Beauty retail’s 2,000-pound gorilla is shaking up the subscription-box space.
Sephora is preparing to enter the already crowded market in September with its Play! By Sephora service. Since 2010, the estimated $20 million to $25 million field has become packed with players, led by Birchbox and followed by Beauty Army, Glossybox, Beautybar.com’s Sample Society, New Beauty’s TestTube, Sindulge, MyGlam and Goodebox.
But Sephora is Sephora, with the market muscle — and the brand relationships — that most of its competitors do not have. Take, for example, the first box: Two of the five products are from Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. brands — Glamglow and Bumble and bumble — while Sephora’s corporate siblings at parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton— Marc Jacobs Beauty, Ole Henriksen and Sephora Collection — round out the assortment. A competitor’s box is far more likely to be composed of lesser-known indie brands.
“We anticipate our entry will push the category to evolve as a whole, which is just another added benefit for consumers,” said Deborah Yeh, senior vice president of marketing and at Sephora.
But why now and not three years ago, when the box trend started taking off? “Subscriptions have always been on our list of new opportunities, and we chose to capitalize on it now because we have taken the time to give it a formula for success,” said Yeh of the $10-a-month boxes, which at launch will only be available to consumers in Boston and two Ohio cities, Cincinnati and Columbus, in an effort to smooth any glitches before going nationwide in 2016. “We knew to do things right and with true innovation, our initiatives cannot happen all at once. Play! By Sephora also fits in extremely well with our efforts to bring the fun back to beauty, which is reflected in the name. We want to encourage our customers to have fun with us, get messy, get excited and inspired, but also connect with a vibrant beauty community.”
Yeh noted that reaction from Sephora’s vendors about the new program has been positive. “Our brand partners are excited about this opportunity since it helps to get their product directly into the hands of new potential clients, along with everything they need — tips, education, and social and peer support — to correctly use it and have a positive experience,” said Yeh. “We are initiating the conversations with our brands and are working with them to find the right fit based on their launches and priorities. It’s a very collaborative process.”
“Sephora’s move into the subscription box category is an interesting one, reflective of the importance that so many great brands and retailers are placing on strategically reaching and influencing high prospect consumers in new and surprising ways,” said Peter Lichtenthal, global brand president of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and Bb. “Bumble and bumble’s decision to be part of the first box was a natural one. In today’s world of seemingly endless options, driving awareness and trial smartly and efficiently are more important than ever. We’re an innovative brand that is open to trying new ideas with great, like-minded partners, whether that’s a retail partner like Sephora, or a salon partner.”
Zach Rieken, global general manager of Bb, noted that the brand has seen success in being a part of these vehicles. “Bumble and bumble has been in select other box programs, as well,” he said. “Chosen correctly, they’re great vehicles for increasing trial of our products and awareness of our hairdressing story. We’ve also used these programs to drive people to our network salons, which is always a priority for us, by promoting our Network Salon Locator in Birchbox. We know that Bumble and bumble has an extremely high trial-to-purchase rate. The more that people become aware of Bumble and bumble and try our products, the more new and loyal customers we bring to our brand and to our salons.”
Another major strength that Sephora possesses is deep insight into what sells and what doesn’t, both online and in bricks-and-mortar. “We have extensive research available about what products our clients buy together, what they like, and they want, so we try to put together a mix of must-haves and new items to try,” said Yeh. “We also want to make sure the product mix is compatible with the stories we’re communicating to our clients at the store level.”
In what might be an early read on consumer enthusiasm for Play! By Sephora, bloggers trumpeted the move in cyberspace Friday, with My Subscription Addiction’s Liz Cadman calling it “amazing subscription box news!” and Styleblazer’s Anna Quintana called it “a move that seemed only a matter of time in the making.”
Consumers can sign up to be notified when the service will be available in their area on sephora.com/play.
“Less than 5 percent [of consumers] go to a beauty box to make their [product] choice,” Karen Grant, vice president and global industry analyst at the NPD Group Inc., noted in December. “[But] those who receive a box are highly influenced to buy. Over 90 percent of [consumers] will buy a product from it.”
Which makes it clear that it was only a matter of time before Sephora entered the fray. The question now is which existing subscription box services it might squeeze out.