Sephora CTO uncovers how the beauty retailer is adjusting for COVID-19

The beauty industry is inherently tactile. And while creating great customer experiences without being face-to-face has been a challenge for many brands across industries amid COVID-19, beauty retail giant Sephora has successfully turned to digital technology to aid customers in product exploration during the pandemic.

How did they do it? We interviewed Sephora’s chief technology officer, Sree Sreedhararaj, to gain a deeper understanding of some of the ways in which the company has shifted its strategy to meet customer needs in a contactless digital experience landscape.

Much of your business is tied to touch. Customers come in, sample things, touch lots of things in your stores. How has your business adjusted for the pandemic?

At Sephora, the safety of our clients, employees and community is our top priority. However, beauty is inherently a tactile industry. When the pandemic started, we quickly pivoted and adapted our business model to a new normal in order to create a welcoming in-store experience where clients can confidently and safely shop. This included the development of the Sephora Health & Safety Guidelines, which explicity relayed the temporary cease of product tester use and application services in all stores to ensure a safe shopping experience for all. And, while the experience feels a little different to before, our virtual tools have greatly aided product exploration for clients who are coming in-store to shop and woud like additional assistance.

We have reintroduced limited in-store product testing for our clients in locations permitted by local health regulations and clients who wish to try on any product will be assisted by our Beauty Advisors. We, of course, continue to encourage our clients to use our virtual consultations and Shade Finder on, along with our Virtual Artist feature in our App.

What kinds of touchless experiences have you implemented?

Having a strong and stable online presence has helped us adjust to the current climate within the retail industry. Clients are still looking for the in-store shopping experiences and benefits, so we modified these a bit and started offering similar experiences online. This includes utilizing our expert Beauty Advisors in the stores for guiding online product queries through video or text chat. We also started offering paid virtual consultations, which provides a more detailed conversation with specialists, along with queue reservations in the stores, allowing clients to check-in and get notified when it’s their turn. Similarly, we’ve also pivoted experiences like our popular Classes for Confidence to virtual learning experiences.

One of the things that is more clear now than ever is our clients’ desire for ease and convenience. We’re continuing to meet clients’ needs where they are and provide even more options for their purchasing decisions. We continue to seek innovative digital offerings to aid in the “last mile” to purchase journey, including, our new ‘Reserve-Online-Pickup-In-Store” option; a collaboration with Instacart to offer same-day delivery; our partnership with Klarna, allowing for more flexible payment options; and we became the first beauty retailer to partner with Instagram Checkout.

Sephora is no stranger to using technology in its stores.

This pandemic could affect things into next year and beyond. What types of adjustments have you made that may be permanent as a result of this situation? Any previous practices you’re likely shelving indefinitely? If so, why’d you choose those and what replaced them?

As I’ve previously shared, with the retail environment continuously shifting due to the pandemic, we’ve learned to be very agile and pivot to best serve our clients and the business. COVID-19 has forced us to disrupt our existing retail model and identify areas of how we can continue to innovate, learn, and grow based off the climate. Our teams are always looking for new ways to evolve our practices in-store and online to ensure we’re providing the most seamless shopping experience for both our clients and employees.

BOPIS made up a percentage of retail sales prior to COVID; it’s accelerated since then. Do you think this is more of a short-term spike that will settle back toward normalcy post-COVID, or do you think the model has been forever changed?

There have always been clients who prefer to order online and pick up at a convenient location, however, the pandemic has changed consumer behaviors and increased the utilization of pickup options. Our clients, and consumers overall, now want touchless and quicker options, even for those clients who previously favored a brick and mortar experience. But, ultimately, the in-store experience will always remain a vital part of the beauty industry. So in the current landscape, we will continue to seek and prioritize new and unique ways to drive clients instore for the Sephora experience they know and love, with the safety of our beauty community top of mind.

Sephora operates over 2,600 stores in 36 countries worldwide.

What kind of shifts have you seen with respect to mobile payments? Any predictions for where you think that will go?

This past May, Sephora partnered with the payment’s provider, Klarna. Not only does this meet the ease and convenience factor our clients’ want, but it allows us to reach a younger Gen-Z clientele. Klarna has allowed us to provide more payment flexibility and we’ve seen a higher conversion rate and average basket sizes as a result of that. With the current retail environment, it’s important to learn to adjust and adapt to consumer needs as quickly and frictionlessly as possible, and the brands and companies who listen will be the ones who succeed – whether that’s through touchless payments, cashier-less checkouts, and more.

How about voice, chatbots, and AI as mechanisms for contactless customer engagement? What are you doing there? Do you view this as temporary or something you’ll do long-term?

We’re fortunate at Sephora to have been early adaptors and leverage our digital platforms for client engagement. For example, our client services team continues to engage with our beauty community via emails and phone calls, but recently, the default behavior for our community is to utilize our chat function. Similarly, with our in-store Beauty Advisors, we are uniquely positioned to provide a much more personalized one-on-one experience through these chat options online and are leveraging them to assist. We also offer contactless try-on services through Sephora Virtual Artist features on the app and in stores.

How has Adobe technology fit into what you’re doing? Which solutions have been most useful, and why?

While the pandemic has required every retailer to be agile and nimble, it certainly has put governance and optimization in the blind spot. We use Adobe Analytics as the platform to continuously measure the business and technical KPIs to keep us honest as we move quickly. A fail-fast mindset requires us to be on top of these KPIs and pivot immediately. Listening to our clients and delivering to their needs is paramount for our organization. To gauge what experiences they prefer, we use the Adobe Target platform. Our clients expect us to understand them and offer the best experiences during their visit online or in stores. We use Adobe Campaign to provide a personalized marketing experience through emails, push notifications, offers, or site content. All of the above is extremely relevant during this pandemic, in order to continuously connect with our clients.