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Working with more than 200 skin care and cosmetics brands, Sephora has emerged as the leader of innovation in the beauty industry. In 1998, it completely overturned the cosmetics purchase experience by replacing guarded, stuffy makeup with a place where touching and trying products was encouraged. It was one of the first retailers to create a seamless experience from store to mobile to desktop, with a cross-channel loyalty program and the Sephora to Go app that scanned barcodes. These innovations have earned Sephora the No. 1 rank in L2’s Specialty Retail studies for three consecutive years. At last week’s Mobile Clinic, Senior Director of Sephora’s Innovation Lab Johnna Marcus spoke about how the Lab creates and fosters a culture of innovation, collaborates with big and small innovators, and does repeated testing to identify the right technology and products to develop. In a post-event interview with L2, Marcus explains keys to finding and identifying innovative ideas to pursue in an interview.

Timing separates good ideas from the bad. ‘More often than not, when we run into things we want to shelve, it’s because of timing. The technology is not there yet, and the user is not there yet. Some combination hasn’t taken off yet,” says Marcus. For example, Sephora launched the Sephora to Go app in 2010, but many of the features like product scanning and video did not take off till years later. Malls did not have wifi at the time (many lacked cell service), and consumer data plans were limited. Now, most malls have wifi and consumers are comfortable watching video on the go. Marcus adds that not all products must be shelved if they are created before their time, if they are launched with the intention of having a headstart.

Yet, in some cases a technology itself is not ready for adoption. For example, Sephora followed the virtual reality space for four years before launching the Virtual Artist app that helps customers try on various lipsticks on their phone screen. Initially, quality was lacking in the technology, but Sephora continued to track the industry for improvements.

Digital should evolve analogue. Long before launching the Sephora to Go app, Sephora launched the Beauty Insider in 2007. The initial program was similar to traditional loyalty programs using email collection and cards, but the retailer has built on the program since. Points and past purchases are available online and offline. Similarly, the Virtual Artist lipstick shade finder is often introduced in stores as a complement to traditional swatch testing on the arm. Once a customer narrows the lipsticks down to a few, the Virtual Artist can help make a final decision.

New digital products can also be a continuation of what has already resonated with clients. For example, Sephora’s Beauty Board – where customers can post pictures of themselves in various makeup looks and tag the products they used – is the next wave of written user reviews, Marcus says. Users can snap a photo when they are excited about a new product, or feel good about their makeup and share.

Technique-specific campaigns like color correcting – which Marcus identifies as a bubbling trend – are promoted in stores and online. Sales associates (aka cast members) give in-person tutorials, and users can watch video on desktop or mobile or play a game on the app to test their knowledge.

Testing is key. Before Sephora launched Virtual Artist, employees tested the results and compared them to real life on all 3,000+ shades. Adjustments were made not just for color, but to portray the finish and sheen realistically. This rigorous testing applies to testing ideas and deciding which ones to shelve and pursue. As Marcus says in her talk, “You need to kiss a lot of frogs” and fail fast many times before finding a product worthy of aggressive pursuit.

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