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Can Department Stores Fix the Beauty Floor?

Saks is sure trying.

Makeup testers at the new Saks beauty floor.
A view of the new Saks beauty floor.

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The commonly held visual of a department store beauty floor is a frenetic hive, with a maze of brand counters all staffed with eager associates trying to spritz you with perfume. You pop in to check your hair in a mirror and somehow end up buying two lipsticks and a fragrance. And if you’re lucky — gift with purchase!

Department store beauty floors were successful for a long time. Then the internet and Sephora came along, and department stores have been forced to rethink how they do everything. To that end, Saks has undertaken a $250 million renovation in an attempt to get people back into the store to buy things. The new beauty department at its Fifth Avenue New York City flagship is one step.

Saks undertook a pretty radical experiment — at least in terms of the old-school department store behemoths — by opting to move beauty from the ground floor to the second floor, which goes against how department stores have retailed for decades. The chaos on the ground floor as well as cramped quarters inspired the move upstairs. The new space is 40 percent larger than the old one, at 32,000 square feet.

The Chanel boutique at the new Saks beauty floor.

“Every business would like to be on the first floor. You do more business on the first floor because it’s impulse, it’s a lower price point, it’s a quick pick-me-up,” says Kate Oldham, the senior vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty, jewelry, and home at Saks. “We always had customers who wanted a part of Saks. So they could buy makeup from us and it’s right at the front door.”

Oldham acknowledges that department stores have had challenges recently, with scary headlines about the retail apocalypse popping up every few weeks. “We really felt that we were either going to stay the same and keep doing what we were doing or we were going to do something big. And we decided to do something big.”

Brands were skeptical at first, but they eventually bought in. “Everybody would rather be on the first floor, that’s true,” says Oldham. “But once we shared our vision, they were excited to do something different, and they definitely applauded us.”

The first US Gucci beauty shop at Saks.

There are more than 120 brands, including 58 that are new to Saks. The floor feels very different from the original first-floor beauty area, which will eventually feature an expanded handbag assortment and a new escalator front and center to whisk shoppers upstairs. The second floor used to hold contemporary ready-to-wear and Saks’s wellness pop-up, the Wellery. The new beauty floor shares space with jewelry.

Saks opened up the Fifth Avenue facing windows and decorated with lots of white and chrome, as well as fixtures that aren’t taller than 5 feet, 7 inches, giving the whole space an open, airy feeling. The floor is loosely grouped by section (kind of like at Sephora), meaning you can find color cosmetics, so-called treatment brands like Sisley and La Mer, and fragrances in their own sections so you don’t have to wander from kiosk to kiosk if you’re shopping for a fragrance, for example.

Gucci and Christian Louboutin both have their first US beauty concept shops here; Chanel’s expanded space is larger than many NYC apartments and feels like a mini version of its freestanding stores, complete with a view of Rockefeller Center and the spot where the tree goes during the holidays. Aesop and Kiehl’s have shops that very much reflect their aesthetics; the perfumer Guerlain offers custom perfume mixing and bottle engraving. One of the more charming areas is the EB Florals shop, where you can buy fragrances, candles, and freshly cut flowers.

The Face Gym space at Saks.

As has been a common refrain in brick-and-mortar retail lately, there is a huge focus on providing experiences, things people can’t do on their phones and computer screens. These abound on the new Saks floor. You can get your face pummeled, rollered, frozen, and massaged at the impossible-to-describe Face Gym. You can get your cellulite minimized (chicly) at Martine de Richeville. You can do CoolSculpting, the treatment that freezes small areas of fat, and laser hair removal at Skinney Medspa. Then there are manis and meditation at Sundays, or brow touch-ups at Blink.

Plus there are 15 new treatment rooms where many brands provide facials and other services, often for free. La Prairie, which sells $300 skin care, is offering free 30-, 60-, and 90-minute facials, with no requirement to purchase anything. A centralized concierge can arrange all these things for you.

Ulta and Sephora have recently ramped up their service offerings, and it’s become increasingly clear that more stores will have to do this. Ulta has facials by Skin Laundry and Dermalogica, full-service hair salons, and brows by Benefit. Sephora offers a range of mini makeovers and personal skin care consultations, and it just added Perk facials, a quick treatment that hydrates and exfoliates using a special tool.

Saks is obviously in the upper echelons of retail from a price perspective. (One perfume on the new floor cost $3,000, for example.) But Oldham considers even drugstores to be competitive at this point. “You go to CVS, you go to Target, Walgreens — they all have sales associates, they have beauty advisers,” she says. “Everyone’s carrying a little bit of beauty now, and it’s easy to find. So we needed to create something which was a destination and a differentiator.”

It’s definitely an experiment; Saks executives expect to take what they learn at the flagship and apply it to other stores as appropriate, while also recognizing that space constraints won’t allow the type of renovation they’ve done in New York. But several regional stores already have expanded treatment areas. The other issue is that each brand still staffs its own area; it’s not like Sephora or Ulta, where employees work for the store and can recommend products across brands and price points.

There are a lot of brands and retailers trying to get your beauty dollars now, not to mention Amazon. But if this experiment works, you may see the traditional department store beauty floor become obsolete.