BEST PRACTICES TO SURVIVE COVID-19: Finding a new normal for Testers & Sampling

2020 . 06 . 05 | written by Karen Marin

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As shops around the world are starting to reopen following the COVID-19 crisis, retailers and brands are in a quandary as to how to present a hygienic environment to the consumer while also allowing the possibility to test and sample products. Fragrance, skincare and makeup are sensorial, tactile items that, on a global basis, people are accustomed to experiencing before buying. What solutions are on the horizon in a post-pandemic world?

A few days after the confinement ended in France, I ventured out to Galeries Lafayette on the Champs Elysées. This is the luxurious flagship store for the retailer, opened in Spring 2019. I had become used to opening my bag when entering a store, following the wave of terrorist attacks in the past few years. Now instead, the security guard directed me to an obligatory, clinical-looking bottle of hand sanitizer and pointed out reminders to respect social distancing rules. I had the feeling of being in a museum where you can’t touch anything, so I kept my hands in my coat pockets. With my mask correctly in place, I approached an equally masked sales associate to ask what the new protocol was to smell fragrances. Fortunately, testing a fragrance hadn’t changed much, except I had to ask for assistance in an open-sell store. After spraying disinfectant on the fragrance bottle I selected, the gloved associate spritzed a blotter which she handed to me. Obviously, I had to lower my mask to take a whiff and evaluate the scent for myself. I liked it enough to ask to try it on skin, so she sprayed a gentle mist on my wrist.

What this means, in my opinion, is that fragrance trial will become an assisted experience. It will certainly mean that salespeople will need to be well-versed and trained on the assortment carried by the shop. Retailers may want to consider creating a consultation space where novices can learn about fragrances and their preferences through a diagnostic scent test, while more knowledgeable consumers can discover or rediscover scents that intrigue them, accompanied by a “fragrance guide”. Clearly some shops are already doing this, and I can see it becoming the norm, even requiring an appointment which would alleviate consumer fears of crowded spaces and tackle store concerns for managing traffic. This will also elevate the rendezvous to a premium service in line with luxury goods and will create a reason to go to the store. If you apply the same ideas of the personal shopper in apparel, to fragrance, you can imagine a client pre-selecting a number of scents to smell, to which the sales associate can make additional suggestions, in line with the preferences indicated. This idea could be executed in perfumeries but also in dedicated spaces found in upscale department stores such as Harrod’s in London, Le Bon Marché in Paris and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, among others.

Skincare and makeup have a far greater challenge ahead of them. Testers are pretty much off limits now and are only for display. In some countries, the customer will be able to swipe a color on the back of their hand using a disposable applicator, but nothing can be applied to the face. Elsewhere it is forbidden to touch anything. Beauty has always been a high-touch department and now it is touchless. I was afraid to touch anything in Galeries Lafayette because I didn’t want to do the wrong thing. I wasn’t so much afraid to test products because I learned how to do it hygienically a million years ago when I worked behind the counter for Estee Lauder, who had strict standards. Now, however, it doesn’t even seem to be an option. I did buy a skincare product during this outing, but I knew what I wanted and I had to ask the salesperson to grab it for me.

A recent survey in the UK by First Insight found that 78% of the participants said they felt it was un-safe to use testers in stores. Breaking it down by age group, the Baby Boomers expressed the greatest concern while just over 50% of the millennials felt that way. Two thirds of the women said they would not feel safe working with a sales associate. This is daunting, and it means immediate fixes must be put into place. It is staggering to think about how brands with 40 shades of foundation and concealer to match will be able to test their ranges. The most obvious solution for makeup centers on AI technology such as “magic mirrors”. Several big brands, including L’Oréal and Sephora, have implemented these virtual tools into the store environment to permit virtual try-ons of foundation, blush, lipstick, eye shadow and other color cosmetics. The big positive is that it’s easy to try multiple products and shades rather quickly without irritating the skin in the application/removal process. Apps are on the rise as well because the consumer can use their own device rather than having to touch public ones. Tutorials in real time or pre-recorded are also good sources of information and inspiration.

Skincare is seeing the biggest boost from virtual consultations. Some brands and single-brand boutiques have enlisted the skills of their in-store teams to bring the service to the client in a screen to screen setting. The consumer can have a one-on-one consultation on her skincare needs and concerns. She can send a selfie for further clarification and receive truly personalized service. The luxury of having a private appointment in the comfort of your own home, coupled with tailored advice should be a win for both the consumer and the brand.

Alas, though virtual trial and advice are helpful in narrowing the product choices, they still lack major sensorial elements: feeling the texture, seeing the effect of the color and smelling the product. Here’s where sampling, a proven sales driver, comes in. Analysts and business insiders agree that going forward the options rest with single-dose packaging and automated dispensers. A few companies are investigating innovative solutions that will be effective, efficient and hygienic.

RPG (formerly Royal Promotion Group) is working on low-tech, low-touch dispensers which could be retrofitted into gondolas or placed on countertops. These free access units would allow the consumer to take a single-dose sample with or without assistance. As reported to WWD, the company is also working on single-use testing palettes that will be dispensed through a no-touch silo. This invention will allow the salesperson to apply the sample with a sanitary tool during a consultation. RPG hopes to have these units, and other in-store fixtures available in the next few months.

Arcade Beauty is responding to the new normal by adding to their roster of sampling with contact-free, single-dose options. With a large portfolio on offer, they were able to modify certain items to better meet the current criteria while favoring recyclable materials. Although fragrance has been their specialty, they have developed hermetically sealed samples which can be used for most color cosmetics products as well as skin care. Also in their arsenal are specially treated seals that can be applied directly to the lips to test shades, as well as silk-screened samples for powders which mimic the look and payoff of a compact. The seals may be used in store and in marketing vehicles including printed materials, and magazine inserts.

Like RPG, Arcade is also working on dispensers for individual scent strips and monodose pods. They have also partnered with Vengo, a leader in digital kiosk technology, to create a new in-store contactless sampling experience. When a customer walks past the kiosk they will see an intriguing video. They can then use their own mobile phone to interact with the kiosk which will dispense the sample requested. Since the customer will opt into the experience, brands and retailers will be able to re-engage with the customer and learn more about their likes and needs.

In fragrance, the customary vial-on-card and sofistics will still be appreciated and recognized for their generous size, branding and familiarity. However, sachets, scent seals and other single use options may be more economical in order to get the scent onto the wrists of the consumer. Brands are going to have to rethink their marketing budget and are highly likely to shift spend onto massive sampling programs. Will “spray girls” still be hovering as one enters the department, or will social media and sachets become the new norm?

Clearly, sampling is going through a renaissance, and the bottom line is that we know it works. Brands will need to react quickly and plan well in advance to secure the quantities needed since suppliers are facing an explosion in demand for these new formats. It remains to be seen how the concept of sustainability will figure into a world of individually wrapped samples.

Before closing, let’s revisit the idea of pre-planned trips to the store and the effects on CRM and building sales. In fragrance, makeup or skincare shopping scenarios, the consumer would pre-select the products of interest in advance of the appointment. On arrival, the salesperson should have the assortment ready along with additional complementary suggestions. The testing and sampling process should be pre-determined by the salesperson so the experience is seamless for the customer. CRM programs permitting, and they are crucial in the 21st century, the wise shop will update the customer’s profile with the selections, feedback, purchases and interests for future visits. Old style clientelling hasn’t gone away, it’s just become more advanced with the help of technology. And don’t forget to offer a sample as your customer leaves the shop!