If 2020 accelerated any trends in beauty, it’s that immersive, state-of-the-art technology is the industry’s best ally.
When stores closed due to the pandemic, brands and retailers engaged consumers via sophisticated augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications, simulating the real-life beauty counter with virtual makeup try-ons, how-to videos, live-streaming and beauty masterclasses.
“Covid has created a new level of intimacy created between retailers and clients,” Marla Beck, CEO and cofounder of Bluemercury.
“There is significant opportunity to drive technology to support this new consumer behavior.”
How Digital is Transforming Beauty
The shift to digital normalizes some of the more emergent technology that beauty retailers had been experimenting with for years, says Sarah Unger, partner and cofounder of Cultique, a cultural strategy firm, citing Google’s December launch of a makeup try-on tool via AR technology.
“In the past, this type of innovation had been more niche versus mass and ‘nice to have’ versus integral,” Unger says.
Virtual try-on capability has been a game changer for beauty retail, says Erin Schmidt, a beauty industry analyst at Coresight Research.
“Virtual reality takes the guesswork out of ‘what will this product look like on me?’ and it replaces in-store testers, which are obsolete due to Covid,” Schmidt says. “Consumers are able to experiment with hair colors, false eyelashes, different shades of lip colors and eye colors—all virtually.”
Digital is amplifying beauty, a relationship that works because beauty is a visual category, Schmidt notes.
“Beauty devotees love learning about new beauty, attributes, ingredients, tips and techniques on how to apply beauty products,” Schmidt says.
Beauty brands and retailers embracing the digital landscape are reaping the benefits.
“We have seen an acceleration to direct, online purchasing that isn’t going away,” says Beck of Bluemercury.
Case in point: the retailer’s virtual beauty masterclasses were a hit with customers—growing from one event per week to three to four events per week with more than 400 guests attending, Beck notes.
According to Bluemercury, several brands sold at the retailer experienced triple sales and double the average order value online following the classes.
“These tactics were initially aimed at educating customers from their homes as we typically would do in store, to help them feel comfortable making their purchases online,” Beck says. “We’ll continue to focus on [these] through 2021, as they’ve helped us in achieving huge growth in online sales.”
Ulta Beauty reported that consumer engagement for its GlamLab virtual try-on tool increased five times, with more than 19 million shade try-ons since the coronavirus outbreak.
In 2020, the retailer expanded GlamLab to offer virtual try-on of hair color, brows and lashes. Ulta Beauty also introduced Skin Analysis, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and AR technology to analyze skin and offer tips and product recommendations to address skin concerns like fine lines or redness, and Beauty Advisor, where shoppers can video chat and receive a one-on-one consultation with an Ulta Beauty expert.
“Ulta Beauty guests more than ever before are experiencing beauty through our innovative technology,” says Prama Bhatt, chief digital officer at Ulta Beauty. “We’ve seen incredible engagement with our virtual tools and guests are falling in love with new and fun ways to discover beauty favorites.”
At Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, the brand’s “Artistry Like Never Before” virtual program includes complimentary makeup and skincare video sessions, taught by Bobbi Brown artists. The sessions have seen a higher conversion rate of up to 10 times the average order, Schmidt said.
According to Rakuten Advertising, clicks in the beauty and personal care category on an advertisement or content within its affiliate network were up year over year, 2020 versus 2019, increasing 7% in Q1, 45% in Q2 and 56% in Q3.
Similarly, the firm tracked consistent growth seen through an increase in orders, placed using an affiliate link, in the beauty and personal care category, in the same year over year comparison: up 9% in Q1, 78% in Q2 and 30% in Q3. Rakuten Advertising works with more than 1,000 brands, including major beauty players like Sephora, Benefit Cosmetics and Peter Thomas Roth.
Given the stay-at-home order and consumers’ focus on skincare and wellness, brands that were able to pivot to skincare did “quite well,” says Mike Chin, senior vice president, client services at Rakuten Advertising.
Virtual consultations via Zoom became a viable selling technique, he says. “On top of that, brands are taking their in-house talent and making them into their own brand ambassadors—they know the product, they’re great with clients. [It’s] how do you bring this to where the customer is?”
At skincare brand Biossance, the focus this year is developing a more personalized shopping experience online.
One program, Clean Conversations, aims to replicate the one-on-one experience offered at the traditional beauty counter. In addition, the brand is launching monthly YouTube videos, based on most-requested topics, such as pregnancy-safe skincare and how to read ingredient labels. These will be hosted by skinfluencers like Hyram Yarbro.
“Brands need to offer a personalized experience that brings an elevated level of product expertise, curated recommendations and skincare education that one would receive in store to the comfort of consumers’ homes, on demand,” says Sheila Shekar Pollak, chief marketing officer at Biossance.
What the Future of Beauty Looks Like
Technology is becoming an integral part of beauty, therefore the digital bar is higher, says Hana Ben-Shabat, founder of Gen Z Planet and author of the upcoming book, “Gen Z 360.”
“We are seeing more brands using AR and VR with the aim of transforming the e-commerce experience and shifting their websites from being transactional platforms to experiential platforms,” says Ben-Shabat.
Yet, to truly create a seamless experience, Ben-Shabat suggests brands and retailers stop delineating between online and retail stores.
“We have a new generation of consumers, Gen Z, for whom this distinction doesn’t exist. They see a brand or a retailer as entities they can access through different touch points, physical and digital, and they expect the best experience in each of these: store, website, social media feed, etc.”
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