Battle of the Sephoras: 6 Differences Between the China and US Sephora Experience

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I have an unhealthy love for the beauty retail phenomenon we know as Sephora.

To the point that I can’t walk by one without going in, and to the point that I can comfortably stay up to 3am dedicated solely to the task of adding new items to my wishlist.

So you’d naturally assume that I’d be dying to check out the Sephoras here in China: and you’d be right.

Key Takeaway: It’s not the same.

And that’s a great thing. While it means that I’m suddenly stripped of the comfortable promise of familiarity upon walking in the doors of a Chinese Sephora, it also means that they’re doing a great job of adapting their business to the needs and preferences of the local market. A business strategy that’s been paying off: they’re looking to grow to 100 stores in China this year. And while there’s always a danger of changing the product in a way that confuses the consumer and dilutes the brand image, Sephora China has done a good job in keeping the shopping experience and brand elements, such as retail design, consistent.

So how do they differ then?

1. First Impressions: Featured Products

From the outside, Sephora China looks like my beloved Sephora US. Walking in, I was immediately struck by the thought: this isn’t quite the same. That’s because while the retail layout design is essentially the same, the product priorities, as demonstrated by the display of featured products, are different.

In the US, Sephora’s displays showcase new products and, pretty innovatively, walls of recommendations for must-have brushes, glosses, [insert other category of beauty product here], etc. That always gets me to buy. You also have the seemingly random selection of expertly-curated cult “goodies” that are usually located by the cash register.

In China, the first thing you see is: value box sets. Lots and lots of them. Usually containing three to four products each…and almost all skincare products. The beauty market in China is driven by skincare – so it’s not an entirely illogical priority. Point in case: every product labeled with China Sephora’s “Number [insert rank here] Best-Selling Product” sign was a skincare product.

2. Category Mix

The percentage of display space dedicated to each category is different (percentages here are purely estimated from personal observation, approximate, and are in no way supported by actual store data).

United States
Color – 35%
Skin/Haircare – 35%
Fragrance – 20%
Sephora Private Label + Other – 10%

Skincare – 45%
Color – 20%
Fragrance – 15%
Sephora Private Label + Other – 15%
Men – 5%

Still don’t believe skincare dominates Sephora China? 7 of the 9 products featured on the landing page of the website (as of today, 9/12 @7.25pm) are skincare brands.

3. Product Mix and Brand Origins

For Beloved One's Melasleep Whitening White Peony Jelly

In China, the skincare brands, ~45% of the store, include: Lancome (which is strangely enough, not found on the website), Institut Esthederm, Talika, Sampar, Rexaline, Laneige, Eisenberg, Biotherm, Dior, For Beloved One, Givenchy, Guerlain, Lancaster, Clarins, Strivectin, Herborist, Estee Lauder, Clinique, Decleor, Mamonde, to name a few.

(Slight variations across the stores I visited, i.e., some also carry Yue Sai, L’Oreal Paris, L’Occitane, etc.)

In color cosmetics, the brands featured include (but not limited to): Benefit, Dior, Make Up Forever, Estee Lauder, Guerlain, and Lancome.

Benefit's Dandelion Face Powder

Observation? Mostly French brands. Of the brands listed above, 65% are French, only 2 are mainland Chinese (including Yue Sai).  There are a total of 5 Asian brands.

Many of the US brands that are typically found in a US Sephora are absent here: Bliss, Urban Decay, Philosophy, Stila, Tarte, Bare Escentuals (American brand owned by Shiseido, a Japanese company), Smashbox, etc. Which is not unexpected (though missed). One thing to note is that the China Sephora doesn’t offer as many homegrown (including Asian) brands as the US does.

4. The Color Cosmetics Experience

A typical scene in the Sephora in Times Square features girls fighting for mirror space as they use q-tips to apply color on lips, swipe blush across  cheeks, or rub cream foundation onto back of hands. Sephora’s sales experts approach and consult girls on how to choose colors that suit them and how to apply chosen color.

In China, there’s hardly anyone testing anything. The dedicated make-up space (branded Sephora, naturally) features empty chairs.

