Makeup tester and drugstore aisles that prompt customers to “try before you buy” are primed to become extinct. For the independent beauty retailer, this prospect may be hard to imagine. However, this new reality, which is no longer “virtual,” is changing retail as we know it.
This big change is coming from technological advancements involving augmented reality (AR) that add digital elements to a live stream or image; artificial intelligence (AI), or technological improvements in computer intelligence; and virtual reality (VR), which creates a fully immersive, computer-generated experience–often associated with the gaming industry. These advancements are now empowering consumers, especially younger consumers, to try out new looks and skincare treatments without unscrewing a cap or using an applicator.
Over the last three years, companies such as Perfect365 and YouCam arrived on the scene offering user-friendly AR and AI technology specific to beauty. Their smartphone apps were not only instant hits with consumers, but also got the attention of top-tier makeup artists and brands. The result? They put the power of self-reinvention into the hands and fingertips of millions of consumers, allowing brands to broaden their reach.
For example, earlier this year, Coty-owned CoverGirl partnered with Walmart to launch its first “try on” experience via CoverGirl’s website (covergirl.com/tryit). An overwhelming success, users didn’t even have to download an app; they could try on products using their web browser. Like the technology itself, however, apps designed for retail allow brick-and-mortar stores of varying sizes to bring their shopping experience into the 21st century for a generation of consumers used to instant information.
“Our mission is to empower your beauty journey, and our true-to-life, virtual try-ons help customers do exactly that.”
–Alice H. Chang, CEO, Perfect Corp.
Drugstore chain Walgreens, meanwhile, has literally taken this mode of technology skin deep with its new SkinID. This skincare analysis tool, targeted at young customers seeking practical, everyday skincare guidance, uses a similar “quiz” model to Sephora’s Foundation Finder. After a customer answers questions about their skin type, SkinID interprets the data to build an affordable, customized, three-step routine.
LOGGING ON AND SIGNING IN
Alice H. Chang, CEO of Perfect Corp., drew inspiration for YouCam’s augmented reality apps from her own frustrations as a consumer wanting to learn about new products and makeup looks in a way that would be a “quick, efficient and clean integrated beauty journey.” That simple idea primed her to apply her technology knowledge and her developers’ skills to create a family of apps, including some that could be used in a retail environment.
“Our mission is to empower your beauty journey, and our true-to-life, virtual try-ons help customers do exactly that,” Chang says. “The convenience, accuracy and interactive elements of the apps encourage consumers to discover their own personal styles, try new looks and products, and feel completely confident in their online purchase decisions.”
An Intage research study found that YouCam Makeup users were 1.6 times more likely to purchase products, compared to those not using the app. Other results from that study showed the correlation between app usage and higher cosmetic consumption. YouCam Makeup users spent 2.7 times more on beauty products, and try-ons drove, on average, two times more cosmetic sales. In some cases, app usage boosted sales six-fold with niche and prestige brands. Millennials were twice as likely to make purchasing decisions on beauty products after using the app, while Gen Z users were 10 times more likely to buy a product after trying it on with the app.
“Virtual makeup application became one of the most popular features among our millions of users,” says Cara Harbor, director of marketing for Perfect365, who observed this app transition from a showcase for ArcSoft’s facial recognition technology to a product with a life of its own. Through collaborations with large retailers like Nordstrom, the team realized that Perfect365 not only worked well for retailers but for customers who loved the virtual try-on experience in brick-and-mortar stores.
“Brands took notice and wanted to partner with us to engage with the millennial and Generation Z users of our app,” she continues. “Over the course of a year, we introduced Perfect365 PRO specifically for in-store beauty advisers to design virtual looks for their clients to try on in-store or at home using Perfect365. To this end, we’ve launched a complete platform for beauty brands and retailers, from white-label services and AR online and mobile, to user surveys, complete beauty influencer net- works and in-store kiosks. We added an in-app chat function enabling retail beauty advisers to communicate with clients, as well as a customer relationship management platform and much more creative control in designing customized virtual looks for customers.”
National and international retailers such as Sephora and NYX Professional Makeup, not surprisingly, joined forces with the tech innovators to bring those capabilities into their high-traffic retail spaces. The integration of these high-tech point-of-purchase displays, in turn, are already resolving a variety of concerns, ranging from sanitary issues with tester brushes and makeup to providing a more personalized shopping experience.
“This generation of women wants to experience everything digitally and in real life, almost at the same time,” Harbor says. “Being able to see what makeup looks like and experiment with new looks helps users feel more confident about making a purchase. In the retail setting, beauty advisers are able to engage clients digitally by sending virtual looks of new products that come into the store and allow greater efficiency in trying on multiple products, such as lipstick, in less than 30 seconds.”
