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Nordstrom Inc. is giving its beauty departments a fresher, more contemporary look designed to give customers more individualized ways to shop.

This story first appeared in the November 22, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Unveiled at stores in the California shopping centers The Americana at Brand in Glendale and The Shops at Mission Viejo and expanding to a total of nine doors by January, the most dramatic modifications are to color cosmetics areas, where customers are encouraged to shop how they want, whether it is on their own by opening drawers brimming with makeup or with guidance from staff dedicated to specific brands or brand agnostic. Nordstrom is also simplifying beauty shopping by breaking down its vast selection by trend and key product no matter what brand, and offering shoppers access to beauty concierges, trial sizes and applications, consultations and other services so they can more fully experience the products.

The refreshed approach recognizes that the traditional behind-the-counter model of selling beauty products doesn’t work for everyone. Acknowledging Sephora and e-commerce have impacted shopping for beauty products, Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising for Nordstrom, said, “The best ingredient to success is to be reflective of what the customers are interested in. Customers evolve and change over time, not only in regards to the product, but how they like to be served. In the beauty segment, there is an opportunity to serve the customer in a different and a better way. We have to allow our stores to be able to evolve to be able to appeal to customers, not just to legacy customers, but to our new customers.”

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After working with her predecessor Laurie Black, who retired in April, to identify improvements that could enrich the beauty departments, Gemma Lionello, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of cosmetics at Nordstrom, is spearheading their rollout to Nordstrom doors. During a tour of the Nordstrom beauty department at The Americana at Brand, she walked through the process of updating the beauty departments, which included conducting focus groups with customers and building a mock-up of the tweaked beauty department in Tukwila, a suburb of Seattle, where Nordstrom is headquartered. Beauty brands reported Nordstrom shared the research it did with them to buttress the adjustments that would be made to beauty departments.

“Our main objective is to heighten and enhance our service experience for our customers and really give the customers the opportunity to shop beauty on their own terms,” said Lionello. “We worked with our customers and actually took their advice about what they would like to see in a perfect beauty environment and also brought in our salespeople to the [mock-up at the] customer-experience center, so we had them work together with the customers. We’ve taken the best from both worlds and tried to roll it out into this new concept.”

Many of the elements of the new concept are grouped into what Lionello called the core of the beauty department. At the core, customers will find a mini must-haves section, a trend zone, beauty concierge, end caps that showcase a range of products from the brands in important categories such as mascara and primer and beauty stylists that provide expertise from across the array of brands in the department. Talking about the mini must-haves section, Lionello explained that it features an assortment updated about once a month of “what’s really hot in beauty” in trial sizes “because a lot of our customers want the opportunity to buy a new product without committing to that product for three months.”

The trend zone spotlights products from several brands that give customers the ability to try a trend they might have seen on the runway or in magazines. For example, the trend zone has focused on the bordeaux lip, the graphic eye and nail art. The end caps reveal the diversity of products that Nordstrom has available in popular beauty categories. In the end cap for mascara, Lionello pointed out, “You’ve got the lengthen, you’ve got the all-in-one, the volumize, the curl, and it’s across all brands, hopefully helping the customer navigate some of these categories that sometimes can be daunting for her. A lot of customers want to know across brands. You want to know all your mascaras, not just this one brand or that one brand, so this really gives her that knowledge.”

The beauty concierges and beauty stylists are likewise not obligated to stick to a particular brand. “If you’re new to beauty or you’re a little intimated, you can come in and talk to our concierge and ask whatever question you may have,” said Lionello. There are two concierges at The Americana at Brand store and two stylists as well. In general, Lionello estimated there would usually be one or two per door of each within the new beauty department concept. Of the beauty stylists, Lionello remarked, “All of our employees are allowed to sell across brands, and we encourage them to do so, but some customers just prefer to have that person that’s not attached to a brand, so this is one more point of difference for us to give her that opportunity.”

Louis Desazars, chief executive officer of Nars, argued it’s a great idea to have employees in the stores that aren’t committed to individual brands. “Their opinion should not be skewed and should be very genuine to what they believe is the right product for the customer. If they’re true to that, the concept will be very successful,” he asserted. Discussing the beauty stylists in particular, he continued, “I have met a few of them. They are people who are strong in terms of artistry. Most of the time they have a makeup artist background. What drives their recommendations is what they believe is right for the customer and what they have a passion for in terms of product. I think it was a very smart move for Nordstrom.”

