Analysis: No testers? No problem. Beauty turns to tech amidst restrictions

Governments globally have been implementing social distancing measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. In countries and states such as Singapore, Malaysia and New York City, government and city officials have cautiously eased lockdown in phases and issued safety guidelines for businesses during the reopening. For Singapore, in particular, the country's Multi-Ministry Taskforce first allowed selected retail operations to resume on 12 May. However, among the list of guidelines it stated was that retail outlets should remove product testers and samples that require customer contact, such as electronics and food samples.

Besides the electronics and F&B industry, another sector that has been impacted by this regulation is the beauty industry. A visit to beauty stores such as Sephora and Watsons would reveal that testers have been removed, requiring consumers to rely on images provided at the shop. Testers are a staple in the beauty industry as it allows consumers to touch and feel the product to ensure it suits their skin colour and needs. While companies such as L’Oréal's ModiFace have long used AI-powered virtual makeup try-ons for consumers, testers are still a mainstay in physical beauty retail stores.

That said, beauty retail stores are not resting on their laurels. Instead, they are seizing the opportunity to push the tech innovations which they previously rolled out. While testers, tools and single use applicators are unavailable in its stores, Sephora's spokesperson told Marketing in a statement that it is reminding consumers of virtual tools such as its Virtual Artist available on the Sephora app, to test its products virtually. The Virtual Artist function was launched in 2016 and done in collaboration with ModiFace before its acquisition by L’Oréal in 2018. It allows consumers to try on hundreds of makeup products, from lipsticks and lip glosses to eyeshadows and eyeliners on its mobile app.

The app scans the user's face to detect eyes, lips and cheeks for product placement, allowing them to find the right shade and product. The Virtual Artist also has a "Click to buy" function built into the user experience, enabling consumers to proceed to purchase their favourite items within the app. Additionally, it also has a new scan to interact feature that allows consumers to scan the bar code of items they want to buy to read reviews through its Sephora Mobile App. Overall, the spokesperson said that this means consumers can continue to shop in store while maintaining a healthy distance from its beauty advisors and other shoppers. For patrons who still may not be keen to come into store, but want to consult Sephora's beauty advisors, it also unveiled a virtual consultation service where customers can book in for an online call with its beauty advisors regarding any of their makeup, skincare, haircare or fragrance queries.

"These changes have been communicated to customers on Sephora Singapore's online website, all of its social media platforms, e-newsletters and disseminated to media titles in Singapore," the spokesperson added.

Likewise, Watsons Singapore has also turned to technology to maintain a seamless consumer experience. Its marketing director See Seow Ying said its Watsons app features a #ColourMe function, also launched in collaboration with ModiFace last year, which allows consumers to try out the various makeup shades. It has also replaced testers with colour swatches at its physical stores for ease of colour referencing, as well as temporarily suspended makeup artiste services.

"Watsons often communications to customers on various touchpoints, especially the online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and EDMs. Hence, we customise these approaches by delivering relevant health and beauty tips that serve our customers during this period," See said. Earlier this month, it also ran an online and offline promotion with 40% off all cosmetics, she added.

Overall, Watsons witnessed its overall cosmetic sales increase by more than 100% post-circuit breaker, compared with the circuit breaker period. According to See, this is because consumers have adjusted to the new normal of online video conferencing or have headed back to work and gone out for social gatherings. The new normal, in particular, has resulted in mascara products, for example become more popular during this period.

"Apart from the usual eye colours and mascara products, the respective cosmetic brands are also looking at focusing on product line such as eyelashes and eyeliners to help accentuate eyes as well," See explained. This comes as no surprise as governments worldwide including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong have made face masks compulsory in public amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, consumers might see it as less of a need to wear makeup that will be less obvious, such as lipsticks, for example.

Etude House Malaysia's spokesperson told Marketing that it will focus on what is higher in demand for the second half of 2020, which is skincare and eye palettes, including its Hershey's Collection and Maple Road Collection. When asked about the sales and marketing ROI for its lipstick and foundation segments, the spokesperson said it tends to focus its efforts on a holistic approach to beauty rather than just foundation and lipstick. As Etude House carries a wide range of products including skincare, the company believes that through education and training of its audience in the areas of makeup play, it is able to promote its entire product range.

"As a beauty brand, we believe our appeal is universal despite the new normal of masks. In fact, in other North Asian markets such as Japan, South Korea and China, mask-wearing is already a normal way of life, and we believe that masks do not dampen the appeal of beauty products," the spokesperson said.

Etude House's spokesperson also explained that having to wear masks does not negate the need for good skin, particularly when mask wearing may cause additional irritation such as drier skin and the need to moisturise. As such, mask-wearing itself "does not dampen sales of cosmetics", the spokesperson said, adding:

The impact is more driven by external economic factors and the fact that there is decreased traffic to offline retail outlets.

Like most retail brands, Etude House was impacted by Malaysia's Movement Control Order. While the spokesperson declined to reveal exact figures, she said that the initial uncertainty surrounding the closure meant that the percentage dip was "drastic", particularly in the early moments. However, Etude House swiftly shifted its focus online to eCommerce platforms such as Lazada, Shopee and Hermo to maintain consumer demand. "While we are not yet at pre-COVID-19 levels, we are seeing an encouraging recovery in that direction, especially during the Recovery Movement Control Order period," the spokesperson added.

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Shifting focus to social commerce

While some beauty brands have leveraged tech to keep consumers engage and the purchasing process seamless, Etude House is adjusting its marketing strategy to address growing online competitor in the beauty sector, lower footfall in offline outlets and change in behaviour in the type of cosmetics consumers use during a time when staying at home is more prevalent. In light of this, Etude House works with its agency Brandthink Malaysia to shift its focus towards social commerce and build a strong ecosystem of influencers to conduct live-streaming.

"That means building capabilities such as live-streaming on social media or on closed systems such as LazLive, with the objective of generating revenue in addition to brand building," the spokesperson explained. To date, Etude House has conducted three live-streaming sessions in support of its Lazada and Hermo stores, as well as non-live video streaming in support of its offline stores.

"Our driving ethos has been to create and cultivate a strong community of customers, both online and offline. Bringing our consumers into the fold and building a platform that adds on to the local community is important to us," the spokesperson said.

As part of its efforts to double down on its network of micro and macro influencers as well as live-streaming efforts this year, Etude House also launched a monthly series titled "Etude Darling", which highlights a cover star from its community of influencers. It is also experimenting with emerging channels such as TikTok, while creating more relevant content on its established channels such as Instagram.

"We don't just stop at marketing channels. We opened up two new retail outlets last month and will continue to expand our availability in additional channels such as GrabMart and Watsons. These channels present new opportunities for us to expand our community and with that, a group of fans that are attracted to our brand," the spokesperson said.

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