Since the beginning of time (that’s a joke for my student-essay-reading academic friends) cosmetics and skincare have been separated into two main categories: drugstore and prestige. For a long while you could only get prestige cosmetics in department stores or in retail stores operated by the actual lines (Kiehl’s, L’Occitane, etc.). One of the disadvantages of this was that you couldn’t directly compare one line’s products to another — if you were at the Estée Lauder counter, then you were speaking with an Estée Lauder salesperson about Estée Lauder products only. Then Sephora came along and put an enormous variety of high-end skincare and makeup products literally at your fingertips: you could test a lipstick at the Tarte display and then turn around and test another one at the Lorac display, without having representatives from either Tarte or Lorac breathing down your neck in hopes of a commission. In addition, Sephora started to give out samples of skincare products so that you could test them at home, and sends three samples of your choice (from a selected list) with every online order.
When ULTA came on the scene in 1990, its goal was to simulate the high-end department store shopping experience for drugstore products (most stores also had a salon and sold haircare products and some fragrance). Pretty much any drugstore skincare or makeup product on the market could be had at ULTA. After a few years, with Sephora as a model, they began to offer a small but growing assortment of prestige cosmetics, skincare, and fragrance lines, but it was clear that Sephora was and would remain the five-hundred pound gorilla in this fight.
Recently, however, ULTA has taken what I think is a brilliant step towards becoming a real competitor to Sephora: providing testers of drugstore products. Sephora’s ease of testing and sampling has sold a lot of product, but they’re not giving customers the opportunity to test a $28 Dior lipstick against an $8 one from Maybelline. How many times have you bought a foundation or a lipstick because the shade looked good in the container but looked terrible on you? ULTA’s new product testers and displays make that a thing of the past.
As illustrated above, products are grouped into “bars” — the lip bar, the foundation bar, the mascara bar — and products from all different brands are housed next to each other. So if you’re looking for a red lipstick, you can stand in one place and test lipsticks from all the different drugstore brands; you don’t have to run from the Cover Girl section to the L’Oreal section for each product. (Occasionally, this is annoying, but most of the time it’s just plain awesome.)
As a result of this recent change, I bought a ton of drugstore products I’d never bought before because I wasn’t sure if they’d work on me and I was tired of throwing money away on products that looked good in the store but not on me. (Some of those products will be reviewed in upcoming posts.) I also bought some prestige cosmetics, because there are still some products for which I prefer to go high-end, and testing of drugstore versions of those products confirmed my preferences.
This seems to be the missing link that connects drugstore and prestige products, and I suspect that the increased business ULTA will no doubt bring in as a result of drugstore testing will spill over into their prestige products as well. This could make them an increasingly serious competitor to Sephora.