2020 . 06 . 12 | written by Karen Marin

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During confinement consumers all over the world turned to online shopping while stores were shuttered. Their first purchases were mostly limited to basic necessities, such as food and health products, and then the focus shifted to upping the comfort of their home with technology, fitness and décor items. Once these priorities were taken care of shoppers looked to beauty, fashion and affordable luxuries to soothe their spirit. Even those who weren’t familiar with online shopping quickly adapted in order to satisfy their shopping fix. Although this newfound confidence has bolstered eCommerce, the increased online sales are not offsetting the missed volume generated by physical stores. The concern now is that consumers will not return right away to the shops once they reopen, whether due to fear, unease, or a new preference for the convenience of e-shopping. What effects will a post-lockdown world have on our shopping behavior? How will the online & offline environment evolve? Will one triumph over the other?

As shops open their doors across the world, the consumer needs to embrace a whole new set of rules. Is it necessary to wear a mask? Is hand sanitizer offered? Is it permitted to touch merchandise? What is the protocol for testing? And it all varies by country. Stores in Germany and Italy initially reported that shoppers hesitated to enter because they weren’t sure what to do. A report in the UK indicates more than half of those surveyed will not visit beauty stores in the first week of opening, with over two-thirds of the respondents admitting they will buy more beauty online after the lockdown is lifted. Consumer confidence in the US has stabilized in May, though the crisis has resulted in an unprecedented wave of retailer bankruptcies and over 40 million people on unemployment. In France, large department stores were given the green light to reopen as of May 28th, though most shops welcomed the public back as of May 11th. The boutiques were busy over the May bank holiday weekend as consumers came out to test the waters. Analysts are predicting that in general, consumers will venture out to small boutiques and shops first before entering larger spaces such as department stores and malls.
Against this backdrop consumers are exhibiting cautionary behavior. In fragrance and beauty, there is a new definition of what is truly essential vs what would be nice to have. The obligatory mask is stimulating sales in the eye makeup category at the expense of lips. Fragrance house Givaudan conducted a poll In France and the US in which women aged 18-65 reported they are now shopping for fragrances that are “comforting” and “relaxing” versus “sexy” or “seductive” as was the case before the pandemic.
The good news according to analysts, however, is that when people do go out to shop, they buy. Currently, however, shopping is less of a pastime and more of a mission, as the constant reminders of face masks, social distancing markers and hand sanitizer keep us grounded in reality. What can make it better?

In the past few years numerous retailers in Europe, the UK and the US went through extensive renovations to make the beauty floor more experiential, full of services and temptations to drive sales. In the current situation, most of these enhancements will be off-limits so it is urgent to reinvent the in-store experience. Here are a few ideas:

  • Implement an appointment model in which the customer is greeted on arrival and accompanied by one salesperson from start to finish,
  • Create a pre-shopping ritual wherein the customer pre-selects items online which will be presented, along with complementary suggestions, during the appointment,
  • Salespeople must have full access to CRM data including prior purchases, and shades and colors used in order to understand the customers preferences
  • Up the sensorial experience by playing on scent, sound or visual cues. Research indicates consumers spend more time in stores that smell appealing, with pleasant (not blasting) music,
  • Create interest and entertainment with a sample bar where customers can select samples from a menu and a “sample bartender” will prepare their order,
  • Draw attention to automated dispensing systems where the consumer can obtain hygienic samples, with or without assistance,
  • Makeup and Beauty will benefit from AI mirrors and other digital tools for virtual trial. Makeup artists can guide customers through makeup applications – actually a more effective way to learn technique when you must do it yourself!
  • Sweeten client loyalty programs with options including private VIP shopping hours, cut-the-line access, and exclusive offers

Many consumers prefer the pleasure of browsing and, if possible, touching merchandise. The In-store experience addresses emotional needs with human interaction and sensorial elements; these are key advantages over digital experiences. Staff will need to be trained to be welcoming and make shoppers feel comfortable and secure. The emotional connection is the trump card that stores must play because we all know the heart can rule the head. Emotions can compel us to spend and act on impulse before logic pulls the purse strings, behavior that is less apt to happen when shopping online.

