Ask any twenty-something in the U.K. where she likes to shop for beauty products, and one answer is likely to be Asos, a retailer known mostly in the U.S. for its endless assortment of fast fashion.
“My dorm is a constant stream of Asos packages, and it’s the first place my friends and I will shop when we need special beauty products before an event,” said Cara Blithe, a sophomore at University College London.
“The selection is still better than Amazon, and, excluding them, it’s the quickest option here,” agreed Jourdan Rigg, a 22-year-old American student living in London.
Indeed, despite increased competition from Bezos’s behemoth, and the convenience of local drugstore chains like Boots and Superdrug, Asos has become a beauty go-to thanks to its low-priced, trendy assortment and speedy delivery options. It also carries some of today’s trendiest brands, including Benefit, NYX Cosmetics, Lime Crime, Nars and The Ordinary. While prices range from $3 for a sheet face mask to $260 for a hair straightener, the majority of products fall on the lower end, at under $50.
Asos doesn’t share the size of its beauty category’s sales. But what’s notable is that it has the advantage of not having to compete with popular U.S. chains like Sephora and Ulta on its side. Neither retailer currently has a store presence in the U.K. (and Ulta doesn’t ship online orders there), although Sephora operated 10 locations there between 1999 and 2005. Sephora has stayed mum on why they pulled out, but, at the time, it was chalked up to rent hikes.
Given that the company now operates over 2,300 stores in 33 countries, the answer is likely more complex.
One source at the company, who is also British, cited a lack of market placement as the reason for the brand’s hesitance to invest in the U.K.
“Shoppers in England historically go to their local pharmacy, like Boots, to buy makeup and skin care, or to a department or nice brand store for a more luxury experience,” she said. “Although Sephora offers a one-stop shop for both of these options, people in the U.K. don’t shop that way, so the Sephora stores didn’t perform anywhere near as well as those in the U.S. and the rest of Europe.”
Sephora would not officially comment on their absence, but another source at the company said that it’s in early talks to return to the U.K. Similar rumors swirled in October, when a handful of beauty bloggers claimed they had intel that Sephora would be returning to the country in 2018.
Asos, at least, is finding that the one-stop-shop model is working for U.K. shoppers online, where, unlike on Sephora.com, customers can order beauty products without having to worry about international tax and shipping costs. Alongside free delivery and returns, Asos introduced same-day delivery in London last year (which it plans to roll out elsewhere soon) and next-day delivery throughout the rest of the country — still a feat amongst local competitors. Its click and collect service, which allows users to pick up their purchase at an outside retailer of their choice, now includes 9,000 locations in the U.K.
Even if Sephora does return to the market this year, Asos has a major leg up on logistics. It also has big plans to double down on and expand its presence in the category.
Asos, which first launched in 2000, began selling beauty products in 2004, but it hasn’t been a core focus for the company until this past year. In September, it relaunched the category under the name “Face + Body.” On its fourth quarter earnings call for 2017, CEO Nick Beighton explained that the company had changed the way it was being presented, offering “a wider range and more credibility.”
The brand now sells roughly 6,000 beauty products (and over 100 brands) in the U.K., more than in the U.S., though it declined to offer specifics on that particular market, perhaps due its current focus on U.S. and international expansion.
In the U.K., it already has “a strong customer base that is very loyal,” said senior buyer Katrina Fulluck, who added, “We have only just started really focusing on the Face + Body offering, so the opportunity to grow [there] is huge.”
That focus has also involved the launch of its own, genderless beauty line, Asos Makeup; a special Snapchat lens allowing users to “try on” makeup looks from the latest campaign; the Asos “Face + Body Box,” which allows customers to test a range of new products for $19; and an AR-driven beauty app, currently in beta, allowing users to try on makeup from its private label.
“We put our twenty-something customer at the heart of everything we do and work really hard to understand what they’re interested in and what they want,” said Fulluck of the brand’s overall strategy, adding that the company often looks to social media for both product and content ideas. That content (beauty advice and interviews) shows up on its website, on the Asos app — where the brand reports 780,000 downloads per month — and in its monthly print magazine.
This year, much of that content will be centered on video and driven by five of its 20 new influencers, including the YouTube stars Luca Santangelo and Uche Natori, who were selected to focus solely on the “Face + Body” category.
“Our content has to be useful and inspirational,” said Rachel Bremer, Asos’s communications director. “Buying beauty is not just a transaction anymore.”