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Take A Virtual Test Drive

Trying before making an online purchase of the latest lipstick, beard oil and boxed hair colour is becoming the new shopping norm…

By Adriana Ermter

Been duped by an eyeshadow shade that looked taupe in the package, yet transformed into Barney purple on your lids? Or maybe the aftershave lotion you patted on felt more like a thousand wasps stinging your face than the soothing calm the label promised. It happens. When you’ve spent a lifetime slathering, lathering, rubbing, spritzing or sweeping beauty and grooming products on from head to toe, there’s bound to be a mishap or two. And yet, year after year, this margin of error has consistently decreased as in-store testers, cosmetics makeovers, mini facials and more have guaranteed a product’s success. Or at least they did.

Courtesy of the global pandemic, store shelves have been sanitized of communal makeup, cosmetics and hair brushes, not to mention free-for-all jars, palettes and tubes, causing the favoured try-before-you-buy practice to come to a full stop. Now, with the new look-but-don’t-touch policies firmly in place, test driving the latest wrinkle-blasting face cream or the right shade of eyebrow pomade has become virtually…possible. Literally speaking, that is. The US$500 billion per year global beauty and grooming industry has revolutionized its services to include a series of tech tools that let you shop online the same way you would in person.

“All beauty and grooming e-commerce websites are going there,” affirms Vanessa Moreau, the e-commerce manager for Groupe Marcelle, based in Montreal. “It’s not a question of who or why. It’s a question of when and how much. Technology can guide consumers in their purchases with relevant content and products. It can even mimic an in-store tester.”

Frequently associated with the gaming industry (think virtual games that can be played with friends without ever needing to be in the same room or house, such as Fortnite, Minecraft, NHL or Call of Duty), immersive, computer-generated experiences can empower consumers to try out new skin and haircare treatments without ever having to break the seal on an actual product. And like the Groupe Marcelle’s beauty and grooming labels Marcelle, Lise Watier, Annabelle and CW Beggs, most retailers are in the process of or have already integrated high-tech, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR) into their e-tail sites – all to provide consumers with in-store-like, salesperson-guided encounters with just the click of a mouse.

You can thank COVID-19. With consumers unable to physically touch and apply glosses, lotions, gels and more (and who knows how long that will last), retailers have had to up their experiential ante, and quickly. “Beauty [and grooming] enthusiasts enjoy discovery when shopping and, in our industry, that includes swatching and sampling testers,” explains Prama Bhatt, chief digital officer for Ulta Beauty. “With testers on ‘display’ only, AI and AR experiences are becoming increasingly popular.”

To be clear, these innovations in smart shopping are not about simply dragging and dropping the staple items you buy on a regular basis, like your favourite shower gel or unscented antiperspirant, into a virtual shopping cart from the comfort of your living room. You’ve been doing that since bigwig e-tailers like Sephora and Ulta Beauty first started peddling their web-based wares online in the late ’90s. No, this is about thoroughly exploring the skin, hair, body, fragrance or cosmetic items you’re coveting to ensure they’re a solid investment without every actually touching or sampling the product.

“That includes swatching and sampling testers,” says Bhatt. “Testers are only on ‘display’ now, so AI and AR experiences like Ulta’s GLAMlab, where guests can virtually try on [different colours of makeup], are a safe, convenient and fun alternative to testers.”

It’s easy, too, and only requires you to go online in search of your next must-have product. Once you’ve found it, AI has gathered enough information about your shopping habits and preferences to create a bespoke beauty and grooming shopping experience for you.

In real life, the store’s salesperson would do this for you, inclusive of walking you through the beauty and grooming aisles, asking questions about your shaving habits, the last time you had your hair cut or coloured, your daily grooming routine, your budget and more – all while answering your questions about product ingredients, application and benefits. The online experience aims to replicate all that. “The ultimate goal is for consumers to have the same feeling online as if they were having an in-person consultation with a beauty advisor,” says Moreau. “This is particularly important since everyone’s skin [and hair and body, etc.] is different and we need to make personalized recommendations.”

In most cases, the e-tailer’s brain, a.k.a. its AI, will make these recommendations for you, inclusive of additional items you may need. AR, on the other hand, lets you actually try on the Fenty Beauty Slip Shine Sheer Shiny Lipstick in “Cookies & Cocoa,” empowering you to actually see how its shimmery rose, woody hue complements your complexion, while VR lets you explore the warm fruity floral blend in Marc Jacobs’ “Perfect” eau.

“Our guests can try on thousands of products across multiple beauty categories, including foundation, lipstick, blush, mascara, eyeshadow, eyeliner and, now, false eyelashes and hair colour, just as they would in real life,” adds Bhatt. “With new products added weekly, guests can binge swatch items they may not have otherwise tried before and they can purchase directly from the app, allowing for a truly seamless and convenient experience. Today’s consumers are more tech-driven than ever before.”

No wonder, especially since COVID-19’s imposed health- and hygiene-based security measures have turned everyone and their grandmother into an online shopper. According to McKinsey & Company’s recent Global Consumer and Global Consumer Pulse surveys, online beauty and grooming sales skyrocketed this year from March onwards, and there’s no end in sight to this trend. As industry players continue to prioritize digital channels and their use of artificial intelligence for testing, discovery and customization, they will surely continue to capture and convert the attention of their customers.

Not to mention, reap the rewards. Zalando, Europe’s largest fashion and lifestyle e-commerce site, reported 300 per cent growth from 2019. Sephora’s US online sales are reportedly up 30 per cent for the same period. Amazon has seen an increase of 65 per cent for bath and body, 172 per cent for hair colour and 218 per cent for nail care product sales. Forbes has even noted that Ulta Beauty – who, along with their AI, AR and VR technologies, also have an app where they offer consumers free, private, real-time video consultations with a beauty advisor – saw a 100 per cent e-commerce sales increase from last year, and it’s only growing. The beauty behemoth is expanding into Canada in 2021, complete with brick and mortar and a Canadian e-tail site providing all the virtual high-tech benefits as its American counterpart. “Virtual try-on, even in store, will become mainstream,” predicts Moreau.

And if you like what you “tried” and saw staring back at you in the virtual mirror, owning said item only takes a click and a bag drop to be yours.

ADRIANA ERMTER is a Toronto-based, lifestyle-magazine pro who has travelled the globe writing about must-spritz fragrances, child poverty, beauty and grooming.

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