How Sephora is incubating the ‘next guard’ online

When Drunk Elephant and Tatcha were acquired last year by Shiseido and Unilever, respectively, it was widely-assumed that theses Sephora-exclusive brands would go wider in retail distribution in the U.S. (Tatcha is also sold via QVC.) Fellow Shiseido lines like its namesake brand and Bare Minerals are found in many department stores, as well as Ulta. Unilever’s mass beauty offerings such as Dove and Love Beauty and Planet are sold in food and drug locations, and its prestige lines like Kate Somerville can also be found in Ulta. Though Drunk Elephant’s and Tatcha’s potential retail expansion plans are likely on hold due to Covid-19, Sephora has been fervently incubating new brand talent online to remain a place for discovery and, subsequently, safeguard itself for the future.

New brands that Sephora has recently brought into the fold are CBD companies Saint Jane and Prima, both of which had large Sephora store expansion plans that have been paused, Jackson Hole-based skin-care line Alpyn Beauty, The Inkey List and hair-care brand Fable & Mane.

“It is a strange and wild time, but we still have a lot creativity and excitement within our indie brands across categories, and we are seeing now as a time to build the next guard,” said Priya Venkatesh, Sephora senior vice president of merchandising, skin care and hair.

Venkatesh called out the aforementioned brands as well as slightly older indie companies such as Tata Harper, Moon Juice, Summer Fridays, Youth To the People, Sol de Janeiro, Kora Organics and Hum Nutrition as having momentum right now. Lines with a makeup and skin care bent, like Milk Makeup and Huda Beauty’s Wishful, were also mentioned.

Despite store closures, a spokesperson for Sephora said e-commerce sales are up by 30%. Key online marketing levers have been product sampling with all orders, support via Sephora’s Beauty Insider community (members can still earn points digitally and redeem rewards at checkout), twice-weekly Instagram Live shows and the retailer’s extension of free shipping.

Venkatesh credited the ongoing conversation around self-care in the midst of coronavirus as the reason beauty brands with a wellness bent like the above lines have seen an uptick. Larissa Jensen, NPD’s vice president and industry advisor over beauty, said the prestige beauty market has been declining double digits year-over-year since mid-March. As of the week ending April 4, the skin-care category was down 33% and hair care saw a decline of 35%, faring better than the makeup and fragrance segments that have free-falled at 54% and 75%, respectively.

According to Stephanie Wissink, equity analyst at Jefferies Financial Group, that dotted line to bringing Sephora back into the health conversation is a smart strategy. “Sephora has done an outstanding job of reframing skin care as skin health,” she said of the retailer’s site, social media and email positioning. “I think it comes down to one simple concept: Sephora has an international business in Asia, and that Eastern philosophy of inner health driving your outer health gives them the insight to not talk about masks and acne as a trend, but as an authority. It helps that you can also buy supplements or probiotics along with a moisturizer all in one place.”

Venkatesh said some of the storytelling tools Sephora is using for its indie brands now are tried-and-tested, despite the current climate. Of Alpyn Beauty, that launched on on February 4, she said, “The Wyoming story is so compelling, and we have told that location-based story before. Tatcha is inspired by Japan and so are many of our K-beauty brands. Alpyn’s wildcrafted point of view is all about telling that back home story.”

Kendra Butler, founder and CEO of Alpyn Beauty, would not share sales data, but said she been “very happy” with the brand’s Sephora performance. “We just launched, so we don’t have the track record to see a difference between our pre-Covid sales and post. This is the beginning of our relationship with them, but their social and email support has been huge,” said Butler, who will be participating in an Instagram Live on Sephora’s channel in the coming weeks.

Butler also noted Sephora is still taking e-commerce orders; Alpyn Beauty had yet to launch in Sephora stores, so has not yet run into the major inventory falloff that other brands have faced with Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman. Moreover, Butler said Alpyn Beauty has seen its eye balm, a best-seller at brick-and-mortar through Credo and Bluemercury, become an unexpected top SKU on

“The hardest part of our job is finding brands with a voice,” said Venkatesh. “So many brands have great product, but do they have great innovation and great founders? Do they have anything additive or new to what we are currently saying at Sephora or what is happening in beauty? It doesn’t matter that they have all of these at launch, but that we know they will get there. That’s ultimately why we pass on some brands and invest in others.”

In the DTC and Instagram era, indies have historically done a better job than legacy players in connecting with their communities digitally. The Inkey List has recently launched its “Ask Inkey” series on social media where followers can ask questions about beauty ingredients and the brand suggests its own products and products by other companies; it has yet to develop a full-blown e-commerce experience. Alpyn Beauty, meanwhile, has “pulled back on marketing and sales-y emails to be more sensitive to what customers are going through with coronavirus,” said Butler.

“We want to keep our company alive and healthy, but not at the expensive of our customer relationships,” she said. “We are working on growing our community and maintaining a positive connection.”

Whether Sephora can offset the loss of store sales online for the long term is unclear and will also be dependent on the length of Covid-19, but Venkatesh feels strongly that indie brands will continue to resonate.

“Our job at Sephora is giving our clients what appeals to them, and they still love indie brands and what’s new,” she said. “That’s not going to change. Right now, we continue to create strong relationships with our brands. That is beneficial for all of us.”

Get news and analysis about fashion, beauty and culture delivered to your inbox every morning.