In cosmetics, the right foundation can make the difference between a look worthy of a celebrity and something more akin to a haunted house. In retail, and especially for personal beauty brands trying to navigate brick-and-mortar and online subscription spaces, this is doubly true.
If this isn’t common knowledge around the industry, it is at Sephora. The French cosmetics chain announced Saturday (March 5) that it had officially opened the Sephora Innovation Lab, a research space located in San Francisco where the retailer will test its own and sponsored partners’ innovations for in-store and online retail. Calvin McDonald, CEO of Sephora Americas, talked the Innovation Lab up as Sephora’s crucible of retail disruption.
“Innovation has always been in our DNA,” McDonald said in a statement. “We disrupted beauty by being the first to offer clients access to premium beauty out from behind the department store makeup counters, and we want to keep that spirit and bold tenacity alive. The new lab will tap the collective creativity of our 14,000 employees nationwide, grow the next generation of leaders and elevate Sephora’s digital future.”
Sephora is striking while the innovation iron is hot; alongside the opening of the “Lab” as McDonald called it, the cosmetics retailer will be rolling out beacon networks to its brick-and-mortar stores. While this would be nothing more than a technological feather in the cap of a merchant less dependent on mobile usage, Sephora has also built a veritable ecosystem of apps and services that consumers can engage with through their phones. Pocket Contour — an app that can analyze users’ faces and give “step-by-step guidance” on contouring — and in-store augmented reality displays, which are set to feature well-known fashion and beauty celebrities showing off additional content, will both drive consumers to their phones and beacon-sent offers while in store.
A demonstrated commitment to pushing innovation is all well and good, but it’s not as if Sephora is the only company out there — or even the only brand in its market — that wants/needs to push the envelope in terms of the consumer experience. Technology can engage consumers’ minds, but if a retailer wants to connect with their hearts, a company that primarily sells surface cosmetics has to dive a little bit deeper into the issues.
Dive deeper Sephora did when it followed up its Innovation Lab announcement with another explaining the first eight innovators invited to work on their projects at the San Francisco think tank. Instead of a random selection of entrepreneurs, though, Sephora chose to give eight female innovators the chance to work with a level of funding, resources and support normally denied to women in the retail R&D world. Their projects range from social networks that leverage data to create personalized styling tips, to apps for independent beauticians in Mexico, to plenty of organically sourced and manufactured cosmetic product pitches.
“These female founders from the U.S., Mexico and Canada have impressed us with their vision and unique approach to beauty,” Corrie Conrad, head of social impact at Sephora, said in a statement. “We are excited to take the next step in building a supportive community and learning environment for these early-stage leaders, who are helping to shape the industry we are so passionate about at Sephora, an industry we are honored to share with these future brand leaders.”
It’s unclear what, if any, investment rights Sephora might claim over these innovations if they ever see the light of day, but considering the proximity of the opening of the lab and the announcement of its first all-female participants, there’s an immediate social justice payout to aligning one’s brand with the next crop of female tech innovators. Millennials love giving their dollars to brands they know support similar causes as them, but convincing them of kindred motivations has gotten more difficult, Sanjay Sood, professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, told UCLA Magazine.
“In an age when everything is being talked about online, you have to be ‘authentic’ or just don’t even go in that territory,” Sood said.
Good thing Sephora isn’t just putting its money where its mouth is with female representation among tech disruptors. It’s giving some of it to those very pioneers instead.