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Undercover Shopper: Ulta Beauty

WWD’s mass-market beauty editor, Ellen Thomas, hits Gotham’s new Ulta store to see how the Midwest-based chain rates with Millennial Manhattanites.

Growing up in Indianapolis, I was never much of an Ulta shopper. As a teen beauty consumer in the early Aughts, I picked up my Tony + Tina and Delux Beauty glitter lip glosses and Benefit pineapple body scrub — likely purchased with a combination of babysitting money and bat mitzvah savings — at Sephora, whose brand assortment better catered to my burgeoning penchant for luxury goods. Ulta was known as the store where my mom replenished her Redken color-safe shampoo.

But when Ulta opened its very first Manhattan outpost in late October, I was more than happy to make the trek to the Upper East Side to play a “real” beauty shopper. Plus, Ulta has changed since I last entered a store — with chief executive officer Mary Dillon at the helm, prestige makeup now comprises the majority of Ulta’s business today, and I was curious to see how much the look and feel of the physical store was different from the more utilitarian one I once knew.

I make my journey to the southwest corner of East 86th Street and Third Avenue at around 4:30 p.m. on a Friday. Upon entering the sprawling and brightly lit white box, it hits me that I have no strategy or list for this supposed shopping expedition. Since I’m not sure what I’m looking for just yet, I decide to take a loop around the store first to get my bearings.

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The prestige makeup selection is vast and comprises probably an entire third, if not almost half, of the store. MAC Cosmetics and Benefit fixtures are the first things one sees upon entering. In an interview, chief merchandising officer Dave Kimbell told me the store’s assortment is reflective of the company’s business, so an overpowering prestige makeup section makes sense.

As I weave through the congested makeup aisles — passing Benefit, Urban Decay, It Cosmetics, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Nars, Clinique, Lancôme and Estée Lauder to name a few — it dawns on me that I probably could use a new foundation or concealer. An unsightly blemish had surfaced on my chin that week, and my lone bottle of Giorgio Armani foundation had long since disappeared in one of my many travel makeup bags.

Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of brands available to browse, I spot a familiar sight — a towering shelving unit piled with Mario Badescu rosewater sprays — and make a beeline for it. Skin care is my safe space — about 90 percent of the products I own fall into the category, and it’s definitely the area of beauty where I feel most knowledgeable.

Ulta’s skin-care section is pretty dinky compared to the rest of the place. After dodging a roving sales associate hawking samples of a Strivectin cream, I’m perusing the Dermadoctor offerings when another sales associate approaches. She tells me if I spend $150 with the brand, I will receive for free two full-size products meant to treat keratosis pilaris. I tell her I do not suffer from this specific skin condition.

“It looks like you’re breaking out,” she says. This is true, but I’m somewhat annoyed she pointed it out. She recommends two products — the Ain’t No Misbehavin’ Intensive Sulfur Acne Mask and Emergency Spot Treatment combined with the Medicated Acne Control Serum, both about $50 each. She explains that they will work together to “dig down deep” and “blast” the spot off my chin. I tell her I am skeptical of acne products from beauty brands, and tend to only use the hard stuff that my dermatologist prescribes. She is incredulous. “It’s a real blaster — it has two percent salicylic in it,” she says, shaking her head at me. Another sales associate chimes in, confirming that the product will indeed blast acne away.

I’m still not convinced, so I tell her I’ll think about it — fully intending to not come back — and move on. I am on my way back to makeup when I spot another familiar pink item on the Mario Badescu fixture — the brand’s signature drying lotion. I vaguely remember using this product years ago and it at least somewhat working. And at $17, it’s a much better deal than the Dermadoctor. I pick one up and move on to makeup.

My strategy with makeup counters is to choose an artist who appears to be wearing the least amount — as someone who counts clear brow gel as their favorite makeup item, finding an artist who understands my “no makeup makeup” aesthetic is key. Unfortunately, this is not to be the case at Ulta — a quick survey of the scene proves that most of the associates, even at Clinique which is usually a safe bet, appear to be graduates of the Instagram school of beauty.