5. Foot Traffic

As a result, there just aren’t as many people in the store. I thought maybe it was because I went during a low-traffic day part, first exploring on a Thursday evening, then on a Friday afternoon. But today, I went Saturday mid-day to two Sephoras in one of the busiest shopping districts. These stores, however, were a mere two department stores apart, so who knows, maybe they were cannibalizing each other’s business. Further investigation pending.

6. Men

Biotherm Homme's Regenetic

Maybe I had just never noticed the men’s products in the US, but in China, you can’t miss ’em. Sephora China has wall displays dedicated to men’s products. I’ve heard wonderful things about Biotherm Homme, but had never seen Lancome Men or Dior Homme featured so prominently. The men’s market here has huge potential. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Sephora. There were a fair number of male sales staff, but not many male consumers in the store (except for my friend Christian, who was unfortunately dragged along and had to stand uncomfortably in the middle of the cosmetics section frozen in male fear).

So there you have it, the six differences purely derived from casual observation and first impressions.

One other fun thing I noticed was the packaging (not a difference, so not included above). Most of the products, coming from outside China, didn’t actually have Chinese language packaging. And there wasn’t much in the way of informational tent cards and such. So, most of the local language information came from the product names on the price tags. It’s a good thing the sales staff are really friendly and approachable. It’s a great solution: for a store so focused on skincare, it really supports the emphasis on expertise and product efficacy.

Additional Work?

Staff: To complete the analysis, it’d be great to dedicate more time to speaking with the staff and confirming their expertise in skincare and product knowledge.

Loyalty Program/Beauty Insider: I also didn’t notice the loyalty program, a huge piece (and asset) in the US Sephora experience. I’d go back and check that out.

Price Comparison: Taking one product and comparing Sephora China’s price and US online equivalent quote. Investigating how much value we’re getting out of the box sets. Is China really cheaper, as we’ve been led to believe?

The Online Experience: I love the US Sephora mobile and online shopping experience – can China’s measure up?

For further reading, check out EnovateChina’s article on the emerging Chinese beauty consumer and Sephora’s role in the growth of the beauty market

Here’s something I’m curious to find out: anyone have any thoughts on any of the other Sephoras around the world?


About jessyclaire

A blogger passionate about the beauty industry and the quirky beauty differences across the globe.
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14 Responses to Battle of the Sephoras: 6 Differences Between the China and US Sephora Experience

  1. Natalie says:

    Fun blog! Thought on the loyalty program: not really something that they’d do with a store like Sephora in Shanghai. It’s considered high end and Shanghainese like to flaunt money if they have it. So loyalty just looks cheap. In HK though? Women would love it.

    Just my two cents. =)

  2. jessyclaire says:

    Interesting observation that the Shanghainese might equate loyalty programs with cheapness! Never even crossed my mind. I wonder whether the rapidly expanding second-tier cities are more likely to follow the Shanghainese way of thinking, or the Hong Kong way. Time will tell!

  3. cclarebear says:

    brilliant post – much better researched than my “whinge, sephora china sucks, whinge whinge” post hahaha. i’m all for starting a support group though 😀

    • jessyclaire says:

      Haha no no, I hear ya! There are definitely things/products I miss, but different markets have different needs and Sephora tailors it’s offering accordingly — which unfortunately, means we might not find exactly everything we crave. Take heart: there’s always for that!

      • Leanne says:

        Only if they ship to your country. We here in the antipodes still put it on our list when we travel to stock up on Sephora goodies. Packing is always intensively planned to allow for this and other places we love but dont have ie Anthropologie

  4. Olivia says:

    Great observation and interesting writing, gorgeous girl!
    You should work for a magazine and become an editor or make up reporter!!!

  5. j.b. says:

    wow! totally came upon this by accident while doing a little research. well written! what do you think of sephora now after a few years have gone by? i would love to read your opinion.

  6. j.b. says:

    this is really well written! thanks for your observations. i came across this article by accident while doing a little research. i’d love to hear what your observations are now after a few years.

  7. Sephora in Singapore is very popular! Packed wall to wall.

  8. I’m a black card member in Singapore. I’ll be moving to Shanghai very soon. Hopefully I can be its member there too :))

  9. Pingback: Western Expansionism: The Success of Sephora, The Missteps of Marks & Spencer – Julien Isaacs

  10. Pingback: A beauty addict in China: Beauty shopping in Shanghai - twindly beauty blog

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