Analysts estimate the overall eCommerce market share around 16% and predict it will rise to 25% by 2026 with direct-to-consumer options such as brand websites, social media platforms and other marketplaces becoming more important. In general, consumers indicate they will probably continue to engage and shop online. A survey by Klaviyo in the US also found that shoppers are trying to support small online businesses, and this will continue, as long as the online technology and experience is commensurate with the current market. Customers have gotten used to free shipping, same day or next day delivery, and the “hands free” shopping experience: no bags to carry! All of these features make online shopping easy and convenient.
Indeed the crisis was the impetus for all brands and retailers to go digital. Live streaming events, discussions, digital diagnostic tools, online consultations and chat room interaction flourished during lockdown, bringing immersive experiences into the customer’s living room. Many people also had time on their hands and could spend it online watching tutorials, listening to podcasts, and using virtual try-on technology. In fact, if consumers get accustomed to using these tools, it is good news given restricted access to product and testers in-store. After all, In a virtual world, there is no concern about hygiene and safety.
Keep in mind however, that in the digital environment, beauty is a category driven by search rather than by browsing and discovering. There are a few strategies that should be put in place to capture and convert the attention of existing and new customers:

  • Create the luxury experience online to engage and entertain
  • Add an online fragrance diagnostic & finder tool
  • Update the online catalog for makeup with interactive abilities and animation,
  • Offer a skincare diagnostic to pinpoint key concerns and suggest regimens,
  • Propose a virtual consultation to accompany all shoppers on their journey
  • Use artificial intelligence for testing, discovery and customization,
  • Create premium, quality content to communicate company messages and storytelling

One annoying practice that many US retailers have adopted throughout the pandemic has been to send a glut of emails. I’ve received an average of 3 emails per day from Blue Mercury, Sephora and Neiman Marcus – always touting “sale” and % discounts. UK retailers like Liberty, Fenwick and Selfridges kept to one email per day and aside from Sephora France, the French retailers were almost absent. Communication should be targeted with a purpose but not excessive.

For the time being it is most likely that online discovery will drive almost all purchase decisions. It is therefore crucial to invest in state-of-the-art tools and technology to entice and entertain the customer while remaining competitive. Some industry experts believe that consumers will continue to shop online post-lockdown, and that brick & mortar will serve as a showroom that supports digital. This remains to be seen.

In an effort to minimize personal contact, shops are now promoting the “Click & Collect” concept more than ever before. Quite simply, it combines the ease of online shopping with the flexibility of collecting the order at the shop rather than waiting for it to be delivered. In some cases the customer can even retrieve the order at the curb, especially for suburban stores with parking lots. Should the shopper enter the store, there is always the chance for impulse shopping, or adding on an item that didn’t get ordered. To encourage this possibility, retailers and brands are turning to promotional activity aimed at driving traffic into the newly opened shops.
I tested Click & Collect through Sephora, retrieving my order at the flagship Champs Elysées location. A kiosk is stationed at the front of the store for easy access. I had to wait for about 5 minutes while the salesperson rifled through a bunch of binders and organized paperwork, before I was acknowledged. She found my order but it was missing an item so I had to wait while she went to find it. Before handing me my bag she sprayed it with sanitizer. A few samples were added to the bag as well as a note informing me that my bag had been perfumed with the latest scent being featured. I think this was a nice final touch. I want to also mention that the Click and Collect option alleviates the fear that a package could go missing, a justifiable concern in Europe since many buildings don’t have a concierge or a place to leave packages.

The retail landscape has changed as a result of the pandemic. Brands and retailers have suffered financially, and many are going through bankruptcy proceedings. Brands are reassessing retailer partners and many are taking their business Direct-to-consumer (DTC). Retailers are scaling back on locations and may possibly keep flagships in major cities, pushing the suburban customer to shop online. Since, for the foreseeable future, the shopping experience will not resemble what it used to be, the consumer will decide where to shop based on their comfort level and on where they feel their needs are best met.