French beauty and skincare retailer Sephora is to return to the U.K. online next week and with a flagship store next year.
And it’s only taken 17 years and a $147 million acquisition to get here.
Sephora notoriously exited the U.K. retail market in May 2005 after opening just six stores in five years, the first of which was in the flagship Bluewater shopping center outside London.
While British fans were able to get their hands on Sephora goods again in 2014 when the company aadded an option for U.K. shipping to its website, new GDPR rules put pay to that in 2018.
Rumors then swirled a year later that Sephora would be opening a store in the Westfield London shopping center but it never materialized.
However, when Sephora acquired e-beauty retailer FeelUnique last year for $147 million, a return to British shores became a very real prospect.
Sephora Targets U.K. Market
And no wonder. The U.K. is among the three leading cosmetic consumers in Europe, behind only France and Germany,
The expansion roll-out will begin with the switch of domains from FeelUnique to Sephora.co.uk on October 17. The retailer then intends to open its London flagship store in spring 2023, although there are no details on a location as yet.
Chief executive and chair of Sephora, Chris de Lapuente, said: “We are delighted to bring Sephora to the U.K., responding to Britain’s strong demand for our unique prestige beauty experience. The U.K. is home to a dynamic beauty and wellbeing market that Sephora will aim to surprise and delight through our trademark know how and creativity.”
The U.K.’s beauty retail market is currently dominated by two high street competitors, drugstore behemoth Boots – which is part of the Walgreens
Why Did Sephora Exit U.K?
The LVMH-owned retailer blamed soaring rents and costs for its inability to compete with the established players last time round, yet it was undoubtedly an embarrassing climb-down for a retailer that entered the market with great fanfare.
So, will Sephora be able to carve out its own space on the U.K. high street 18 years later?
Well firstly, it can leverage the brand equity of Feelunique, which was founded in 2005 and currently has over 1.3 million active customers.
The most strategic way to enter is likely to add some of the missing brands to the Feelunique platform with cult brands, its eponymous line Sephora Collection, plus Sephora’s diverse range of makeup, fragrances, wellness and skincare brands previously unavailable.
In addition, Sephora needs to use its reputation as an innovative retailer to modernize the category and create something new and exciting for British consumers.
Timing could be everything. Many departments stores are disappearing or have gone from the U.K.’s mall and high streets and with them the traditional ground level beauty halls. Both Boots and Superdrug largely have staid and non-premium store environments and Sephora has head room to bring something fresh to market.
However, it will also come up against new players.
Popular apparel brand Next – which bought Marie Claire’s beauty format Fabled from Ocado in 2019 – has diversified into Beauty Halls, launching a number up and down the U.K. mainly in spaces vacated by the collapsed department store chain Debenhams.
Indeed, the department store’s demise has shaken up the beauty industry, where it was a major player.
Harrods, just months after Debenhams’ collapse in 2020, revealed it would roll-out its standalone H Beauty format. Since then, the luxury department store has opened five beauty stores, including the most recently opened at the giant Metrocentre, Gateshead.
Meanwhile, Frasers Group’s Flannels plans to open up to ten Beauty Edit concept spaces in key regional locations by 2025.
Add in greater competition from the big supermarkets and a plethora of niche online brands and the field is far more crowded than back in 2005.
Yet Sephora feels a more confident brand than last time round and with all to play for, next week U.K. consumers will get their first chance to buy from Sephora once again.