So Far, So What, Sephora?

sector - beauty
sector - retail
type - opinion
PR and brand-building expert Jo Jones on why the long-awaited and anticipated relaunch of Sephora in the UK created a polite hum not a big buzz.

The Great British Sephora comeback has been much anticipated since the retailer shut up shop in the UK in 2005. The beauty behemoth’s exit came just five years and six stores after its launch and was blamed on spiralling store rents.

The more probable cause, however, was the location of the stores. Instead of opening a flagship outlet in Central London that was accessible to Britons and tourists, Sephora opted for out-of-town shopping centre locations in the suburbs of Kent, Essex and Surrey – not exactly what the savvy beauty shopper had in mind. They wanted one big shiny Sephora store in the heart of London that they had to queue outside to enter; a destination that would become a beauty mecca.

Following Sephora’s Beauty Brexit, the retailer successfully re-adjusted its growth strategy to ‘rest of the world domination’. Today, Sephora operates in 36 global markets, is a category leader in many, and has over 3,000 points of sale and 30 e-commerce sites. But as the third biggest beauty market in Western Europe, the UK was too valuable for Sephora to continue to ignore. So, some 18 years after its unsuccessful first attempt – Sephora is back in Britain.

This time around the strategy appears to be ‘proceed with caution’.

The acquisition of British e-retailer FeelUnique for £132m ($163.6m, €150m) in July 2021 gave Sephora instant access to 1.3m customers. A smart move to secure its growth, perhaps, but the affinities between the two brands aren’t exactly aligned. FeelUnique is regarded in many beauty circles as a discount retailer which trades in low prices and high volumes, whereas Sephora is considered a prestige brand with a reputation for innovation, a curation of the best brands in the world and elevating the beauty shopping experience. If Sephora was the Rock Chick of the beauty industry, then FeelUnique would be the suburban housewife.

Published by:

20 February 2023

Author: Jo Jones

Image: Express All of You campaign by Sephora


Left: Sephora, UK; Right: Charlotte Tilbury, UK

The retailer officially opened in late October 2022 with a UK e-commerce website supported by massive spending on outdoor advertising. The campaign, Express All of You, featured five joyful Britons living their best beauty lives and popped up all over the UK on billboards, at bus stops and on black taxis. Unfortunately, none of the joyful five looked a day over 22 (probably why they were so joyful). This didn't go unnoticed by the British beauty community who were vocal about the campaign not reflecting the full inclusiveness of beauty.

This misstep coupled with website tech glitches, error codes and stock fulfilment issues frustrated customers who took to social media to voice their disappointment – even making the national news. While we can forgive a technical glitch, what is less defensible is the headline brands that Sephora is serving customers on its homepage and dedicated email newsletters. Customers want to hear from the Sephora brands they can’t buy at home – those niche, cool, indie brands that only Sephora can give them access to. So far, it is mainly established names like Charlotte Tilbury, Olaplex and Elemis that dominate the site – and that are available from numerous UK outlets.

Despite the lacklustre launch, Sephora retains the golden ticket to re-ignite the magic and excitement in its UK comeback – physical stores. Whispers of a flagship store in Westfield, London, are thrilling. The prospect of a store akin to Sephora Times Square – one of the largest in the US – is mouth-watering to any beauty shopper who will trek far and wide to sample The Sephora Experience. The store will (we hope) contain shelf upon shelf of exclusive brands we can't otherwise get our hands on. Its nerve centre will be the innovative Beauty Hub we’ve read about, where physical and digital retail meet and we can discover, learn, play and share our beauty routines, best buys and application tips via iPad stations. I can’t wait for the life-size try-before-you-buy virtual make-up, the look books and personalised beauty routines, not to mention the live make-up masterclasses, the access to brand experts and, of course, the big celebrity-filled launch party complete with a branded slide and ball pit. Come on, Sephora, we've waited nearly 20 years for you – give us what we've been missing. I, for one, am desperate to queue outside your flagship store and trot around town with my little black and white Sephora bag.

Jo Jones is a UK-based PR and brand-building expert who has launched several brands to market including Charlotte Tilbury Make-up, Victoria Beckham Beauty, Hair by Sam McKnight and Glossier (UK).

‘Despite the lacklustre launch, Sephora retains the golden ticket to re-ignite the magic and excitement in its UK comeback – physical stores’
Jo Jones, PR and brand-building expert

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