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Lyn Kirby Focuses on Consumers, Fragrance

Ulta CEO Lyn Kirby discussed issues impacting beauty, including the importance of making an emotional connection with consumers.

Lyn Kirby, the chief executive officer of Ulta, delved into three issues impacting beauty: the emotional connection to consumers, the thought that marketers, not customers, shape the market and the opportunities to boost the sales and profitability of fragrance.

Kirby, who was the architect of Ulta’s unique mix of mass and class, said it is time to zero in on the emotional connection to “our teams” and identifying causes that transcend financial goals and help positively impact women’s lives. Inspired by Evelyn Lauder’s link to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Kirby and her team created Windows of Love at Ulta where customers and team members told their own stories of fighting breast cancer. The letters were displayed in six miles of store windows and Ulta raised more than $600,000 for the cause.

Kirby, who will depart Ulta next year, has been talking up the importance of the “experience” since arriving at Ulta 10 years ago. She has seen her vision “twist and turn” in many ways. “[Her team] executed ideas that never would have crossed my mind — from operational ideas to design ideas, to event ideas, but all of them focused on delivering an experience that would make a woman feel uplifted and make her feel good about herself,” Kirby said.

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Beauty executives can be proactive in shaping sales, she suggested. “As leaders in the beauty industry today, we have no choice but to create change. [Our customer] is changing constantly and she demands that we change with her and for her,” she said.

Kirby noted that the industry has been trained to pore over transaction data. However, she believes it takes more to really understand the psyche of shopper. Kirby selected a suburb to live in when she took over the helm at Ulta so she could really know her market. She hired young associates who reflected the shoppers she coveted for Ulta and paired them with the seasoned Ulta execs who knew how to manage data. The result was an effort to take the intimidation out of beauty shopping. “We shaped the marketing, we shaped our value proposition, we shaped our real estate strategy, we shaped our store culture and we shaped them in a manner that we believe through our gut and our instincts would appeal to this broader group of women, she said.

She also believes in reinventing the fragrance business by getting closer to consumers. “The fragrance category must be a focus for us,” she said while admitting sales have been a “trouble spot” for the industry. “I think we as an industry need to shift the paradigm through which we are viewing this category.”

Most shoppers, she reasoned, don’t think of the channel where they buy; they recall the experience. “I believe that the fragrance industry can introduce the same number of fragrances and make more money if we shift one simple paradigm,” she said. She elaborated by noting the competition for fragrance isn’t from retailer to retailer or vendor to vendor, but with other categories such as accessories. She envisions a business where celebrities perhaps donate time to inspire sales and suppliers donate products to provide as gifts to enhance the allure of scents.