Makeup Counters: The Evolution of Experiential Retail

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In 1910, Florence Nightingale Graham—though you might know her better as Elizabeth Arden—opened her first Red Door beauty salon on 5th Avenue in New York City. Arden was a trailblazer and claims many firsts for the industry, including first eye makeup and first travel-sized products, but Arden’s most important first (in the context of this article, at least), was first in-store makeover.
Before Arden’s time, the cosmetic industry was no industry at all. Makeup was frowned upon, associated with prostitutes and actors, and women relied on homemade recipes or clandestine shops like The House of Cyclax to brighten their cheeks. Customers were relegated to backdoor entrances to avoid gossiping eyes, or forced to surreptitiously ask pharmacists for toiletries.

Shortly before the turn of the century, entrepreneurs, many of them women, began to produce their own makeup, promising a “natural” look. These female manufacturers paved the way for retail moguls like Arden and London’s Gordon Selfridge. In new salons and stores, women began to be encouraged to not only buy makeup, but to try it. Arden offered makeovers for her intrepid consumers, while Selfridge openly displayed his cosmetics and encouraged women to test them, cultivating an enjoyable shopping experience.

And so the beauty counter was born, ushering in an incomparable example of experiential retail that’s adaptive, engaging, and consistently profitable.

In the ensuing decades, the cosmetics industry underwent a series of evolutions. With WWII and the introduction of women to the workforce, the industry was fueled by women’s newfound purchasing power and by the government’s stimulation of makeup as a symbol of feminine identity (wartime posters encouraging women to join the effort depicted women as nurses and factory hands in crimson lipstick and thick mascara). As the industry grew, the small, female-owned companies fell to male-owned, widely-distributed corporations.

But through those adaptations and changes, the experiential aspects of the industry remained largely unchanged. Beauty counters became the central hub of department stores, where women were bombarded with samples and ushered into director’s chairs to experience new products and makeovers. Drugstore brands slipped trial sizes into magazines and mailboxes.

Corporate and independent retailers agreed on a simple fact: women like to try their makeup before they buy, and offering those trials with great customer service guaranteed devoted customers, often for life. Consider your mother or grandmother and her devotion to brands like Merle Norman and Clinique, brands they discovered at makeup counters under the nimble hands of beauty ambassadors decades ago.

Even in the 21st century, and even with the rise of the internet and online retail, beauty counters maintain their hold on the marketplace. In fact, a whole new category of retailer has emerged in the industry, a category that retains the concepts and experience of the beauty counter at its core.

For nearly a century, cosmetics were tried and sold at department stores (high end) and drugstores (low end). In recent years, stores like Sephora and Ulta emerged and created a new, accessible market that bridged the older options. In these beauty megastores, shoppers will find a range of products in a spectrum of price ranges, beautifully displayed and, more importantly, ready to be tried. Rows upon rows of products are punctuated by “try me” stickers. Helpful attendants glide between customers offering suggestions and insight. Perched on stools and director chairs, loyal customers receive makeovers—just like Arden’s did decades ago.

These new stores have modernized the beauty counter for the 21st century and succeeded. Why? Because experiential retail is inherently more successful than other forms of retail—especially digital. Consumers crave an experience; they want to be personally catered to and applauded for their choice. They want beauty products picked just for them that they can experience in-store. They want beauty counters, not digital carts.

Cosmetic brands and retailers that embrace experiential elements have consistently dominated the market. Stores like Sephora and Ulta, and more traditional marketplaces like Nordstrom and Macys, continue to implement beauty counters and makeovers because they are, simply put, profitable. Their customers engage with their employees in a genuine exchange, developing trust and brand loyalty. Manufacturers and retailers that cultivate that relationship claim a larger portion of the market share. Experiential retail, in the context of cosmetics and every other industry, too, is a guarantor of success.


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