never been the case.