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Undercover Shopper: Riley Rose

As Forever 21 looks to establish a foothold in specialty beauty with its Riley Rose concept, WWD’s Ellen Thomas heads to the store’s first New York-area outpost to scope out how it stacks up against Sephora and Ulta.

I’m not one for shopping at Forever 21. At 27, I feel I’ve aged out of the fast-fashion retailer. My last memories of the place are of the tourist-packed Times Square store, which I visited approximately 50 times — about 49 times too many — over the course of a summer internship when I was 20. I would visit after work, usually with a group of fellow fashion closet interns, where we’d buy outfits to be worn the next day and then discarded two weeks later. The thrill was in the hunt — a tie-dye skirt for $11.80! — and the constant rotation of merchandise. There was always something new to be discovered.

I’ve always thought that a time might come when I would be called upon to enter a Forever 21 store again and I’ve made my peace with that — if and when I have teenage daughters of my own, perhaps. But as the battle of the specialty beauty stores rages on — Ulta Beauty is rapidly approaching 1,200 doors in the U.S. and Sephora continues marching toward world beauty domination — Forever 21 quietly entered the beauty category last year, applying this same thrill-of-the-hunt ethos to its freestanding beauty and lifestyle stores, Riley Rose.

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The concept is the brainchild of Linda and Esther Chang, the daughters of the Forever 21 founders, who saw a gap in beauty retailing for a brick-and-mortar store that carried the Internet-born brands young people like. Eight stores across California, Florida, Texas and Maryland have opened rapid-fire since September, with the most recent opening just before Christmas at the Bridgewater Commons Mall in New Jersey. Industry sources estimate that first-year sales there will be $5 million. Thus, my time has come.

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I arrive at the Bridgewater Commons Mall at around 11 a.m on a Thursday morning, with my shopping companion — WWD’s contributing editor, Faye Brookman. We’re both eager to scope out the crowd at the mall during the typically busy postholiday week between Christmas and New Year’s. Expecting chaotic hordes of mothers toting screaming children, we’re both surprised that the mall is nearly empty. The exceptions are the various restaurants Bridgewater has to offer — dining establishments such as California Pizza Kitchen and The Cheesecake Factory are both jam-packed. We enter the mall through Bloomingdale’s, which is so quiet you can hear a pin drop. The beauty department is eerily deserted, save for one lone shopper who is replenishing a Chanel foundation.

Riley Rose is tucked away in an unassuming corner on the first level of the mall, across from a Thomas Kinkade Gallery and next to a store called Soft Surroundings. A note on Soft Surroundings: It is a lifestyle concept shop that sells — as one might imagine — soft items for women, including linens, bathrobes and oversize tunics and kimonos, alongside a sprinkling of wellness items like Himalayan salt stones and aromatherapy-infused fuzzy slipper booties. Faye had heard that Soft Surroundings boasts an impressive beauty assortment, so we take a detour to check it out. Indeed, we find a veritable beauty department in the back of the store. The selection is comprised mainly of antiaging items targeted at women of a certain age from a slew of brands including Jane Iredale, Vita Liberata, Rodial, Erno Laszlo, Fillerina — a topical product said to replicate the look of injectable fillers — and a new-to-me brand, called Wrinkles Schminkles. Our time at Soft Surroundings is cut short after a sales associate approaches and tells us, “I wish I could wrap you up in one of our soft blankets.” We take this as our cue to leave.

The first thing I notice upon entering Riley Rose is that the general environment is a serene departure from that of Forever 21, whose merchandise-packed locations are often teeming with tweens rifling through piles of $2 underwear.

This is not the case at Riley Rose. The build-out is a micro-influencer’s dream, with every corner an Instagrammable moment: Think gleaming white subway tile, brass light fixtures, marbleized accents and a neon sign emblazoned with the message “Wish You Were Here” against a fluorescent pink brick backdrop. There is a bench to sit on while you selfie.

The second thing I notice is the sheer scope of the place — at 5,000 square feet, the store is just under half the size of Manhattan’s new Ulta Beauty outpost.

Faye and I dive right into the makeup section, which is positioned directly in front of the entryway and appears to take up about one-fourth of the store’s space. The assortment is split between youthful, irreverent brands like Lime Crime and Winky Lux; Gen Z favorites thanks to products like Unicorn Hair, Ice Cream Color Correctors and the Uni-brow Eyebrow Pencil, and well-established Indies such as RMS Beauty and Stila.

We are most excited to check out products from brands that are primarily distributed online and aren’t readily available in-store — think Beauty Bakerie and Touch in Sol. After about 10 minutes, Faye looks up from a Winky Lux Bellini eye shadow palette she is swatching, and comments that she’s surprised we’ve yet to be approached by a Riley Rose staffer. This point is driven home even further when she inadvertently drops the palette and it clatters loudly to the floor, snapping in half.

