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How Ulta Is Resetting the Mass Beauty Shopping Experience

The retailer is unleashing a prestige-inspired model in its lower-priced category.

Ulta Beauty is upping its mass game.

The retailer has bolstered the mass side of its business over the past few months. It has added both in-store and online a slew of color-cosmetics brands favored by Millennial and Gen Z consumers, including ColourPop, Morphe, Wet ‘n’ Wild, Flower Beauty and Kiss Lashes. Existing brands within the retailer’s assortment — E.l.f., L.A. Girl, Essence, Milani, Almay and Makeup Revolution — have been expanded in both shelf space and door counts.

Ulta’s mass makeover is a means to level the shopping experience between the mass and prestige sides of the store, company executives said.

Ulta has always been known for its unique merchandising strategy that merges mass with class. The retailer has made considerable strides in the past few years in amping up its prestige assortment — nabbing Lauder-owned brands such as MAC Cosmetics and Bumble and bumble, and launching exclusive items that have become cult hits, like Tarte’s Shape Tape concealers. Ulta revealed the ultimate luxe addition — Chanel — on its fourth-quarter earnings call last week. But the retailer is equally focused on bringing in popular brands on the mass side of the business as well.

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Many of Ulta’s mass brands have upgraded their in-store fixtures with backlighting, bold graphics and testers. Fixtures stocked with K-beauty sheet masks have been expanded, and end caps now highlight trending brands like BH Cosmetics and new Ulta-exclusive items, such as Pacifica’s Crystal skin-care collection and Morphe’s Jaclyn Hill palette.

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Exclusive products and experiences are becoming an increasing focus within Ulta’s mass category. Neutrogena in April will launch a makeup collaboration with Kerry Washington exclusively at Ulta. Revlon earlier this month unveiled a product vending machine that will travel to store locations throughout the country. Ulta Beauty Collection, Ulta’s private label line, was moved to a larger space along a lit back wall, modernized with updated packaging, and on-trend items like juice-infused lip oils and a dry sheet mask have launched for spring.

“We’re laser-focused on building a strong and consistent experience for our guests across [the entire Ulta store],” said Monica Arnaudo, senior vice president of merchandising. “They have an expectation that we’re bringing newness and relevant brands that are either trend-focused or they’re seeing them on social and digital.”

Arnaudo joined the company in October and oversees the mass side of the business, which includes the private label collection — her counterpart on the prestige side is Tara Simon, senior vice president of merchandising for prestige beauty. Simon’s purview encompasses brands like Urban Decay, Benefit Cosmetics, Lancôme and Tarte.

“It starts with what we believe the guest is looking for,” said Arnaudo. “We’re always asking our store teams, ‘What brands do you get requests for?’ Then we look on the social side. Brands like Morphe and ColourPop have gained a lot of traction. It’s important for us to get these brands. It’s a win-win for us — our guests are looking for them, and it drives traffic in. They’ve been only been available online so their customer base can’t see or play, and we offer that for her.”

The mass category also serves as a point of entry for Ulta shoppers. “We definitely see a lot of guests coming in that are brand new to Ulta start out shopping in mass and they only buy mass,” said Arnaudo. “As they continue to shop within Ulta, we see that in year two and year three they begin to enter into the prestige side.”

Ulta customers are proven to shop both categories — store data shows that 77 percent of Ulta’s customer base shops the two, and only 23 percent shop only prestige or only mass.

The retailer’s mass revamp is coming at a time when drug chains are struggling with sales losses due to low foot traffic and online shopping. Nielsen scanner data from the end of February tracked mass makeup as down 1 percent year-over-year, and key categories like face and eye were down 5 percent and 2 percent respectively, according to IRI data tracking the last 12-week period.

“[Ulta is] smart enough to recognize [it needs] to continue to reinforce to [its] beauty shopper a holistic approach to the offering and wrap the experience around the entire store, and not just enhance one side of the business,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail. “It’s also an advantage to [Ulta] versus Sephora because of the holistic nature of the way [it presents] beauty at all price points.”

Boosting its mass beauty assortment with digital-first, indie brands is another way for Ulta to differentiate itself from Sephora, and continue to lure young, beauty-obsessed shoppers.

“Ulta so much has [its] pulse [on what is trending],” said Evelyn Wang, senior vice president of marketing at Wet ‘n’ Wild. “They saw that Wet ‘n’ Wild was gaining traction on social media and popularity with influencers, and that’s what propelled the conversation with them.”

