Customer Experience: Ulta vs. Sephora

A few years ago, I shopped fairly equally at the two main cosmetics giants, Ulta and Sephora. If I had been asked, I would have said that they were just about the same. If I needed a new lipstick, I’d go to whichever one was closest, and I was a VIP shopper at both. A recent reflection on how my feelings as a shopper have changed made me think about something we often see with clients: they focus on their product and their goals, not on the customer experience.

Ulta and Sephora are retailers. They both sell much the same thing, and both have house brands. Walk into either one and you’ll be met by lots of cosmetics and skin care goodies, lots of samples, and people who show enthusiasm for the product. But the online customer experience at these two big shops has changed so much in the past few years that I now never shop at one of them.

Here are some of the changes:

  • Sephora has an app for their loyalty program, while Ulta still uses a physical card.
  • Ulta doesn’t give loyalty points online unless you make the effort to link up your account, while Sephora does it automatically.
  • Ulta gives you points in the store only if you have your card or wait while the sales associate looks up your account; at Sephora, it’s automatic.
  • Sephora’s app adds a badge to your phone when you’re near a physical store.
  • Sephora’s app keeps your credit card info, remembers your shipping preferences, and makes shopping instant from your phone or in the store.
  • Sephora’s website has blogs, how-to videos, and customer forums. Ulta? No information sources, just products to buy.

Sephora has mastered the omnichanel experience — the phone app, the in-store visits, and the online experience are seamless.

Can you guess which store now has me as a loyal customer? I probably wouldn’t have a significantly different customer experience at their brick and mortar stores, but I don’t know for sure, because I no longer go to Ulta.

It’s not just technology, either. Their websites, shown below, are frankly not that different at first glance, though Sephora’s superior content brings consumers back between shopping trips.



But their approach to marketing is different:

  •  Ulta has flash sale emails, which push you to shop immediately.
  • Sephora has customized email offers based on previous purchases.
  • Ulta rewards loyal shoppers with cash-off or house brand gifts.
  • Sephora gives free samples and loyalty program gifts of premium products.
  • Ulta describes itself as “Home Depot for women,” and let’s overlook for the moment how sexist that is.
  • Sephora offers personal services, including an in-store foundation color matching (Sephora partnered with Pantone) that’s designed to store and share with your phone.

For Ulta, it’s all about them. Sephora is all about me — or you, or any of their other customers.

We know that our average website visitor is a guy, so statistically speaking, chances are good that you don’t shop at either Ulta or Sephora. Don’t get distracted by that fact. Think seriously about the experience you offer your customers, at your website and throughout their path to purchase. Are you there  when they need help and information? Is it easy to shop, no matter where they are? Do you keep friction to a minimum when they’re ready to buy? Do you show that you’re thinking about their wants and needs?

If not, it’s time to rethink the customer experience you’re offering. Today’s empowered consumer has lots of choices. They can get products anywhere… and even if your products are remarkable, that probably won’t make up for a poor customer experience. Make sure you’re offering the smooth omnichannel customer experience your consumers now expect.









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