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The Potential Impact of Change: In-Store Beauty Testing

Reworking the system may have unintended consequences, affecting the environment.

In-store beauty product testing will be a thing of the past, according to David Chung, founder of iLabs.

“It’s going to disappear completely,” predicted Chung. “Nobody is going to go to a retail store and put their finger into something someone else touched.”

His New Jersey-based lab, which innovates beauty products for companies, has been exploring alternative options.

“We’re getting lots of requests on sampling programs,” he continued.

The solution is for retailers to offer buyers individual product samples to try in-store or at home, he said. The lab is working on providing companies items for “one-time samples” and “one-week trials.”

From mass market retailers to niche boutiques, the beauty industry is restructuring the in-store experience to meet new safety guidelines. Since reopening in a limited capacity, shops have introduced more cleanings, disposable masks for sales associates, hand sanitizers and contactless payments. When it comes to testers, giants such as Ulta Beauty and Sephora are turning to technology.

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At Sephora, customers are encouraged to use its app’s “virtual artist” and “shade finder” features to try on products digitally, Sephora said in a statement to WWD.

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“Since our stores began reopening in May, testers and in-store services have been temporarily suspended as we work to create the safest in-store environment possible,” the company noted. “Some jurisdictions currently only allow retailers to display unopened products. Where local ordinance allows, we have sample products for display only, and our beauty advisers are able to assist clients by swatching these products on their own hands and wrists or on clear Plexi palettes, available at select stores.”

The message is similar at Ulta Beauty, which directs buyers to its equivalent app feature, the “GlamLab.” In stores, “display only” stickers are placed on product testers, shared Ozzie Sanchez, merchandising service coordinator at its Westwood location in Los Angeles.

“No one is able to test product right now,” Sanchez said. “But people still want to try them out.”

Virtual beauty apps aren’t for everyone. And for cosmetics like foundation, he’s noticed that consumers have been purchasing several shades to try at home, then returning whatever doesn’t work out. They have up to six months (an extension during the pandemic) to return the used products, which are then “destroyed.” Sephora, too, offers returns of “gently used” products (though it’s within 30 days of purchase for in-store buys and 60 days for those made on, which “go in the garbage,” shared a Sephora employee.

The lack of in-store testers may mean more product returns, which already greatly contribute to waste. About 5 billion pounds of retail returns end up in landfills every year, according to technology company Optoro, which works with retailers to “keep returns in the economy” (through management and reselling) instead of landfills. While that system works for sectors like electronics, it’s not as doable in cosmetics for health and safety reasons. But businesses like Returnly, whose clients include sun-care brand Supergoop, offer something new: customers keep products for free, and instead of returning items, they’re offered store credit (hoping individuals indeed keep or donate the items).

Still, there’s a recycling issue with the individual product samples themselves, due to their small size.

“Most likely, they won’t be recycled,” said Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle. The company helps brands (from L’Oréal to indies like Ilia Beauty) and retailers (Sephora, Ulta, Credo and Clean Beauty) deal with hard to recycle materials.

It’s not a technical issue, it’s an economic one, Szaky explained: “The cost is more for smaller items than bigger items. If they are smaller, they don’t get sorted out in recycling centers.”

The organizations behind America’s blue bins (for recyclables) don’t have the necessary funding to pay the extra cost of recycling smaller materials, anything less than 2 by 2 inches, he added.

Some smaller retailers are keeping testers in back rooms but allowing shoppers to use them. At The Detox Market, which specializes in clean cosmetics and skin care, only employees can touch the testers. Staffers share contents on sterilized palettes with customers, who are then able to use them. At Credo Clean Beauty, which also supplies nontoxic beauty, testers are out and available for shoppers.

Each sample is meticulously sanitized between every use, said Sasha Wordlaw, an aesthetician at its West Third Street location in L.A. The store is only allowing four customers inside at a time. “We’re very careful.”