After the brand’s exclusive Mermaid collection sold out on last year, the retailer placed an assortment of the Markwins-owned brand’s core collection in two-thirds of its doors in January.

“Our consumer is a Millennial, Gen Z, makeup-involved consumer who is very much a cosmetics junkie and definitely someone who shops across multiple brands and is, in a way, channel-agnostic. She wants everything at her fingertips. She buys a lot of units, and that’s something we bring to Ulta,” said Wang.

Ulta is equally focused on stocking a diverse assortment of brands as it is on upgrading the mass shopping experience to match that of the prestige side.

“If you’re going to present product [at all price points], the experience has to be consistent throughout,” said Bruce Teitelbaum, chief executive officer of RPG, a retail design firm in New York that works with many beauty brands. “They’ve really figured out a formula for offering their customers a unique assortment with a unified appearance.”

Teitelbaum has recently worked with Revlon and Sally Hansen on universally upgrading their in-store appearances with retailers across the category. At Ulta, company policy allows for brands to design their own fixtures, which provides more flexibility. Revlon’s redesigned in-store wall with the retailer is complete with lit shelving; bold, modernized graphics and space for testers.

“Most mass brands have a very large stockkeeping count, and when presented on a wall or gondola, the product is extremely dense,” said Teitelbaum. “They traditionally haven’t thought along the lines of prestige, in that you can have good merchandising, good navigation, impact and vision and you can do it an efficient fashion with a great appearance. That thought process is starting to change.”

Makeup Revolution, a U.K.-based color cosmetics brand that launched exclusively with Ulta in the U.S. last year, built customized, modular fixtures in anodized rose gold for its store presence in all the retailer’s doors.

“We call it our fast beauty fixture because of the speed and ease for stores to be able to restock it,” said Kate Kimmerle, president of Makeup Revolution.

Some of Makeup Revolution’s products — like the Banana baking powder and Conceal and Define concealer — have been “flying off shelves” at Ulta, said Kimmerle. “If we notice the Banana powder is blowing out, selling thousands of units, we can quickly produce another shelf for just that shade and stick it above the existing shelf with the other baking powders — we can be flexible based on how items perform,” said Kimmerle.

Launching in Ulta has allowed Drew Barrymore’s Flower Beauty to improve on its in-store experience — the brand developed illuminated fixtures with a top shelf that acts as a tester bar for launches. The brand is also launching exclusive products that are more trend-driven than Flower’s offering at its only other retail partner, Walmart — for instance, the Galaxy Glaze Holographic Lip and Beauty Flash Full Face Palette.

“They take the omnichannel approach very seriously,” said David Hutchinson, senior vice president of Maesa Group, which manufactures Flower. “When we launched Flower, they did a sneak peek online to their Ultamate Rewards members to introduce them to the brand, which drove them into stores to discover it. They promote and story-tell the brands and products across different channels and then follow up with a great in-store experience with passionate store associates really informed on the brand offering to give that education.”

Ulta recently shifted some of its store associate roles to focus solely on the mass side of the store. The retailer is also beginning to evolve the store layout to better reflect burgeoning categories. “We’ve expanded K beauty and improved the overall navigation in skin,” said Arnaudo. “Bath is a fun category for us — in just under 300 stores, we elevated our bath presentation and added three fixtures [next] to mass cosmetics with brands like Body Shop, Rituals and Cowshed.

“What’s important for us is to make sure we are presenting all our categories in the way that the guest wants to shop. That’s top of mind for us, and we’ll continue to evolve it,” said Arnaudo.

Also top of mind for Arnaudo is highlighting Ulta’s large selection of foundation shades — the retailer carries more than 3,100 across the entire store. In regards to bringing in new brands, Arnaudo is on the hunt for more “inclusive” and “diverse” lines, along with the digital-first brands along the lines of Morphe and ColourPop.

“There’s definitely this middle ground — brands coming in the middle range that look quite prestige but offering the mass price point,” said Arnaudo. The executive’s own background is in prestige beauty — she came to the retailer from Clarisonic, and before that served as the senior vice president of U.S. sales at Bare Escentuals. “Because beauty is moving so fast, our guests are not as brand loyal and it’s about what’s hot and what’s new, what’s socially relevant,” said Arnaudo. “We have to stay on top of it.”

Ulta’s re-tooling of its mass category is indicative of a larger shift that is happening within the mass market — most aggressively within makeup, said Jefferies analyst Stephanie Wissink.

“When Ulta [was founded], the mass concept was another drugstore look-alike — it was built as a venue for legacy, staple brands,” said Wissink. “They’re reverse-engineering mass.”