Analysis: Brick-and-mortar retail alive and well at Ulta Beauty


Mass retail is at a crossroads. Many of the iconic brands that are mainstays for our biggest and best malls are announcing layoffs and closures. The traditional brick-and-mortar store continues to see reduced foot traffic and most can’t seem to find a remedy. Amid this retail doom and gloom, however, there is one retailer that is rising above the rest: Ulta Beauty.

In the face (pun intended) of such uncertainty, Ulta announced outstanding fourth quarter results last month and an expansion of its brick-and-mortar footprint. It will open nearly 100 new stores in 2017, with 13 locations set for a remodel. It also plans to open its first-ever Manhattan location on the Upper East Side. While its peers are struggling to evolve their physical presence, Ulta is bracing for more foot traffic than ever before.

How has Ulta achieved such success in the traditionally congested beauty products market? Its beautifully blended online and offline experiences, along with a focus on unique in-store experiences and convenience are inevitably what propelled it to this position. The company’s leaders have thoughtfully pondered its holistic existence — and they’ve nailed it.

For instance, in a try-before-you-buy category, Ulta excels at accessibility and trialability. Reiterating this point, Steph Wissink, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, stated: “People like to be able to experiment with products most notably at the very high-end price range, so Ulta provides a contemporary environment for that process.” This experimental culture makes it tough for niche online players to compete.

Similarly, Ulta has echoed accessibility in its expansion efforts. You’ll typically find it situated in high-traffic, off-mall locations such as power centers. Notably, power centers have grown like weeds in the past 25 years and many include other destination retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, PetSmart or Whole Foods. Ulta noticed a shift away from the traditional department store and took advantage of it.

For many, the appeal of Ulta is in its one-stop shop experience. There’s no need for customers to look any further because their favorite brands are all under one roof. The recent addition of Estee Lauder’s MAC brand is further edification of this. Rolling out this spring, it will be in 100 stores by the end of the year. Ulta clearly adheres to its “All Things Beauty, All in One Place” mantra, offering over 20,000 brands from more than 500 brands.

Experience and accessibility are certainly unique to Ulta’s offering, but there may be a bigger context here. Namely, people used to buy beauty products at department stores. However, their sales are down more than 30% since 2001. This left an opening for someone to come in and grab market share in the beauty category, and Ulta is an outgrowth of this.

Ultimately, Ulta’s in-store products and services are what set it apart in the physical retail space. Understanding that salon guests spend nearly triple that of the average customer, it capitalized on the opportunity and this has only further elevated the brand. It’s clear that customers crave unique in-store experiences, but how does this play with its online presence?

It’s all about integration. Ulta’s website allows customers to shop, redeem rewards and book appointments all in one place. Its online presence is largely an extension of the physical store and provides a compelling cross-channel experience.

Additionally, its smart investments in this arena continue to yield dividends. In 2016, it opened a new distribution center in Dallas and expanded distribution capabilities at its Greenwood, Indiana, distribution center, which improved processing times and triggered a 59% increase to its e-commerce business.

Even industry giants like Amazon haven’t been able to crack the competitive beauty market yet.

“Until Amazon creates a drone that can cut your hair, there's a physical and real reason to come to the store,” said Ulta’s CEO Mary Dillon. Retailers who aim to compete in the volatile retail environment should follow Ulta’s example and figure out why customers should shop with their brand, instead of Amazon.

In a world where Amazon exists, how can the physical store be a valuable part of the customer journey? It all comes down to understanding what the biggest points of friction are for your customers. It’s not rocket science – and you certainly don’t need to out innovate your competitors. Retailers simply need to understand their customers, their shopping journeys and the pain points they face along the way.

Today’s retailers should take notes from Ulta’s example. When in-store and online shopping experiences can play well together, customers won’t think twice when choosing where to shop.

Jared Blank is senior VP of data analysis and insights at Bluecore, a leading decisioning platform for commerce, powering unique interactions by unifying customer and catalog data.