There are no traditional counters at Ulta, but some brands have bigger fixtures and more dedicated space than others — Clinique, for example, has its own fixture and a large amount of space on the wall, plus its own sales associate decked out in a white coat. Chairs are placed at the end of each aisle, presumably for makeup applications — but the setup makes it confusing to ascertain which sales associate belongs to which brand.

The other issue is that almost every sales associate in the makeup section is dealing with another customer. I decide to browse until I’m spotted.

I study the Lancôme options and am tempted by the Bienfait Teinté BB Cream sitting beside a row of makeup remover bottles — the shiny white packaging and promise of an antioxidant-infused formula appeal to my inner stereotypical Millennial. But after testing it on my hand, I deem the coverage too sheer to hide the inflammation on my chin. I move on to the wall, where I’m disappointed by how dated the rest of the brand’s foundation options appear — everything looks like it was made with a much older woman in mind. On to the next.

I wander toward the front of the store, not sure which brand to check out next. I am distracted by a blown-up photo adorning the It Cosmetics wall of Jamie Kern Lima’s signature before-and-after look, when I am approached by a friendly, blue-haired sales associate. “Are you familiar with It Cosmetics?” she asks. “No,” I say. This is a lie. “But I think I’ve seen that woman on QVC.” “Oh yes,” the sales associate says with enthusiasm. “She’s our founder. She won like, ‘entrepreneur of the year,’ or something this year. She’s amazing.” I nod solemnly. “Wow,” I say.

The sales associate asks if I’m looking for anything in particular, and I tell her I rarely wear foundation or concealer, but I am breaking out and need something new ASAP. She leads me to an open seat, and begins telling me about the various foundations within It Cosmetics. After determining that no shade in the Your Skin But Better CC+ Illumination range — my first choice — is right for my skin tone, we settle on two items to test — the Bye Bye Lines Foundation and the Bye Bye Redness Correcting Cream. She applies both to my face with brushes, using the correcting cream as a concealer. As she works, she tells me that It Cosmetics is not a makeup brand — rather, it is a skin-care brand with makeup benefits. “Huh,” I say. It looks like makeup to me.

Once they’re on, I actually like both the foundation and correcting cream, but I know myself and know there’s zero chance of me applying the two together at home. Instead, I decide to buy the correcting cream and a concealer brush to use with it — because it is part of a line that is exclusive to Ulta, it is only $16, which seems like a steal for a good-quality makeup brush.

“Do you want the rest of your makeup done?” asks the sales associate, who reminds me that it is Friday night and I should be wearing makeup. She has a point, so I let her go to town, and I end up with a full face, including eyebrow pencil, mascara, blush, highlighter, lipstick and gloss. “I want to invite you to an event we’re having here next Saturday,” my new makeup artist friend says, lowering her voice conspiratorially as I am about to walk away in my new look. “It’s next Saturday — a lot of our It Cosmetics family will be here.”

Armed with this knowledge, I make my way toward the cash wrap, where I am deterred by a long line of about 20 people. I kill time looking at various body scrubs from Rituals and Cowshed, which I believe is Soho House’s beauty brand. I am disappointed that there are no testers available to smell the products, but one of the Rituals scrubs boasts Himalayan pink sea salt in its formula. I know Himalayan pink sea salt is supposed to be detoxifying, and I feel compelled to buy this body scrub. It is $29, which seems expensive for a body scrub, but at this point I’ve been inside Ulta for over an hour and am starting to feel compelled to buy a lot of things.

At the cash wrap, the long line goes by shockingly quick. I barely have time to distract myself with the travel-sized items placed conveniently across from the cashiers. In fact, I am still pondering whether I need a mini bottle of micellar water for an upcoming trip when I’m called to the register. After spending around $100 for my four items and unwittingly signing up for the “Ultamate Rewards” loyalty program by giving my name and e-mail address at checkout — I now belong to an exclusive but growing club of over 25 million members — I walk out of the store in a daze. On my way, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror. In the glare of Ulta’s bright white lights, the highlighting powder is far too holographic for my liking and I am concerned that I might look Tin Man-esque. But later, in the dim light of a restaurant bathroom, I look subtly radiant. Jamie Kern Lima is onto something.