Retail is Alive and Well Somewhere

Surprise! It’s Sephora.

Retail is dying a slow, protracted death, but there’s one place it’s thriving and that, my friends, is Sephora.

Malls are closing and the retailers we know and love are slowly shuttering, but people are still buying beauty products in droves.

Prestige beauty sales in the United States rose 6 percent in the 12 months ending in February, tallying $15.9 billion, according to the market research company NPD Group. Makeup alone is up 11 percent, totaling $7.3 billion. But that industry, too, is in the midst of its own upheaval, driven in part by the success of stores such as Sephora, the №1 specialty beauty retailer in the world according to Euromonitor International, which tracks beauty sales.

Part of Sephora’s success is due to its “try-more-buy-more ethos.” The stores themselves are like giant playgrounds for people with income to spend on lipsticks and highlighter, and they’re doing so with gusto, armed with YouTube videos and beauty blogs on their phones, cruising the aisles and rubbing things on their face, and spending good money. Sephora’s incredible return policy makes it easy to buy a bunch of stuff, test that stuff out for 60 days (!) and then bring it back for store credit, even if it’s half used.

To buy makeup at a department store was to feel pressured to buy something, even if you really did just want to smear some foundation on the back of your hand and leave to think it through. This Birchbox commercial, which stresses me out everytime I see it, sort of nails it.

Sephora employees will let you browse free of hassle.

Rebecca Pahle, a writer and editor in Manhattan, visits the two Sephora stores near her Times Square office twice a month. “It is easy to kill time, play around with things and then spend more money than I should,” Ms. Pahle said. “I am experimenting a lot, trying to figure out what I like.” She doesn’t shop at department stores. “I don’t associate them with makeup,” she said.
What she appreciates most is autonomy. “At Sephora they ignore me, which I like,” Ms. Pahle said. “I don’t like the hard sell.”

In my book, all shopping experiences should be as autonomous and silent as their online counterpart. Maybe Sephora’s onto something.