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Sephora Enters the Festival Fray

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary in the U.S., Sephora is going deeper into experiential retail with its first beauty festival, Sephoria.

On Saturday, Sephora will open the doors to Sephoria: House of Beauty, its iteration of the beauty festival.

Sephoria comes at a critical time for the retailer, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the U.S. In July, Calvin McDonald left his position as president and chief executive officer of Sephora North America to take the top spot at Lululemon. A replacement has not yet been named, and Chris de Lapuente, global chairman and chief executive officer, is overseeing U.S. operations currently.

Although the LVMH-owned retail chain has reportedly surpassed Macy’s Inc. as America’s largest prestige beauty retailer with estimated 2016 sales of $4.5 billion, there has also been a significant shift in the market, as makeup sales, a critical category for Sephora, show signs of softening, and skin care, an area where it is not as dominant, continues to increase significantly.

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Sephoria, a two-day event to be held in Los Angeles, marks the retailer’s foray into a space that has become all the rage with Millennial beauty fanatics and is dominated by Beautycon and Ipsy’s Generation Beauty.

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“Festivals allow brands to activate in new ways and we think of this as critically important,” said Deborah Yeh, senior vice president of marketing and brands at Sephora. “The world is changing and if brands and retailers don’t adapt and become interesting and entertaining to clients, we won’t stay relevant. This allows us to position ourselves for how people are engaging today and in the future.”

The event, whose name is meant to evoke the euphoria engendered by the love of beauty, will look to carve out a point of difference by focusing on the retailer’s touch points of teach, inspire and play. To that end, the weekend will feature everything from master classes with brand founders to customizable products available only at Sephoria.

“A big part of making retail experiences memorable is making beauty personal,” said De Lapuente. “Often times the best way to do that is through in-store shopping for the access you get to one-on-one beauty adviser consultations and services; customized classes; the opportunity to test, try and sample hundreds of products and shades, and, of course, the opportunity to capture and socialize your end look digitally. Sephoria is an invaluable opportunity for us to bring clients dozens of creative interactive experiences and test what resonates the best. Our learnings have the potential to impact not only how we evolve our experiential services at the scale of Sephoria, but also how we might integrate successful elements into our stores on a temporary or permanent basis.   

Each day will be broken into day and evening sessions, and three ticket tiers are being sold. Bronze costs $99; silver, $249, and gold, $449. Sephora said the venue can accommodate about 1,200 people each session; thus far, about 65 percent of tickets sold are bronze, 20 percent silver and 15 percent, gold. The daytime sessions are sold out, but tickets are still available for both evenings.

While the ticket prices are more expensive, Sephoria’s expected attendance is smaller than that of other festivals. Beautycon attracted upward of 15,000 attendees to its New York and Los Angeles events earlier this year, while Meccaland, a two-day festival created by Australia’s Mecca Cosmetica in April, drew 10,000 visitors who paid about 49 Australian dollars for a ticket.

Brand founders including Charlotte Tilbury, Vicky Tsai of Tatcha, Jen Atkin of Mane Addicts, Dr. Dennis Gross and Zanna Roberts Rassi of Milk Makeup will be on hand, giving Sephoria a key point of differentiation for many in the industry. “That’s going to elevate the authenticity, because founders are celebrities today,” said Carol Hamilton, group president in charge of acquisitions at L’Oréal U.S. “These people are important and the fact that Sephora is showcasing the founders is strategic.”

Tsai echoed that point. “The difference that Sephora brings is the founders,” she said. “I’m personally excited to spend one-on-one time with clients because it’s not something you get to do often, and Sephora is in a unique position to bring founders and clients together in an intimate setting.”

About 50 brands are participating in Sephoria overall, which is being set up as a “house of beauty.” The kitchen, for example, will feature products inspired by food ingredients from brands like Briogeo, Huda Beauty, Becca and Glow Recipe, while the suds room will have skin care from Belif, Ole Henriksen and Biossance. There will also be a custom-palette room, where attendees can create multibranded palettes with shades from Urban Decay, Make Up For Ever, Nars and Sephora Collection, as well as a “lip lounge,” where Bite Beauty, Sephora Collection and Yves Saint Laurent will offer customized lipsticks. The fragrance bar will feature drinks inspired by scents from brands like Atelier Cologne and Maison Margiela.

“Every single aspect will be high-touch and supersensorial,” said Artemis Patrick, Sephora’s chief merchandising officer. “We are looking to learn what most excites our clients and brings to life the unique attributes of our brand partners.”

The caliber of brands — and focus on prestige brands only — is another key differentiator cited by industry insiders. “The fact that the participating brands are the ones we sell with and are all established brands is a good thing for everybody,” said Scott Sassa, chairman of Milk makeup. “It elevates the level of quality across the board.”

Influencers and celebrities including Chrissy Teigen, Kandee Johnson and Mario Dedivanovic will also be on hand for meet-ups and master classes. Such events will take place either in the masterclass theater, which seats about 48 people, or “the glitter party” area, which can accommodate about 150. “We felt it critical that the experience be educational, and we took a lot of time curating the education from leading artists and entrepreneurs to make sure we’re giving clients the opportunity to enhance their skills,” said Yeh, who noted that the mix of speakers also touches on the “inspire” aspects of the weekend.

Yeh and other executives declined to discuss how much it has invested in Sephoria, but it is understood that brands are bearing part of the costs in addition to outside-of-beauty sponsors such as Air Optix Colors, a contact lenses company, and Essentia Water. While about 800 stockkeeping units will be available for purchase, the primary measure of success is going to be social engagement, said Yeh and Patrick.

“This is going to be an opportunity for us to do deep listening with our clients,” said Yeh, “everything from what kinds of stories drive interest to which activations really engage her to what product resonates with her. The success is really going to be about connection and the social sharing.”

The festivities begin Friday evening at a VIP party where key industry execs will get a first look at the goings-on. And while De Lapuente says he’s keen to try them all, anyone looking for the ceo should head for the kitchen, where he plans on testing out a watermelon big enough to sit in. “I’m certainly going to be trying as many as possible,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun place to learn and see what our clients react to.”