Choosing where to shop for makeup is a very personal decision. Here in Chicago there are a lot of options, but in my mind there are two main competitors: Ulta and Sephora. When I first moved to Chicago seven years ago, Ulta dominated the market, and I suppose that makes sense given it is a Chicago-based company. When I ventured into Ulta for the first time, just to explore, I remember that being the moment when my floodgates of makeup-crazed girly-ness opened.

Yes, they carried some of the drugstore brands in one section of the store, all very familiar thanks to my teen years, but to the other side was a land of new shiny brands, foundations, primers, concealers, photo finish powders…products I never knew existed. Working in market research, especially consumer packaged goods, is no accident for me. I love trying new products, looking for category trends, spotting new colors and fragrances. So Ulta became my routine for years, and I was content. More and more locations popped up, so they were easily accessible. I earned my rewards points, I collected my birthday gift, and I never thought about going anywhere else.

Game Changer

Gradually Sephora made its way onto the scene, but something about it always scared me away. Maybe it’s because they look so starkly different – just compare their logos and store fronts. Maybe it was the way they advertised – really out there vs. girl next door. Maybe it’s because I never felt serious enough about makeup to breathe their air. I didn’t step foot into Sephora until a month ago when a friend dragged me, and I’m so grateful that she did! The best way I can put it is that Ulta is like the Midwest, and Sephora is like New York City. If you prefer a corn field to skyscrapers, you’ll feel lost and overwhelmed at Sephora. But if you’ve spent enough time acclimating and transitioning from drug store to Ulta, Sephora is the next logical step.Picture1Picture2

I left the store with a bounty of new items – mascara that tubes your lashes, a new foundation with SPF, brush cleaner, a facial mask. Did I need any of these things? No, not really. Do I love them? Yes? Have I been telling everyone about it? Yes!

My Aha Moment

As a researcher, my new found love for Sephora was a startling realization. I never recognized how loyal I was to Ulta. I never thought I was discontent with my options there. I never questioned the layout of the store or the brands they carry. I didn’t even recognize my own insights statements (e.g., I don’t wear mascara because it’s too hard to take off; I would wear foundation if I had a better reason to – such as SPF and a matte finish.) Ulta doesn’t carry the products that would solve my situations like Sephora does. I wasn’t aware, and looking back I was so loyal I was almost a zombie on auto pilot.

Surely my shopping experience wasn’t unique. I would assume many stores have loyal customers who decided years ago that they found their store and were sticking with it. Don’t get me wrong, zombie customers are great to have, but one day something will change. Maybe they will have a friend to broaden their perspective like I did. Maybe they will see an ad, or there will be a sale, or they will hear about a product that is only offered elsewhere. My point is, if you are a retailer, it is dangerous to assume your customers will stick with their old habits.

During my first experience at Sephora, I asked an employee to demo makeup on me that would be weird and way out of my comfort zone. What can I say? Sephora has that effect on me! I left that evening with bright purple lipstick and a smile on my face. If you don’t want to see your loyal consumers leaving your competition with weird lipstick and a huge grin, maybe it’s time to realize you’ve got to give them the opportunity to leave their comfort zone before someone else does.

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