Sephora Widens Its Reach as Beauty’s Retail Landscape Shifts

PARIS — As the beauty retail landscape shape-shifts rapidly, Sephora has been expanding — most recently with the announcement Friday of its move to acquire Feelunique.

Sephora said it has entered into an agreement with Palamon Capital Partners and other shareholders to buy the British online beauty retailer.

The news confirmed a report published by WWD on July 18, and came a month after the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned beauty retailer revealed it had signed a long-term strategic partnership with Zalando to create a prestige beauty experience online, starting in Germany in the fourth quarter of this year.

Sephora has not been operational for years in the lucrative U.K. market. The U.K. and Germany are among Europe’s top three countries for beauty sales and are dominated by the retailers Boots and Douglas, respectively.

According to Statista, which tracked the leading cosmetics and personal care sellers in Europe based on sales in 2019, Walgreen Boots was the largest, with an annual revenue of 26.6 billion euros, while Douglas Holding came in sixth, with sales of 3.5 billion euros, and Sephora placed seventh, with an estimated 3 billion euros in sales.

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Sephora said the Feelunique acquisition is expected to close during the second half of this year.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but a recent report in The Sunday Times of London valued Feelunique at 132 million pounds.

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“The transaction is a key step in Sephora’s European growth strategy and marks a first step for Sephora’s presence into the United Kingdom, one of the top-10 biggest prestige beauty markets worldwide, with a very high level of digital adoption,” Martin Brok, president and chief executive officer of Sephora, said in a statement. “U.K. consumers have a strong appetite for a carefully curated prestige beauty offer that is tailored to their needs, and provided through a consumer-centric, seamless experience.”

“Sephora is an iconic retailer in the prestige beauty space in Europe. We are looking forward to working together and leveraging our respective strengths to drive the prestige beauty segment in the U.K.,” said Sarah Miles, CEO of Feelunique.

Industry experts agreed the time is right for the acquisition, one reason being the online beauty market has registered rapid gains since the coronavirus health crisis began.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated consumers’ shift to online shopping, and the share of e-commerce rose from 13 percent of total beauty and personal care retail sales in the U.K. to 19 percent in 2020,” said Marguerite Le Rolland, senior research manager, apparel and footwear at Euromonitor International.

According to the market research firm’s “Voice of the Consumer, Lifestyle Survey,” fielded in February, 34 percent of Millennials and 40 percent of Gen Zers in the U.K. are purchasing beauty online through their smartphones.

“By striking a partnership with Zalando and acquiring Feelunique, Sephora ensures they are using seamless technology and increasing their ability to offer different shopping experiences catering for the different tastes and demands of the young British consumer,” said Le Rolland.

Also in the U.K., specialist beauty online retailers’ sales grew by more than 40 percent to reach 1.4 billion pounds in 2020, according to Mintel.

“Our data also shows that 4 percent of beauty and personal care buyers purchased products via Feelunique in 2020, putting the business on a par with the likes of Lush,” said Nick Carroll, associate director of grocery and e-commerce research at Mintel.

“With online beauty sales rapidly growing and Feelunique being at the forefront of this in the U.K., it’s no wonder that a number of other high-profile bidders were looking at the business, including Asos,” he continued. “So this is well-timed for Sephora, a business which is separately boosting its own direct online presence and can clearly learn from Feelunique’s successes.”

Due to Brexit, Sephora no longer delivers products in the U.K., where competition keeps ramping up. Harrods has been rolling out freestanding beauty stores across the country, and Boots is updating its offer and refurbishes stores there, for instance.

Sephora made a foray into the U.K. in 2000, when it opened its first U.K. location at the Bluewater Mall in Kent. Five years later, in April 2005, WWD reported the retailer would close all nine of its U.K. stores. Three of its U.K. outposts had already shuttered by then, though the original idea had been to open 50 Sephora locations in the British market within a few years.

Sephora reentered the German market in 2017, after leaving it in 2001, and today it has five physical stores and 16 corners in Karstadt Kaufhof.

For Feelunique, a sale has been a long time coming. At the end of 2018, its owners called off another sale after bidders did not match the site’s valuation of 200 million pounds.

Not long after, Joël Palix, Feelunique’s CEO, exited the company and was succeeded by Miles. She joined from Amazon Inc., where she had served as EU marketing and new business director at Amazon Fashion.

Feelunique, which has both retail and marketplace channels, was founded in 2005. It counts 1.3 million active customers, and more than 35,000 cosmetics and fragrance product from more than 800 brands, from the most established to niche. The platform offers makeup, skin care, hair care, fragrance, accessories, devices and sexual wellness products.

The company ships to more than 120 countries and boasts dedicated websites in European Union countries, including France, Germany and Norway, as well as the U.S. and China.

The bulk of Feelunique’s sales stem from Gen Z consumers and Millennials under the age of 35.

The company said in 2020 it achieved “record levels” of sales, which are thought to be in the neighborhood of 120 million pounds, and customer acquisition numbers.

Meanwhile, also in the U.K., many high-street giants are looking to woo the British beauty customer.

Last year, Boohoo bought the defunct Debenhams, and said it plans to leverage the department store’s beauty brand relationships and cultivate its loyal clientele in that space.

Boohoo and its rival Asos are undoubtedly eyeing the success that British fashion and lifestyle giant Next has had in the sector.

In 2019, Next bought the online premium and well-being retailer Fabled by Marie Claire from Ocado Group and began rolling out physical beauty and home concept stores in the U.K. to house the hundreds of labels it carries.

“The online retail landscape in the U.K. is becoming increasingly fragmented and competitive with pure players — both beauty and fashion — competing against the brick-and-mortar retailers,” said Françoise Therin, head of Europe beauty retail at The NPD Group. “With its years of experience as a global specialist in beauty retail, Sephora knows and understands what the consumers want, so whatever happens the biggest winner in the U.K. will be the consumer.”

And it’s not just in the U.K. Beauty’s retail landscape — both on- and offline — keeps morphing at warp speed around the globe, including tie-ups like Sephora’s long-term partnership signed with Kohl’s Corp. in the U.S. in December 2020.

Three weeks prior, Ulta Beauty unveiled a deal with Target Corp. to open 100 shops-in-shop in the second half of 2021.

Meanwhile Amazon has been building premium beauty brands, including RéVive Skincare and Clé de Peau Beauté, into its new Amazon Luxury Store offer.

“There are several things that we should all keep an eye open for,” said Therin. “The traditional retail lines of brick-and-mortar and e-commerce, and retailers and brands, are becoming increasingly blurred. Take, for instance, the marketplace activity of beauty brands in China, which is an extension of their ever-growing direct-to-consumer activity. So brands are becoming retailers and at some point we’ll start to see marketplaces grow more in Europe, with several beauty retail specialists already having options in place.

“In the wider retail context, there’s the question of whether some of the pure players will enter into brick-and-mortar to provide an ‘in real life’ experience for their consumers,” she continued. “The permutations are seemingly endless, but retail is morphing, driven by the consumers’ need for change.”



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