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Consider a space loaded with lacquered black and white surfaces, employees dressed in black, red lipstick everywhere, and dance music playing. Is it a nightclub or Sephora? (Or MAC or NYX or Nars, for that matter?)
If beauty stores give you a sense of déjà vu, it’s not your imagination. Many of them definitely have a certain sleek, recognizable vibe. MAC, NYX, Sephora, Nars, Chanel, Kiko Milano, and even the newly opened Dior beauty boutique in NYC all feature black and white gleaming interiors, often with neon light accents. While they all do offer some points of differentiation, the overall feeling is one of I’m in a very cool place!
“I think there is an accepted aesthetic around simple, minimal, glossy retail interiors,” says a design professional who wanted to comment anonymously. “I wouldn’t say that’s always been the case, but it certainly is the design aesthetic right now.” So consider black lacquer the millennial pink of beauty retail.
MAC, which opened its first store in 1991 in Greenwich Village in NYC, may arguably have been the pioneer of this aesthetic. (That’s a MAC store up at the top.) The brand’s famous “MAC black” permeates everything from the packaging to the clothes its employees are required to wear. “Black has always been an important part of MAC’s identity, starting with its packaging when it was first launched. We have continued using it as part of our signature look,” says James Gager, the senior vice president and group creative director at MAC. It’s evolved, though. “The original store was quite ornate. It had lots of curlicues and swirls made out of steel rods — a whole different vibe than what we know today as a MAC store.”
Sephora cemented the look when it opened its first US store in 1998, with its open concept and tester availability for every product, which was totally unique to beauty retailing at the time. Its signature black and white branding, which is carried throughout the stores, is now a ubiquitous part of the beauty retail landscape. “Our overall aesthetic is clean, bold, but not distracting,” says Paul Loux, the senior vice president of store design at Sephora. “We’ve designed our stores to create a natural visual pathway.”
This speaks to the pragmatic reasons for why this particular design aesthetic works so well in beauty. “You can’t necessarily have a lot of color and contrast or interesting materials or patterns, because you don’t want to overwhelm the nice clean sight lines,” says the design professional. She notes that these sight lines make it easier to navigate, and since beauty stores carry so many products and the products are relatively small in size, this is practical.
It gets more abstract and psychological after that. “Black is an elegant, sophisticated color, but it’s also a great backdrop. Anything just looks a bit better against a black backdrop. Things feel more exciting and more exclusive and more elegant,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist. Yarrow notes white can also be “pure and exclusive,” especially when used with black.
Then you top it all off with a sheen. “From a user’s perspective — and this is a bit of a stretch — something shiny seems really clean. You can’t have shiny and dirty. It has to be maintained and considered,” says the designer. The appeal of cleanliness (and shine) makes sense — who wants to buy lipstick from a dirty store?
“The look and feel of the display elevates the merchandise itself. It’s not like you’d go to a showroom for fancy cars and expect to see them on concrete. They’re always on really shiny floors,” Yarrow says. “Even in movies, the street where the couple falls in love, it’s always shiny. Shiny just makes everything seem more magical.”
So black (and white) plus shiny is the height of luxury and sophistication. Yarrow gives the example that you probably won’t see kids’ clothes sold in this type of environment. “It’s really those non-verbal cues that we get when we look at colors that tell us what a product is all about. The color black really is the color of exclusivity and money and prestige, probably more than any other color in our culture.” (And if you’re skeptical of this theory, just look at the popularity of the sold out, very shiny jet black iPhone 7. Despite its propensity for scratches, The Verge recommends not putting a case on it: “You don’t buy a flaming red Ferrari to keep in the garage, and you shouldn’t buy a jet black iPhone if you’re going to keep it all wrapped up. It defeats the aesthetic purpose.”)
These beauty stores differentiate themselves a bit by using accent colors. While red can sometimes be used to indicate a sale, Yarrow says it’s also a great merchandising color. Both Sephora and Nars (which opened its first boutique in 2011) use red accents in their stores, and the effect definitely doesn’t indicate markdowns. Nars stores are primarily white with black fixtures, accented with red throughout. The red pays homage to one of the brand’s very first red lipsticks, Jungle Red. Sephora’s Loux considers “occasional red accents” to be one of the retailer’s “core colors.” It’s most obvious on sales associates’ uniforms, a sort of moving reminder of the company’s codes.
