Primed for a digital makeover: recreating the in-store experience online

Ed Bussey

CSO, Content

As the retail world confronts a digital-first future, making the necessary strategic changes to achieve that in the months ahead could prove critical to survival, let alone future success. This applies particularly to the beauty industry, which has long rested upon the laurels of lucrative revenue from beauty counters and physical stores.

Until recently, many of the industry’s key players have underestimated the significance, scale, and scope of the global digital transition at hand. But for those who react quickly, it’s not too late to catch the coming wave. How? By adopting a user-centered approach that boldly and deliberately recreates the appeal, service, and experience of the traditional beauty counter – online.

Our recent analysis of 50 world-leading beauty companies has highlighted a slew of omissions and oversights – which, if addressed, have the potential to supercharge customer acquisition and retention, even in economically challenging times.

The location

Cosmetic and skincare counters have long served as fragrant gateways to the industry’s bottom line, commandeering premier floorspace and generating footfall in department stores, chemists, and drugstore chains alike. The world’s best-loved beauty brands have spent decades coaxing customers in – and back again – with personalised service and high-quality shopping experience.

In the digital era, a carefully crafted website with a strong SEO presence must perform a similar function, ushering crowds of organic traffic through a brand or e-tailer’s virtual “doors”. With the first five organic search results accounting for around 67% of all the clicks for online search queries, ranking well for valuable short and long-tail category terms, through high-quality category content with the correct metadata, has become absolutely paramount.

Astonishingly, around 62% of all the beauty retailers we assessed lacked optimised category description content for SEO* – and several high-profile brands failed to provide any category descriptions at all – squandering a huge window of opportunity to net organic traffic.

Brands wouldn’t expect to generate offline sales in a store where they have no physical presence. The same is true of the digital world – you can’t sell if you’re not even visible, so optimised category content is quite simply essential.

The makeover

Few experiences are as synonymous with the beauty counter as the personalised makeover – an industry staple that can showcase a brand’s products in an intimate – and inspirational – way.  How better to convince a customer of the merits of products they perhaps barely knew existed – than to apply them directly to their skin, effecting a persuasive skincare benefit or flattering cosmetic transformation. Poised at the beauty counter, the customer presents a captive audience – readily engaged by the scents and textures of the products on display and easily swayed by a first-hand experience of them.

Of course, one unavoidable reality of shopping for beauty products online is that there’s no beauty counter, and therefore no way for customers to try out the products for themselves, let alone indulge in a personalised makeover. But a creative approach could actually transform this deficit into an unexpected advantage – online.

Even before an era of social distancing, many consumers lacked the confidence – or the time – to linger over a makeover at a beauty counter. Most, however, have sufficient downtime to slot in a virtual browsing session at their leisure. Research also shows that among women who have gone to a shop to purchase a skincare product, at least 30% went home empty-handed because they weren’t sure which products were right for them – but didn’t feel able to ask.

For many, access to clear and detailed product information, user-centered guides, video content, and FAQs, will amount to a successful shopping experience. Novel AI testing tools, such as Sephora’s Product Try-On and Olay’s Skin Advisor, offer huge convenience and an enviable service, however, meeting customer needs still requires supplementing them with descriptions of fragrances and textures on your product pages. Doing so enables customers to make informed decisions even when they can’t touch, feel and see products in person. Similarly, crafting product copy that is persuasive and aspirational can evoke desire and make up for the absence of the evocative beauty counter when shopping online.

The sales assistant

A beauty counter without any sales staff may be unthinkable, but this is the reality that online shoppers face if websites fail to provide the content that aids purchase decision-making.

Whether communicating product benefits, product ingredients, or their sustainability credentials, your product pages need to recreate the advice that customers expect in-store and answer all pre-purchase questions – mindful of the fact that this information is replicating a service usually provided by a knowledgeable sales consultant.

This may seem an obvious priority, but our assessment of beauty brands* revealed that it’s not uncommon to neglect this area, with many brands supplying brief and cursory product descriptions, widely duplicated content, and having a dispiriting lack of meaningful information about their products’ unique benefits.

For consumers higher up the purchase funnel, who may not already have a specific product in mind, sales assistants may give more general advice on product categories that achieve shoppers’ goals. In the online world, the equivalent is detailed how-to and buying guides that help consumers choose appropriate products and answer all of their questions about how best to use them.

In its overview of the best beauty retailers onlineThe Independent praised Beauty Bay for its guide content, including make-up tutorials, colour trend reports, make-up look tips, product recommendations, and reviews. Beauty Bay’s guides also scored highly in our analysis, but we found that almost a third of online beauty retailers failed to provide any online guides* at all, let alone the sort of high-quality material that helps to safeguard customer retention rates, build trust or drive conversions. The lack of such content leaves droves of potential customers with little choice but to go elsewhere to get their pre-purchase questions answered.

The visual merchandising

Beauty brands have invested many millions in creating visually appealing retail spaces which show off key products effectively, but when it comes to online shopping, inspirational visual content is typically in shorter supply.  This seems particularly negligent in an era in which millions of women watch make-up tutorials on YouTube every day, while vloggers and influencers are driving many key trends.

On eCommerce sites, around 90% of customers say they’ve been persuaded to buy a product or service by watching a product video, so the case for investing in visual content is clear. Simply embedding videos in landing pages has the potential to increase conversion rates by as much as 80%.

The new reality

Even as stores reopen, the traditional beauty counter – with its pots of testers and in-person makeovers – appears likely to become a thing of the past. Virtual try-on technologies will undoubtedly assume a new significance in the years to come. Brands such as The Ordinary and Dermalogica are already offering free one-on-one consultations online, providing customers with beauty advice and product recommendations from experts.

However, getting the fundamentals right first should be the main priority for most beauty brands and retailers. In an increasingly crowded market, it may seem a tall order, but optimising product, guide, and category pages for maximum visibility, and providing relevant, unique, search-optimised on-page content really can make all the difference.

How does your store measure up?

Ecommerce Content assets – such as product and category descriptions, buying and how-to guides – although frequently overlooked, are a critical driver of revenue, reputation, and ROI for online retailers, helping to:

  • Increase conversion rates & AOVs
  • Increase search rankings & traffic
  • Reduce product return rates
  • Maintain brand integrity & a positive customer experience

Is your eCommerce website’s content up to scratch? To find out, request a complementary Ecommerce Content Score audit of your site.

*Based on audits of retailer websites conducted to date.