As beauty retailers re-open stores across the country, a new normal has emerged that prioritizes safety, hygiene and curbside pick-up. For now, these somewhat unglamorous but necessary changes have taken priority over fun or product discovery through sampling and testing. And once-essential store education teams, too, are being completely overhauled or thought to be an unnecessary expenditure when stores are a lackluster version of their former selves.

Still, product payoff, texture, scent and color matching matter to all customers and to all categories. Amid Covid-19, new product launches barely let up. But in tandem with shopping moving online, product reviews have become all the more important.

Lesse, an indie skin-care brand, is experiencing this firsthand. Lesse sells via e-commerce and through select stores like Bird Brooklyn; Cap Beauty; Dimes in New York; Welwythn in Prairie Village, Kansas; and Raba Marfa in Marfa, Texas. At the onset of coronavirus in March, the brand saw wholesale sales drop from 30% of revenue to 15%, said founder Neada Deters. At the same time, Lesse saw much more engagement on its e-commerce site. To bank on the newfound attention, Deters used DTC reviews in email marketing and paid and unpaid social posts to grow direct sales by 40% and increase conversion by 4%. Click-through-rates from email marketing and social media posts are now at 88%.

“We’ve seen a lot of new customers through word of mouth, plus repeat customers who had tried one thing and are coming back for more. Skin care is deeply personal and people want to know what it feels like on their hands and faces,” she said. “What we tried to do was incorporate more reviews on our site, in our email marketing and social ads, and when customers use the chat function [on our site] to describe their skin or needs, we match them up with reviews that best describe them. This way they can get a third-party account of what our products will do and feel like.”

While sending samples to customers through online channels is also an option, Deters said it was still too wasteful of an option “to experience products” and too expensive for Lesse that is not yet two years old. Moreover, the beauty brand prides itself on a sustainable ethos and uses glass packaging.

Reviews are nothing new in beauty, with Sephora.com, Ulta.com and Amazon.com boasting the vast majority of online reviews. But fake reviews continue to be problematic. And social shopping platforms like Influenster, which companies pay to provide their beauty samples in its VoxBoxes to fans of the brand, do lean on a pay-for-play model making transparency difficult to ascertain. According to previous Glossy reporting, brands’ entry into Influenster is $25,000 for sampling and subsequent optional reviews on Sephora and Ulta. However, businesses that have traded on “no fake reviews” such as recommendations platform Masse have faltered — Masse shut down in May after launching in November 2018.

That’s not to say that “transparent” review platforms aren’t trying to use the rush to e-commerce in their favor — their moment is all the more relevant now. Beauty app Mira that launched last year uses AI and machine learning; it is hoping to capitalize on being a neutral ground for all brands and all retailers. In its 70,000-plus product catalog, users can find reviews for Tatcha’s products (a U.S. Sephora exclusive), Haus Laboratories (an Amazon exclusive) and Kylie Cosmetics (an Ulta exclusive) in one place. Mira aggregates reviews from 29 places (that have been analyzed using data science for topics, patterns, suspicious language and the reviewer itself), as well as allowing users to write their own reviews on the app.

“We think we accentuate the fun of shopping by eliminating the pain points of endless searching. It’s also very hard to Google the truth because reviews are paid or sponsored, and some brands remove negative reviews,” said Jay Hack, co-founder and CEO of Mira Beauty.

For now, Mira doesn’t work with brands directly, though Hack didn’t rule out the possibility in the future. The idea is to give consumers “more control and to filter through what is right for them.”

More control is why Lesse feels most equipped to scale reviews itself. Lesseofficial.com may not have the hundreds of reviews you can find on Sephora or Ulta, but fewer might be better. “Customers are coming to us directly, more than ever, and they are trusting us,” said Deters. “Being honest with reviews is what’s driving our success.”