On a December evening in the college town of Okemos, Mich., the local mall was a whir of activity as students hurried to pick up last-minute holiday gifts. Cars circled the parking lot looking for open spaces and customers waited, mostly patiently, in line at cash wraps. But at the west end of the mall, the beauty department of Macy’s was, well…pretty empty. To the right, the shoe section bustled; on the left, chatty associates showed the newest Dooney & Bourke bag to eager customers. But smack-dab in the center of the store, the fragrance-spritzing, sample-offering beauty consultants failed to attract a crowd. Shoes and purses are enticing, but how do department stores make shopping for beauty an equally exciting experience for Millennials?

That question is particularly top of mind as growth has slowed in prestige skin care, according to The NPD Group. As of last November, sales remained flat compared with the prior year. Brands and retailers looking to jump-start the market have set their sights on Millennials by launching lifestyle-oriented products and evolving the in-store service model. The appeal of the generation is well documented: Largely defined as those between the ages of 19 and 34, it numbers around 87 million people who are said to control about $200 billion in spending power.

Makeup marketers like MAC have already effectively attracted them. Now, skin care is following suit. This spring, a host of brands are launching products targeted to Millennials to address the first signs of aging caused by lifestyle issues like stress, late nights and probably a few too many happy hours.

Market research shows that skin care is an appealing category for Millennials. According to a study by AlixPartners, they spend 19 percent of their total health and beauty budget on the category, as opposed to 11 percent on cosmetics and 7 percent on fragrance. However, only 5 percent of Millennial women regularly purchase skin care in a department store, according to the 2014 WSL How America Shops survey.

At issue, says WSL’s chief executive officer, Wendy Liebmann, is the shopping experience. “There’s a sense of structure in department stores that is less appealing to Millennials,” she says. “Retailers need to be much more supportive as opposed to hard sell. It needs to be a much more collaborative [selling style] than confrontational. The selling attitude needs to be less about the immediate transaction and more about building the relationship.”

First and foremost, Millennials expect a different approach to service. Rather than rely on beauty advisers, they step into stores armed with information they have culled from the Web. Liebmann says that 38 percent of Millennials pre-shop, more than any other generation.

“More of the Millennial customers understand products and have done research on the Internet before they start shopping,” says Howard Kreitzman, Bloomingdale’s vice president of cosmetics and fragrances. “In many cases, she knows exactly what she wants. In some cases, she has a really good idea and wants a little advice and direction.”

Kreitzman also notes that this consumer is skin-care savvy. “Younger women are aware of and interested in skin care in a way that was not the case some years ago,” he says.

But there are differences. Marketers are positioning skin care as lifestyle oriented rather than performance based. Product descriptions include phrases like “life’s daily stresses,” “erratic schedules” and “quarter-life skin” to telegraph the message that they’re tailor-made for Millennials.

“What you need is something for the first signs of aging, which are hard to define,” says Kara Langan, vice president of global marketing for Elizabeth Arden. “Those first signs of aging, you wake up one morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘Wow. I might not be getting enough sleep. I don’t remember my skin looking like that.’”

Brand communication is also undergoing a seismic shift. When Shiseido launched Ibuki, a seven-item line aimed at Millennials, it found that traditional skin-care advertising featuring a large face next to a stack of statistics just didn’t resonate.

“The initial ad visuals were understated, a bit static,” says Heidi Manheimer, ceo of Shiseido Cosmetics America. “This year, we will revamp the imagery so that it better reflects and excites [this consumer]. The new images are more visually dynamic, they are playful with a bolder copy statement in her language.”

Marketers say it’s important not to overwhelm Millennials with a lot of products because the idea of a lengthy skin-care routine is uncharted territory. “Her regimen is pretty basic—cleanser, moisturizer—and there’s a chance she’s doing the same thing she was doing in high school,” says Langan.

When Arden launched Flawless Future, its goal was to gain a new, younger customer. Much of the progress was made through digital channels, particularly social media platforms like Instagram. “It’s about being as omnichannel as we can—being on social media, where she’s looking for information in the first place,” says Langan.

For its part, La Prairie completely revamped its Web site in early 2014 when it launched the Cellular Swiss Ice Crystal collection. The new site offered brand history, a skin-care advice tool and videos. With two new products launching this quarter, La Prairie has refined the online experience. “Users can personalize the way in which they engage with the products,” says Elizabeth Lamont, vice president of marketing at La Prairie. 

Changes are needed in the store environment as well. “[Millennials want] to have a facial, to have aromatherapy, to have some kind of skin-care service done, even just an evaluation of their skin type and the kinds of products they need,” says Liebmann. 

Already, Arden offers limited spa services and Shiseido invites customers back with gift cards for facials. But such changes only mark the beginning of what it will take to lure Millennials away from retailers like Sephora. “They are definitely much more likely to be in specialty stores, but we are seeing that they will shop almost any channel,” says Karen Grant, senior global beauty industry analyst for NPD. “It means that the competition for their attention is fiercer.”

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