Moving from the core of the beauty department to color cosmetics brand presentations, Nordstrom eliminated barriers that maintain a distance between customers and beauty products. There are still brand salespeople present to field inquiries and give advice about products, and chairs and mirrors for makeup application, but the displays themselves communicate clearly about products so customers don’t have to engage the salespeople if they don’t want to, and they can handle products without assistance. “Its much more approachable and friendly. We started opening up our counters in beauty in 1998, so now we are just heightening it and taking it to the next level,” said Lionello. “It’s all about making it playful and fun.”

Alicia Valencia, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bobbi Brown, said the brand’s staff is trying to strike the right tone for the new Nordstrom beauty concept. “You don’t want to come off as being too aggressive. The whole idea is for a customer to have no pressure and shop on her own time, but you also don’t want the customer to think that there is no assistance,” she said. “You have to know whether the customer does not want to have a makeup lesson today. You can give her something quick for her to do in five minutes or invite her to come back another day.” In order to effectively guide customers who’d like to avoid salespeople completely, Bobbi Brown put a foundation chart on its displays to enable those customers to navigate shades themselves.

Skin-care brands placed highly communicative displays in the new Nordstrom beauty department, too. Kate Somerville’s displays plainly spell out the different categories of the brand’s products, such as acne or antiaging, highlight bestsellers and products that editors are keen on, and have iPads to use for skin diagnosis. “Everything that we have done is designed to simplify and make the shopping experience easier, and make it very obvious to the customer to find the solution they are looking for. No matter how someone wants to shop our line, we are providing that information to them,” said Michelle Taylor, ceo of Kate Somerville. “It’s easy for a customer to shop unassisted, and it’s easy for the customer to shop with the skin-health expert who is our beauty adviser in the store.”

Although The Americana at Brand store doesn’t have Nordstrom’s full complement of beauty services, it does have what Aveda dubs an experience center. Martin Kaufmann, general manager for North America at Aveda, said, “We have built into the locations a styling chair. It is really a chair where you sit down, and you have a mirror. You can try products out, and they will be explained to you. It is really a consultation chair.…We see absolutely great engagement.” Building upon its service model, Nordstrom is installing a service area it has named Oasis in the new beauty departments. Oasis is a space where brands “could just do mini services on the floor, like a blowout or nails or mini facials,” said Lionello. “Again, we’re trying to give that experience across all brands to our customers and really opening up for our salespeople to serve the customer in the way she wants to be served.”

Even as Nordstrom adopts some open-sell methods, brands are adamant that those methods not detract from the department store’s strong service component. Alexandre Choueiri, general manager of International Designer Collections at L’Oréal USA Luxe, a division that includes Giorgio Armani Beauty and YSL Beauty, said, “We understand the importance of limiting the barriers and increasing customer’s engagement and access to merchandise. However, this can only work as long as we upgrade the level service around open sell. Luxury buyers are, of course, after freedom of choice, but they also consistently ask for more brand expertise, more educated staff on our brands, better service around the products, etc. We do not see open sell as a winning model by itself for our brands.”

If there are fears that sales will dip at the new Nordstrom beauty departments, Valencia suggested they are unfounded. She said that Bobbi Brown was concerned that sales of its skin care, which requires more assistance than color cosmetics, might drop if fewer customers received assistance from salespeople, but the opposite has been the case. “We actually had double-digit growth in skin care, and that was a testament to the system being easy to navigate,” she said. Overall, she added, “We have seen a nice increase in business since we put in this installation.” Valencia reasoned the increase might be because “you can really service multiple customers easier than a traditional environment, which is one-on-one.”

Nordstrom’s cosmetics business generated revenues of $1.255 billion in 2012, $1.106 billion in 2011 and $972 million in 2010. For those years, its revenues amounted to 11 percent, 11 percent and 10 percent of Nordstrom’s net sales, respectively. Those percentages made it the fifth-largest segment at Nordstrom following women’s apparel, shoes, men’s apparel and women’s accessories.

Napoleon Perdis, whose namesake cosmetics brand is carried at select Nordstrom doors, believes Nordstrom’s new beauty concept will boost performance because it creates a better, more relaxed environment to shop in. “The future of cosmetics is in subtle differences that allow you to feel like you are at home. The concept doesn’t meander you too much. You can quickly know where things are. There was a period where retailers tried to get you to meander everywhere,” he said, emphasizing, “Department stores are as relevant today as they were. They just need to go through changes and this Nordstrom store [with the new beauty department] embraces those changes.”

Desazars and Kaufmann agree the new beauty department has a bright future at Nordstrom. Desazars said, “The department store needs to evolve as the consumer embraces new ways of shopping. Their new concept is based on the feedback they received from consumers, and I think it will only help us and them be more successful.” And Kaufmann concluded, “I am very confident that it is a move in the right direction for Nordstrom.”


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