How to Succeed in the World of Ecommerce + Beauty

If you walk into any mall across the U.S. today you’ll notice that things just aren’t the same as they used to be. With fewer and fewer stores able to justify the cost of a brick-and-mortar location, once-packed shopping hubs are now desolate.  But that’s not to say that Americans are shopping any less, they’re just doing it from the comfort of their couch. Ecommerce is now responsible for around 10% of total consumer spending and growing each year. And one market who is doing particularly well in the ecommerce space is one that might surprise you—beauty.

It seems counter-intuitive at first because beauty products are inherently hands-on. Seeing how a lotion smells or a lipstick feels is something you’d think consumers would want to try out in person – but thanks to new products and smarter ways of shopping – the shopping behavior of beauty consumers is evolving.


One of the pioneering beauty ecommerce services was Birchbox, a monthly beauty sample subscription. With a complete disruption of the market, copies like Ipsy followed in Birchbox’s footsteps, and now even big box retailers like Sephora and Target have their own subscription beauty services. The surprise gift-like feel of these boxes delivered each month makes the products inside feel precious and personalized, adding a layer of brand affinity that you wouldn’t get from just walking by a makeup counter.

A sample Birchbox shipment

Subscription services also tend to offer an added incentive of exclusive discounts towards full-sized versions of the featured products. And even if a recipient, say, doesn’t like the color of a blush but loves the formula, they’re likely to visit the brand’s website anyway and make a purchase that’s more in-line with their taste.

Online-First Brands

Thanks to the sheer abundance of beauty influencers across social media, several brands have become household names even with an internet-only shopping experience. Using customized digital commerce platforms, brands like Glossier and ColourPop are competing directly with time-honored favorites like Maybelline and MAC. In 2017 alone, Glossier’s profits grew by 275%.

And while it has since opened a flagship store in Los Angeles, the majority of Glossier’s revenue – and fan base – is found on the web. One quick search of the hashtag #glossier on Instagram will yield over 330,000 posts, and reviews from gurus and fans on YouTube only adding to the fandom. The in-the-know factor of these online-only brands creates a special kind of FOMO among beauty buyers, keeping them continually engaged with the brand.

Crowdsourced Reviews

Walking into a Sephora means you’ll be bombarded with salespeople trying to push the latest products into your cart. While they may know a lot about their products, they’re also undeniably biased. Buying beauty products online gives would-be wary buyers the confidence of learning from the shoppers who have come before them.

Online beauty shopping on most sites means that you’re getting honest, unfiltered reviews from people who have bought and tried the available products. Many of the product review tools on sites like Ulta let customers rate items on criteria like product longevity, color payoff, and the biggest question of all—value. Being able to see how real people use the product when the customer is at the point of purchase creates trust and a subsequent incentive to spend more. This move toward transparency has changed return policies too. Not happy with that new product you just bought? Ulta will let you return it within 60 days of purchase and Glossier will simply refund your money and ask you to give the product to a friend who might like it better.

Digital Discovery Tools

A big reason for the beauty industry's ecommerce success can be attributed to mobile sales and brands are rolling out digital tools to help customers get an in-person, try-on experience on their phones. In addition to the Snapchat filters that let users puke rainbows and turn into puppies, brands like Urban Decay are also beginning to offer promotional filters that use augmented reality to “place” products directly on the user. Plus, when users inevitably share photos of themselves “wearing” the products, the impressions soar.

Urban Decay’s Vice Lipstick Snapchat Lens, The Shorty Awards

Larger stores like Sephora are also expanding their digital try-on capabilities with apps like their Virtual Artist, which lets customers try on a variety of products from their phone. These tools are particularly helpful for products like foundation, where color variations can be extremely nuanced and being able to try a handful on side-by-side can really sell the product. Of course, the cool factor of being able to use these tools also makes for a better shopping experience which drives sales.

Whether a beauty brand is just starting up, expanding their offerings, or adapting decades of success for the modern shopper, the ecommerce space is proving to be an effective strategy to reach enthusiastic customers. As these brands continue to fight for their share of the market, be on the lookout for more independent companies and innovative technology that will continue to change the way we shop.

Have you tried any these ecommerce strategies for your business? Share your experience with us in the comments!