As beauty shops begin reopening their doors slowly but surely, one thing is certain: Almost nothing will feel “normal” about the experience of shopping for cosmetics in the middle of a global pandemic. After all, when our bare canvases are covered with life-saving masks, when glossy endcaps have been replaced with hand sanitizing stations, and when maintaining social distance means in-store makeup applications have been totally transformed for the foreseeable future, it raises the question: What will beauty retail come to look like now that the call to test new products has been replaced with an urgency to stay safe from COVID-19?
For Brooklyn-based boutique Shen Beauty, the pandemic has changed almost everything. The beloved Carroll Gardens beauty shop—which was set to move down the street to a more prominent, foot-trafficked spot on Court Street one neighborhood over at the end of April—is just now re-opening in earnest at its new (and seriously dreamy-looking) location. “The store is stunning, but it’s just been a lot,” says founder Jessica Richards. “Construction came to a screeching halt [in the spring], so I had one store that was half-packed and another store that was half-finished, and I couldn’t do anything except pack [online] orders.”
Now that many New York City storefronts are reopening, however, Richards is finally able to show the world the new Shen. Luckily, the store that Richards began designing before the COVID-19 outbreak will thrive in a pandemic-present world. The product shelving units are spaced about seven feet from each other and are divided by full-length mirrors with lighting that changes to reflect the time of day, which makes for more accurate product testing. Keeping in line with proper COVID-19 protocols, Shen also keeps hand sanitizer and optional gloves at the front door, estheticians wear face masks and face shields, and all surfaces are regularly cleaned… including products that are set under UV sanitizers every night.
Unquestionably, swatching has become the biggest challenge that beauty shops are figuring out how to navigate. At Shen, Richards designed painter’s palettes with disposable bamboo testing tools. Staff dole out new hues of lipsticks, eyeshadows, different moisurizers, and face oils for customers to try them on skin. This COVID-19-friendly method allows customers to experience the feeling, texture, and colors of the products, which is something that Richards believes is essential to shopping for beauty products. “I still feel like the sensorial effect of beauty is the most important thing,” she says.
Credo which is, likewise, is relying on the assistance of experts to help navigate this tricky time. At the clean beauty shop, in-store pros offer more personalized assistance in picking out shades and skin care for shoppers, who aren’t able to test and feel products on their own. Smartly, with the launch of brand’s new foundation brand Exa, the shop is giving out individual sample cards in four shade ranges so that customers can work with staffers to find their best match.
Big-box stores, on the other hand, don’t have the ability to be nimble like smaller shops. At Ulta and Sephora stores, product testing has become a completely virtual experience. “In-store testers are for display purposes only to give guests a sense of colors and textures,” says Kecia Steelman, chief store operations officer and president international at Ulta Beauty. Instead, she says that people are using GlamLab, the store’s virtual try-on experience that lives on the Ulta Beauty app. “Engagement has increased seven times, and we’ve seen more than 50 million shades swatched post-COVID,” she says.
Similarly, at Sephora, testers and in-store services have been suspended, but customers can turn to the store’s Virtual Artist and Shade Finder features within its app to digitally test out different products and approximate what they look like once they’re applied on the skin.
While in-store experiences have long dominated the beauty industry, COVID-19 will re-form the future of how we shop for the products we slather on each morning. Though innovation is still in the early days, look to Richards’s almost prescient store design, individual one-time sampling, and a convergence of digital and IRL experience as the groundwork for the new era of beauty retail to take foot at a makeup shop near you.