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Drug store giant unveils new store design


CVS Pharmacy continues to make a concerted effort to transform its stores, with the goal of fostering a better customer experience.

The retailer on Wednesday officially unveiled a new store design to enhance the retail customer experience with a new assortment of healthier food, health-focused products and expanded beauty selections, paired with informational signage throughout the store to help customers discover new offerings. The retailer hosted an event at The Garage in New York City on Wednesday to showcase the enhancements firsthand.

According to CVS, combined with its innovative digital programs, these changes represent the “next evolution of the customer experience at CVS Pharmacy.”

“Pharmacy is the heart of our business and our focus on providing care to patients and customers defines everything we do in our stores,” said Helena Foulkes, president of CVS Pharmacy and executive VP, CVS Health. “Our new retail offerings leverage our deep expertise in health to enhance our customers’ shopping experience. The same guiding principles that led to the removal of tobacco from our stores extend to our commitment to deliver the most innovative health and beauty solutions.”

The new store formats and deeper focus on expanded health, healthier food and beauty assortments are key elements of the next phase of the front-store growth strategy, which was first introduced in 2015. Today there are more than 800 CVS Pharmacy locations nationwide with this elevated design and assortment and over 3,400 with expanded food and beauty offerings. The latest improvements are intended to drive growth in categories that are most closely tied to the company’s health-focused purpose and expertise, while delivering a “shopping experience that no other online or brick-and-mortar retailer can replicate.”

Foulkes discussed these changes in detail during CVS Health’s December analyst meeting. At the time, the elevated design was in approximately 400 stores, and the results were tangible. For these stores, Foulkes reported improved run rates in consumables, up 9%, as well as beauty (up 4%) and health (up 2%).

CVS’ strategy is not a one-size-fits-all, Foulkes noted on Wednesday however. “We will continue to evolve the store experience as we test and learn in order to meet the needs of our customers in the ever-changing retail landscape,” she said. “As we identify key elements that resonate, such as new product assortments, health services and other in-store experiences, we will find ways to bring them to life in CVS Pharmacy locations nationwide.”

Major in-store changes

CVS Pharmacy is rolling out major changes to as many as 70 new and existing stores this year, with plans to expand to several hundred more in 2018. The new, health-focused formats have 100 feet of new merchandise in health, beauty and healthier food and use a streamlined layout to highlight themes that make shopping easier. “Discovery zones” in key health categories take a holistic approach to care and product selections, and customers are guided by informational signage with guidance to make finding the right solution easier.

CVS Pharmacy is also vastly expanding its offerings throughout health with a broader selection of vitamins and supplements, including offerings from specialty brands like Irwin Naturals and New Chapter, as well as expanded nutrition products like Vega and Naturade protein powders and Navitas Organics Superfood Mix Ins. Assortments tied to emerging areas like connected health, sleep/mood and immunity are merchandised in “discovery zones” that offer holistic solutions and easy navigation through educational displays.

In the beauty aisles, CVS Pharmacy continues to enhance the beauty shopping experience by adding new, “on-trend” beauty brands like Wunder2 and Tigi Cosmetics, as well as products that have greater skin health benefits and more natural ingredients. To help improve customer exploration and inspiration, a new “trend wall” has been added to 2,000 stores featuring new launches and niche brands. A beauty discovery zone highlights on-the-go options at checkout. As Drug Store News previously reported, an exclusive Korean Beauty selection curated by notable K-Beauty expert, Alicia Yoon, will be available in over 2,100 locations this month.

As for healthier food items, even more “better-for-you” food options are being added, including 27 new items under the exclusive Gold Emblem Abound product line. Healthier choices, including Alo Exposed Waters, Epic bison bars and That’s It. bars will make up approximately 50% of all food options found throughout the store. Additionally, products that fit nutritional and dietary preferences including heart healthy, good source of protein, gluten free, sugar free, organic and non-GMO project verified, are highlighted with shelf tags. This summer, the tags will expand into non-food categories, making it easier for customers to make purposeful choices throughout the store.