Then there are pastels. “They communicate lower price point and more accessibility, like pinks and turquoise and yellows,” says Yarrow. “Also, retailers looking for more excitement rather than exclusivity communicate a lot through colors.” She says that products aimed at teens frequently feature punchy pastels.
Kiko Milano, a very affordable Italian makeup brand that is opening stores at a steady clip here in the US, reads black and sleek, but stores are accented with lavender throughout, giving off a vibe of more accessible luxury.
NYX, an affordable brand with makeup artist roots, has 22 stores in the US and just opened a boutique in NYC’s Union Square neighborhood a block away from its black, shiny competitors, MAC and Sephora. “Our huge sleek black and white logo… has served as a welcome sign for all of our pro artists for over 16 years now, and proudly takes shape in our flagship store,” says Nathalie Kristo, the brand’s senior vice president for marketing and global business development. NYX stores also feature neon pink accents and lots of interactive digital displays, a direct reflection of the brand’s strong ties with Instagram makeup artists.
Interestingly, Dior’s new NYC outpost in the Westfield World Trade Center mall is also black and sleek with neon pink accents, though its price points are easily two to three times that of NYX’s. The look of that particular store is a departure from Dior’s other boutiques, which are more reminiscent of what department store makeup areas look like – a bit white and sterile with displays for each type of product and chairs for a makeup artist to work on customers. It also features interactive digital displays and a focus on makeup over skincare, according to WWD, all of which the brand hopes will draw in millennial makeup shoppers. The digital and neon differentiate this Dior outpost from its luxury competitor, Chanel, whose freestanding beauty boutiques are – you guessed it – black, white, and sleek. (Chanel doesn’t have a store in the World Trade Center mall.)
There are outliers that don’t fit into this now-common beauty store aesthetic, of course, and Ulta is the biggest that comes to mind. Ulta is not necessarily for cool girls, and this is exactly how the retailer likes it. “There’s approachability. It’s about not taking ourselves too seriously, being very accepting,” says Shelley Haus, the vice president of brand marketing. Ulta stores are all white and cheerily bright, punctuated by colors the retailer has dubbed “Orange Pop” and “Mad for Magenta.” Ulta’s unique business model of offering both drugstore and prestige brands means that it needs to be welcoming to both 19-year-olds on a limited budget and 50-year-olds looking for high-end foundation.
Much like lipstick trends, retail design trends change, too. “Every other week there’s something that rocks retailers’ world[s]. I don’t know what this looks like yet, but we’re probably at the beginning of a new era of retail aesthetics,” says the designer.
The new era could very well be that of so-called natural beauty. As a sector, natural beauty is booming as shoppers hunt for products with ostensibly “cleaner” ingredients than traditional brands. This new attitude is reflected in store décor. A slick image gives way to homier touches. Cap Beauty and Shen Beauty, two indie natural beauty stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, feature pastel pink and lavender in the stores. It’s less about being aspirational than being welcoming.
Credo, a growing natural beauty chain founded by a former Sephora executive, has stores in San Francisco and Manhattan, with two more coming to LA and Brooklyn. It might just be leading the new aesthetic charge. Stores feature white furnishings, lots of light-colored ash wood, and even throw rugs.
“We purposefully steered away from that uber sleek and exclusive vibe. We know that can be kind of intimidating to customers,” says Annie Jackson, Credo’s vice president of merchandising. “If we could create a living room or invite someone into our home, what would that feel like?”
A lot of wood, for starters. “Once you add wood it says ‘natural, residential, warm, welcoming’ because it’s a natural material and it’s very familiar,” says the design professional. “If you look at The Honest Company beauty pop-up they did in LA, that was mostly white but a few spots of wood to add additional texture. It’s a very low-risk way of adding visual interest and saying something about the brand, that you like natural materials and that you’re accessible, without overwhelming the visual experience.”
Finally, there’s Bluemercury, another outlier that opened stores in 1999 and was recently bought by Macy’s. It has a white and woody aesthetic in its stores, even though it’s not a natural retailer. It also has a big focus on skincare, so maybe that’s a point of difference. Makeup is about color and pizzazz, hence the in-your-face (literally) selling environment. Skincare is invisible, and thus, quieter.
In the end, no matter what the store looks like, it’s all about making the customer want to shop there. “Brand and store should equal a positive experience and be a place that we all want to revisit,” says MAC’s Gager. “I believe stores should make you feel welcome and reflect very clearly what the brand represents.”