Editor’s Note: Elena Sheppard is a culture writer who focuses on books, fashion, theater and history. Her first book, “The Eternal Forest: A Memoir of the Cuban Diaspora” is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Cosmetic items, many say, are recession-proof. During times of economic uncertainty (like now, for instance) consumers stop spending on big-ticket items like electronics or furniture but keep spending on life’s little treats — such as perfume or lipstick. It makes sense. Beauty products are an example of a relatively low stakes and low-cost way to feel pampered and a little bit luxurious.
Indeed, while we peer out between our fingers to see which way this tumultuous world and economy will go, fragrance, particularly higher-end lines, is seeing double-digit growth. But the way we purchase this particular affordable luxury in person is undergoing change, which, in turn, transforms how we experience the item itself.
Earlier this year, Sephora, one of the beauty industry’s largest online and brick-and-mortar retailers, with more than 2,700 stores worldwide, started removing perfume and cologne from the shelves. The new protocol involves perfume samples on display and a salesperson on call to retrieve the item should a patron want to purchase. The company told CNN the change was implemented because perfumes and colognes were among the most frequently shoplifted items in Sephora stores, and shoplifting numbers were trending higher. “The safety and security of our employees and customers is our top priority,” the retailer said in a statement.
This change is a big deal for a retailer that completely revolutionized the way we buy these items in the first place. Sephora opened its first US store in 1998, when a growing American economy was the ideal backdrop for a French cosmetics store to secure its new world roots. And Sephora’s schtick was, at the time, quite unique. Customers were encouraged to experiment with products in the store; try them on, test them, see what they liked and then load them into their basket. This was a brand new way for most Americans to buy beauty products — a departure from department stores, where traditionally, a representative for the company was the consumer’s conduit to the product. At Sephora, consumers could handle the product themselves, wandering the aisles and filling up shopping baskets like they were at the supermarket.
Sephora’s success was not foretold. Indeed, a 1998 New York Times article posed these questions about the store-in-process: “Will women buy as many products if they are not heavily pushed by sales clerks? Will customers appreciate the freedom to wander and try things out at whim?”
The answers, of course, were yes and yes. An entire generation of shoppers, myself included, grew up with this hands-on approach to procuring our little luxuries.
Returning to a different perfume shopping model is a bit of a return to the status quo of an earlier era. For a few decades, buying perfume at Sephora was an entirely self-sufficient and indulgent experience — there is a lovely privacy about going to a store and being able to search for what you want and purchase it without requiring anyone’s assistance.
But there is also something to be said for a little more human interaction. Previous generations did more interfacing with salespeople in stores, particularly for items like perfume, and perhaps we should too.
The way we buy our little luxuries is as connected to the feeling of pampering as the item itself. A bad in-store experience can sour even the sweetest purchase, just like a hard-to-manage website can complicate an online one. Sephora’s move to take perfume off the shelves impacts how we interact and interface with these products, ending what was a 25-year consumer experiment in the US, and back into the pattern of how people have made these purchases for generations.
As fragrance continues to grow in popularity, I’m eyeing not just which perfumes people are gravitating toward, but how their shopping experience makes them feel about their little bottles of hope.