Post-tobacco era

The catalyst for all of these changes was CVS Pharmacy’s 2014 decision to stop selling tobacco. “Since CVS Pharmacy became the first and only national retail pharmacy to remove tobacco from its shelves in 2014, the next natural step in the evolution of our retail business was to expand our focus on health and beauty in the front of stores,” Foulkes toldChain Store Agesister publication Drug Store News in October. “We’ve continued to take critical steps as the company continues to evolve into a premier health and beauty destination.”

CVS’ Beauty and health selection has been completely transformed since this important 2014 date. At the time of the tobacco announcement, health and beauty products comprised less than half of the CVS in-store mix, Foulkes stated in December. But CVS has a goal to have health and beauty products make up 80% of the mix in the future.

“Health and beauty products are closely tied to pharmacy,” she said. “They also have 1.7 times more profit than other categories.”

Corporate responsibility

As part of an ongoing commitment to corporate social responsibility, CVS Pharmacy is also taking the following steps:

Removing certain chemicals from beauty and personal care lines: By the end of 2019, all parabens, phthalates and formaldehyde donors in products within the CVS Health, Beauty 360, Essence of Beauty, Promise Organic and Blade store brand product lines will be removed.

New standards for vitamins and supplements: CVS Pharmacy is embarking on the development of new standards for vitamins and supplements, with the goal of full implementation by 2019. The standards will require third-party testing of ingredient listings for vitamins and supplements, as well as product testing for certain ingredients of concern.

CVS Pharmacy previously announced the removal of all artificial trans fats from all exclusive store brand food products. In addition, the company stated it recently removed all sun care products with SPF lower than 15 from its shelves while expanding products with SPF 30/broad spectrum, natural beauty brands and products focused on skin health.

In addition to the in-store changes, CVS Pharmacy is making technological changes as well. According to the company, the mobile experience and ExtraCare Rewards program continue to evolve, offering more ways for customers to order products online and pick them up with CVS Curbside, pay seamlessly via CVS Pay in the app, and even manage their ExtraBucks Rewards, personalized deals, and use manufacturer coupons, all from their phone.

Not only will these changes be more convenient, but they should positively impact CVS Health’s bottom line. A digitally engaged ExtraCare member drives 3.6 times greater margins for the company vs. non-engaged customers, Foulkes explained during the company’s December analyst meeting.

Overall, all of the aforementioned changes mean CVS Pharmacy stores have become the “true embodiment of CVS Health’s enterprise mission to help people on their path to better health,” Foulkes told Chain Store Age sister publication, Drug Store News in October.


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San Diego’s Design District to get new center

BY Jennifer Mosscrop

San Diego-based RAF Pacifica Group recently acquired a 40,000-sq.-ft. land parcel (formerly the site of Cedros Gardens), in the Solana Beach section of San Diego for $5.5 million from a private owner.

The firm plans to develop 26,000 sq. ft. of the property, located within the rapidly growing Cedros Design District. The upscale community is known for its two-and-a-half-block, open-air shopping district housing yoga studios, eateries, galleries, and weekly farmers market.

“The opportunity to acquire land that is fully entitled in the heart of such a vibrant district enables us to create a true lifestyle destination that will support Solana Beach’s ongoing revitalization and drive future economic growth” said Adam Robinson, founder & principal of RAF Pacifica Group.,

Plans call for 3,200 sq. ft. of high-end restaurant space, 5,000 sq. ft. of ground-floor retail, 8,000 sq. ft. of high-quality office space, and eight multifamily units close to the COASTER commuter train.

RAF Pacifica Group plans to work with Sean MacLeod, a Solana Beach-based developer who originally secured the entitlements for the land parcel.

The Cedros Avenue project will break ground in 2017, with an estimated completion date in 2018.


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