The physical-digital blur is ‘an absolute given’ for beauty in 2020, says retail expert

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Physical retail and digital must be seen as 'intertwining tools' used to engage beauty consumers in a highly personalised way (Getty Images)
Physical retail and digital must be seen as 'intertwining tools' used to engage beauty consumers in a highly personalised way (Getty Images)

Related tags beauty retail COVID-19 omnichannel e-commerce beauty 4.0 China Innovation

Beauty brands and retailers must blur physical retail with digital experiences to engage consumers in a post-pandemic world, and plenty can be learned from China, according to a retail design expert.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created seismic change in the beauty retail world​ – spurring a boom in e-commerce and sparking different shopping needs among consumers. And many experts agreed that future success would require omnichannel approaches​ and a physical-digital retail blur​.

Howard Sullivan, founder and executive creative director at beauty and retail design firm YourStudio, said: “This is an absolute given for me now – one can’t exist without the other.”

Even with the most olfactory of sensory experiences like scent, Sullivan told CosmeticsDesign-Europe brands could always offer something digital; creating “fairytale-like experiences”​ that were “less about convenience and more about ‘enriched’ interaction”.

Physical and digital should be considered ‘intertwining tools’

“We’ve never seen a more critical moment between the interplay of digital and physical than now,” ​Sullivan said. “Previously, brands saw these as distinct channels, but more so now we’re seeing these as intertwining tools that can all work to enable a more personalised, engaging and interactive experience wherever you happen to be – from browsing on your phone at home to playing in-store with a phone unlocking extra features pertinent to you.” 

Howard Sullivan, founder and executive creative director at YourStudio
Howard Sullivan, founder and executive creative director at YourStudio

But how could beauty brands and retailers combine physical and digital in a meaningful way post-COVID?

Sullivan said it was about inspiring fun and connecting with consumers emotionally.

Amorepacific’s IOPE Labs was a fantastic example of a beauty brand successfully blending physical and digital, he said. “IOPE Labs, a South Korean brand, have smashed the low-touch interaction in store with their 3D scanner-printers which take your face scan, analyse your skin, then print out a fully customised face mask, impregnated with their products in the right places for your skin type. Genius.”

Fashion house Burberry was another strong example, he said, with its “ground-breaking store concept”​ in Shenzhen, China, that offered customised avatars that consumers could book changing rooms for and set up interactions with.

“Having fun and connecting emotionally using digital tools (toys) should be, and will be, more commonplace for brands who get the impact of not just serving but entertaining and delighting their audience at every point.”  

Learnings from China – live streams and fulfilment models

And Sullivan said China was a beauty market worth looking more closely at when drawing inspiration as the beauty world transitioned into a very new retail landscape.

“China has in some ways, in the past, had its own way of doing things and a slightly different skew to brand or sector behaviour in the States, Europe and Middle East. However, the globalisation of the world as well as China’s advances in a ‘digital first’ economy means indeed, yes, we have a lot to learn from them.”

Notably, beauty brand and retailers operating in the EMEA region could learn plenty from how China harnessed live and streamed content with regards to shopping, he said.

“EMEA brands have traditionally not live-streamed so much content, but Chinese platforms from WeChat to Weibo to ShopShops have harnessed the power of broadcasting live from physical spaces, showing products and doing demonstrations as a way to enlighten us on a more human level than pre-recorded or campaign content.”

Fulfilment models used in China could also inspire new ways of working among EMEA brands, Sullivan said.

Many Chinese brands understood that consumers were driven by experience but wanted this underpinned by convenience, he said, and so most offered discounted products online that could be delivered within 24 hours. Major prestige brands including Shiseido, Lancôme, Estée Lauder and SK-II, for example, had offered discounts and express delivery in China on International Women’s Day back in March via Tmall, which amounted to a 200% increase in sales, according to a Reuters report, he said.

‘A thing of the past’ – shelf style product-focused websites no longer

Sullivan said that within all of this, traditional e-commerce beauty platforms would also start to look very different.

“I can see the traditional ‘shelf style’, product-focused website is very quickly going to become a thing of the past. Think Instagram-shopping but more cinematic,”​ he said.

Yeezy Supply’s website was a great example of this, he said, as it drew consumers in and inspired purchases based on “intuition, emotion and desire” ​rather than shopping lists.​ Rihanna’s TikTok house was another strong beauty platform that provided consumers with a space to discover products, partake in interactions, and engage with live-streamed content and human moments 24/7.

Sullivan said YourStudio had never been so busy working on innovation projects in beauty, and the pace would only continue.

“There’s no slowing down and what’s key now is to use this time to get a lap ahead of your competitors in the swimming pool. Having had a year of major compromises, be prepared for 2021’s experience boom where consumers will be searching for the new and next level experiences and brand interactions,” ​he said.

Sullivan previously spoke to CosmeticsDesign-Europe about how COVID-19 had accelerated the green uprising across the beauty category, noting industry had plenty to learn from young activists like Greta Thunberg​.

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