In-store associates are emerging as key players in the path to an online beauty purchase.
From influencer tutorials and shopper reviews to AR apps and chatbots, there’s no shortage of tools assisting online beauty shoppers. But for everything from personal recommendations to product comparisons, shoppers are turning to store employees, which retailers are now offering up in place of traditional customer service reps.
Department store Harvey Nichols, which had the exclusive in the U.K. on the Fenty launch in September, has seen an increase in online sales since kicking off AskHN via a soft launch last year, involving the training of 60 associates across store locations to answer the questions of customers shopping the e-commerce site. Conversation rates for shoppers using AskHN have been more than 10 times the site average, and their average order value is 63 percent higher. (Harvey Nichols would not provide specific sales figures.)
“The most exciting beauty chats on AskHN are those where associates provide a truly interactive experience,” said Jo Osborne, Harvey Nichols’ beauty buying director. “They’re sending photos and videos with color swatches of different foundations and lipsticks.”
Facilitating the experience is an app developed by U.K.-born technology company Hero, which counts LVMH and Richemont among clients.
Common themes are: photos comparing color swatches and livestreams of beauty consultants working together, one filming and one demonstrating a product application. Often, beauty shoppers link from YouTube; they see a product used by a vlogger, then rely on an associate to ask lingering questions, like whether it’s greasy and how it looks on a certain skin tone. And, compared to fashion shoppers, they ask much more personal questions; for example, one in three shoppers mentions a skin condition.
A bronzer comparison, requested by a shopper on AskHN
Osborne said expectations of Harvey Nichols beauty associates have increased in recent years, making them apt experts for serving shoppers both online and off: They now include keeping up with what’s trending on social media platforms, especially on Instagram, where more people are digesting beauty news. In addition, stocked companies conduct training with the beauty staff throughout the year to keep them current on updates and launches.
“More and more stores are incorporating tech to deliver personalized services,” said Melissa Gonzalez, founder and CEO of The Lionesque Group, a retail agency with staffing on its menu of services. “Associates need to not only be knowledgeable about how the tech works and its advantages but also more well-versed in the details of which products are the best fit for a consumer on a more customized level and why — like what’s the best for different skin tones and skin conditions.”
Though buying beauty products online can often feel like a crapshoot, beauty sales are indeed moving there: According to statistics portal Statista, in the year ending April 2017, e-commerce beauty sales in the U.S. grew by $1.6 billion, and brick-and-mortar beauty sales declined $168 million. In response, the store is being transformed to support online sales: As store associates are becoming customer service representatives, physical locations are serving as distribution centers and product showrooms.
“People now understand that online is not killing the store; there has to be a combination of the two,” said Adam Levene, Hero’s founder. “Most of our retail partners recognize the only way they’re going to be able to battle Amazon is to invest in their store network, invest in their people, invest in their digital, and make sure they’re giving [staff] the necessary technology and tools.”
On the fashion side, store associates facilitating online sales have been catching on in recent months. For instance, Saks now has 170 in-store style advisers who communicate with customers through an app; Macy’s has a Style Crew, composed of select in-store associates who double as Instagram ambassadors.
And, for the beauty retailers, the practice is promising: For Harvey Nichols, AskHN has served as a customer acquisition tool; so far, most customers making beauty purchases after chatting with an associate are first-time Harvey Nichols shoppers.