A quick glance around the room reveals one sales associate on the floor. She appears to be in her late teens or early 20s, is wearing a cat-ear headband and is for the moment intensely focused on an instruction manual for one of the many tablets placed throughout Riley Rose — she is so engrossed in the gadget that she doesn’t even flinch when the palette breaks in the quiet store.

If this visit is any indication, Riley Rose is no Soft Surroundings in the customer service department — there are no soft-blanket-wielding sales ladies here. Then again, we are shopping at a mall in suburban central New Jersey, where the talent pool for a store like Riley Rose likely consists of local high school students and the staff may very well be reflective of this.

At the RMS Beauty fixture, I consider finding a new shade of concealer for my pale winter complexion, but decide against it as there is no makeup artist readily available to assist with shade selection. There is, however, a tablet placed near the fixture that is playing a silent video of Swedish hair brand Sachajuan founder Sacha Mitic spraying a model with a hair product. It is a lovely black-and- white video and I’m sure an informative one if it had sound, though unhelpful in this situation.

I sit down at a nearby vanity station that houses a mirror and a tablet. There are several tutorials available to choose from — I select one on color correcting, but I cannot follow along, as there is no product at the table. Also, it feels unnatural to me to sit in a chair watching a video inside a mall store.

I move on to a table stocked with all-purpose glitter products in various vehicles — glitter palettes, glitter pots, glitter syringes and so on. I am mesmerized by the plethora of options, but unsure how to incorporate any of these products into a daily routine. I choose a pot of loose glitter in a rose gold shade and attempt to apply it to my face with a sponge from the store’s large communal sink station. I immediately regret this, as it looks like dirt. Lesson learned.

At this point, the cat-eared sales associate approaches to helpfully point out that there is makeup remover next to the sink. I ask her for advice on a good facial cleanser as I’m going to need one later, and she leads me to the skin-care section, which is rife with vaguely familiar South Korean brands such as Klavuu, Clean It Zero and Jay Jun Cosmetics (I saw on Instagram that Drew Barrymore likes the sheet masks), along with cheeky lines I’ve never heard of, such as I Woke Up Like This. Cat Ears admits that she isn’t as knowledgeable about the assortment of brands as she’d like to be but is doing her best to read up on them all, and I can see how that could be the case — there are scores of brands in the store even I’ve never seen.

I detail my reactive, redness-prone skin to Cat Ears, who listens dutifully and proposes that I try a natural formulation. She leads me to a brand called Honey Belle and suggests a tea-tree-oil-based cleanser. At $9, the price is right, but I nix the recommendation because I’ve had a bad reaction to tea tree oil in the past. Instead, I settle on a foaming cleanser made with white clay from Heimish, another K-beauty brand. Cat Ears and I test the formula on my hand and I like the firming effect the clay imparts. “Why are there so many skin-care brands from South Korea?” I ask Cat Ears. “Huh,” she says. “That’s a good question.”

Having finally captured the attention of a sales associate, I feel fatigued from the social interaction and head to the back of the store, where a myriad of non-beauty items are located. Company officials have described Riley Rose as more of a department store for younger shoppers than a youthful take on Sephora, and I find a menagerie of ancillary merchandise that speaks directly to my inner Millennial. I strongly consider purchasing all of the things, including a succulent housed in an elephant-shaped vessel, a gratitude journal, cleansing wipes made specifically for sneakers, a “Taters Over Haters” tote bag that my 18-year-old cousin might like and wear for two seconds — there’s a picture of tater tots on it — and a milk chocolate Oreo cookie bar from the impressive selection of Dylan’s Candy Bar items. A 14-day “Tea-tox” looks particularly compelling — I’ve never seen one outside of Instagram and January is looming, after all — but I balk at the $39.99 price tag and instead settle on a few nostalgic, brightly colored gel pens.

I take my items to the register, where there is no line and a different employee than Cat Ears rings me up. I attempt to strike up conversation by commenting how excited I am to try my new cleanser and asking her if she’s tried the 14-day Tea-tox, but she is not interested in chatting. Teenagers!

Faye and I recap our shopping trip later over Skinnylicious salads at The Cheesecake Factory. We were both impressed by the array of indie and K-beauty brands available at Riley Rose — the store is certainly not another Sephora or Ulta Beauty, plus the interior of the store is stylish and modern. But the digital componentry and the customer service could use some work. Then again, when you’re visiting a store for the thrill of the hunt — maybe that’s the point.

More from WWD Beauty: 

Undercover Shopper: Ulta Beauty

Beauty Undercover: Where the Upper East Side Primps for Party Season

Microneedling, Microcurrent: Millennials Turn to Antiaging Treatments