Chang, meanwhile, says that the success of the app’s AR and AI technologies has spread exponentially through word of mouth and “proof of concept,” leading to strong B2B relationships with retailers large and small. The professional version of the app, for example, features a special-edition consultation mode that delivers a focused user interface that better fits the demands of a specific retail environment. “It can be custom designed to reflect store branding and provide a seamless, simplified in-store experience,” Chang says. “The rollout of this completely customized retail build is dependent on the number of SKUs integrated into a [given store’s] retail experience. We will work with our partners to develop a timeline that allows them to roll out the technology in a nimble, time-efficient way to stay ahead of the technology curve.”
“The best AR applications for retail are very immersive, which makes the customers feel like they are in another reality experiencing the product in real time.”
–Liron Zuckerman-Kanaan, founder and CEO, Edge-MT
Liron Zuckerman-Kanaan, founder and CEO of Edge-MT, an Israeli marketing technologies agency, says that there are enormous possibilities for the retail arm of the beauty industry regarding AR, for brick-and-mortar stores and online shopping. This is the case for the Brionic Blower Brush, one of her clients hoping to gain traction in the U.S., European and Israeli markets. Her product for retailers encompasses a 3-D, AR platform that realistically shows how customers’ hair would look if they used the Brionic Blower Brush. She says that a companion app for prospective beauty store customers is also in the works.
“The best AR applications for retail are very immersive, which makes the customers feel like they are in another reality experiencing the product in real time,” Zuckerman-Kanaan says. “[A customer] can virtually stroll a shop that sells hair products and see a 3-D model of the product, reach out and virtually spin it or operate it.”
IS IT RIGHT FOR YOUR STORE?
Zuckerman-Kanaan acknowledges that marketing her custom products to smaller retailers and regional chain beauty stores is particularly challenging, as the technology will often be more expensive than what they are used to when considering which point-of-purchase displays and tools to invest in.
“The way we’re going about convincing decision makers of small retail operations that the investment would be worthwhile is by showing its long-term potential in increasing customer loyalty and the bottom line,” she says. “Ultimately, however, it’s up to the beauty store owner, buyer or management to determine how the investment could expand their vision of their business in the next few years. A lot of our sales are based on the retailers’ gut instincts and confidence that the investment will pay off with an existing tech-savvy customer base.”
Employee morale is also an important consideration, according to Zuckerman-Kanaan. She argues that when using AR displays, the sales staff will feel more empowered on the job because they will be up to speed with the latest technology. Furthermore, virtual screens help keep the look of stores up to date and modern.
Chang points to Story NYC as an example of a small retailer that integrated YouCam technology into its retail space early in the game. Harbor, meanwhile, notes that NYX Professional Makeup was one of Perfect365 PRO’s early adopters, as was high-end brand Anna Sui, known for its elegant and intimate boutiques.
“We launched in [Sui’s] New York City store with a virtual master class led by celebrity makeup artist Kabuki,” Harbor says. “In addition, we’ve had an ongoing partnership with Anna Sui, allowing virtual try-ons in-store. We listen to our brand partners and innovate based on their needs and the changes in the market. When you are developing a complete platform that reflects the needs and wants of the audiences you serve, based on their feedback, everything else will fall into place naturally.”
Harbor notes that as technology moves quickly, innovation is key–no matter the size of the retailer. As her company and others invest a lot in industry research, and are able to survey thousands of users in a very short period of time, the customer feedback that comes almost instantaneously stands to benefit retailers of all sizes, meriting an investment in on-premise technology.
TAPPING THE MEN’S MARKET
Although gaming technology has long been a staple in marketing products to male consumers, it can also help brands and retailers expand their customer base and generate greater awareness in grooming products. “Beauty is universal. YouCam also offers fun, interactive AI experiences for men’s hair color and skin health, spanning well beyond color cosmetics,” Chang says.
“On-site AR and AI technologies are effective marketing tools for attracting male customers precisely because so many of them are up on technology, and may be a bit more skeptical than female customers about current beauty and grooming trends,” Zuckerman-Kanaan says. “Its presence can potentially bring men into a retail space they would not normally go into.”
Harbor acknowledges that Perfect365 has a small but growing percentage of male users, as well as partnering skincare companies with men’s ranges. “We just launched virtual looks from "The Look: All Stars," a television show starring [hairstylist and salon owner] Kim Vo and Tori Spelling. The first looks include one for men. Our platform is primarily made up of women, but we want to be an inclusive community open to anyone.”
No matter what brands and products individual customers favor, there’s no doubt the plug-and-play approach to this retail technology is a game changer in every sense of the word.