When Bridget Dolan breezed into the Sephora store on San Francisco’s Powell Street on a recent Thursday afternoon, her iPhone lit up. This happens a lot—anytime she passes within a few feet of a Sephora store, really, which in her role as the beauty emporium’s vice president of digital marketing is often.
A notification on her phone’s screen informed Dolan that she had a Sephora gift card with a bunch of loyalty points—more than 7,000—to spend on goop and glitz. Detecting her proximity to the store, the Sephora app on her iPhone had triggered Passbook, Apple’s coupon and ticket storing app, to remind her. “I like to think of Passbook as a magnet to pull clients into the store,” she said. “Suddenly, I’m like, ‘I have a red-hot gift card at Sephora I forgot about.’”
It’s one of the many ways the makeup company, which is owned by the luxury goods giant LVMH, is using technology to draw in customers and make them spend more time with it, whether in person or online. “We didn’t want to just put technology in here that’s flashy,” she said, gesturing around a store that was humming with the sounds of pop music and filled with cubicle-dwellers trying out new looks on their lunch breaks. “We want to integrate technology into our shopping experience in a way that’s additive and doesn’t go against the grain of the way someone would want to shop.”
Bypassing a battalion of blush, Dolan sidled up to a kiosk and lightly tapped on its display. This is the Sensa kiosk, she said—one of three interactive screens that help Sephora customers pick out the right product for them, with or without the assistance of a “cast member,” the company’s name for its staffers.
Sephora uses Sensa as a tool to select fragrances, the business on which the chain was founded. The kiosk starts with general questions—do you want to smell like flowers or fruit?—and continues refining choices based on your previous answers. Think of it as Amazon’s recommended reading algorithm, but for smelling good. Last year, Sephora installed Sensa in all of their more than 1,700 stores last year, Dolan said. “We love that technology so much that we bought the company,” she said, “and we’ll continue to enhance the experience.”
Dolan strode past the bevy of perfume bottles surrounding Sensa and stopped at another interactive display, this one for skin care products. The device works in a similar way to the fragrance kiosk, but also pulls in reviews of products from users and experts, plus more data mined from Sephora’s website. “It helps to have the best of what’s amazing online—the search and sort filters, what are the best sellers, what’s top rated?” she said. “The whole idea for us is that it’s unbiased. If you picked this product and said, ‘Give me products that work with it,’ the products that work with it aren’t necessarily from that brand.”
Dolan saved her favorite marriage—of makeup and machinery—for last. She cleared a path to the center of the store, where a third kiosk, smaller than the rest, sat adjacent to a well-lit mirror. This one, which Sephora calls Color IQ, uses a hand-held capture device that calibrates to each client’s visage and maps out their skin color on a range of 1,500 different hues. Every bit the director in the day’s production, Dolan flagged down a cast member to try it out on me. Two swipes over my face and neck—”You have really nice skin,” the young woman said—and Color IQ gave me the designation of 5y05 (“y” as in yellow; there’s also “r” for red) and an array of foundations and concealers that match that code.
The goal of the system is to cut down on a traditionally tedious process. “The average woman buys seven foundations before she finds the right one,” Dolan said. “Not only is she looking for the right color, it might be, ‘Oh I don’t want to spend $65.’ It really is the right product, the right formulation, and the right shade.’”
And once you’ve found the perfect scent, skin care products, and shades with which to makeup your face, Sephora has yet another tool it wants you to use: Beauty Board, a feature within its smartphone app and on its website that functions like an in-house Instagram. Dolan scrolled through some of the latest posts: one featured gold glitter eyeliner; another, coral-colored cheeks. With Beauty Board, customers and staffers can upload photos of their freshly-done faces and tag products so others can emulate their look. Selfies, it turns out, are very much Sephora’s friend.
“Ultimately the idea will be that a cast member will say ‘Hey, do you want me to take a picture of your makeover with your phone?,’” Dolan said, stopping on a photo of a twentysomething woman with turquoise eyeshadow. “Now you can look at that and say, ‘Oh, this is the product I should use to get that look,’ instead of going through all the trial and error.”
With that, Dolan ducked away to spend some of her 7,000 points, consulting her phone to see what makeup staples she needed to refill. She hadn’t put down her phone the half hour we’d spent in the store, which, it turns out, is behavior Sephora expects and even encourages. “You can use your phone, we want you to take it out in our store,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us, for sure.”
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