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Sephora exec: Mobile evolves from on-the-go tool to personal assistant

While many retailers are seeing a significant boost from mobile this holiday season, beauty chain Sephora expects its mobile growth to significantly outpace industry averages based on the retailer?s strong digital heritage and integrated experiences for loyal customers.

Sephora expects mobile sales to double this holiday season and to see 30 percent of in-store customers using mobile to help them shop. To meet the needs of these customers, Sephora is focused on a strong mobile content strategy and enhancing its mobile loyalty and social strategies.

Here, Johnna Marcus, director of mobile and digital store marketing at Sephora, San Francisco, discusses the biggest opportunities in mobile this holiday season, what the retailer has learned from its mobile point-of-sale strategy and why she is happy retailers are not talking about showrooming.

How is mobile point-of-sale enhancing the in-store experience and what have you learned since implementing the program?
Every one of our stores has at least a handful of devices, and some of our stores are completely mobile. We deployed them last holiday.

For a lot of stores, especially this time of year when it is busy, mobile gives us a great opportunity to get through the line real quickly.

It also provides a great experience at a couple of key spots in our stores, particularly our Beauty Studio, which is kind of the heartbeat of the store. It is where we do all of our services, like a free 15-minute express service or a more involved makeup application.

You?ve looked at some items and picked out a few to try, and it is a really great experience to be able to checkout right there. She can make a decision about what she wants and what she wants to save for later without having to put her back in line. It is really about enhancing that customer service experience and building on that relationship.

We?re seeing stores ramping up to using mobile POS everyday and for a material number of their transactions. It?s up to as high as 25 to 30 percent of their transactions are mobile.

The learning's really around finding the right use cases. The line busting scenario and the number of cashiers needed to really figuring out where it works throughout the store.

Because of our loyalty program, the checkout process has a fair bit of back and forth with the cashier. What we did learn is that you want to keep the mobile POS transactions to someplace where there is some space to do that.

You have to do all the bagging and pull everything together. We are not a retailer like Apple, where you buy one thing and you can check out from anywhere in the store. Our model is a little different. We definitely had some learnings on the operational side.

What is driving Sephora?s significant growth in mobile?
I think we are outgrowing the industry, but I think the trends are similar for a lot of retailers.

Innovation and technology is really in Sephora?s DNA. Digital is really the foundation of our company. We started in the United States 15 years ago. Our Web site launched in 1999. So we were there very early on.

And because our Beauty Insider program is cross-channel - initially it was more online but now mobile is there ? so, we recognize that across all of those channels. And we carry things forward, for example, share of basket or the items she has favorited.

This makes it easier for our clients to adopt mobile versus a retailer where they don?t have that loyalty component or that same experience.

I think another reason why maybe our customers have adopted it more quickly is that we really think that mobile has to make your life easier. It has to serve a purpose. You can?t just be desktop on the go.

Our clients are really busy. She is typically a very busy woman. She is juggling a lot of things. And so if we can help her to put things on her wish list so that when she is ready to purchase, it will be that tool where she can research and maybe pre-shop before she comes into the store.

Those are things that make mobile extraordinary and useful for her, and I think that is why we are seeing the higher adoption, but I think the trend is there for all retailers. Mobile is the device that is always in your hand, and we are more and more thinking about it as an extension.

What will be the biggest challenge retailers face in mobile this holiday season?
The holiday season seems to start earlier and earlier every year. As shoppers, we all feel that way, the pressure to get things done and to get everything taken care of.

From Sephora?s perspective, we want to be where our clients are. So if that means that if she wants to come into the store to do some shopping, we want to be there for her and provide really great customer service.

But, if she doesn?t have time or if that is not what she wants to do, we also are really focusing on the digital channel, online, mobile, as being a really great content source for her so she can get inspired and put together her lists and maybe to transact and complete.

I think just cutting through that clutter is a big challenge, and Sephora provides a lot of curation and a lot of point of view around beauty, what trends are in, what products to buy, things like that. We are going to try to make it easier for her to get her shopping done.

Why is a strong content strategy so important to Sephora?s mobile offerings?
We are really thinking about content as a pretty compelling hook. We think that it can be inspiring and also educational.

I can go to any online retailer if I know what I want, search for that product and go find it. That experience doesn?t really help her get inspired. It doesn?t teach her, for example, how to use the product.

So we are really trying to think about - whether it is inspiring her with looks and trends or telling her about what?s new and what the best gift ideas are - presenting that on mobile and digital as a way that she can really engage.

We use things like Sephora Glossy, which is our Tumblr. Under our social media umbrella, we touch stories every day about products, trends, technology innovation, as a really interesting way to get in depth and visual with some of our products.

We think that the fact that Sephora can provide that editorial and curation is really why she is going to come to us with all of her beauty questions as opposed to just looking at us as a place where she comes to buy.

What is the biggest new opportunity in mobile this year?
I think the thing that is going to be different is that mobile is transitioning from being just a shop on the go to being really a personal assistant helping shoppers in store. We?re expecting as much as 30 percent of our clients are going to shop in-store with mobile this year.

They are actually pre-shopping and then bringing their phones in store and shopping in our stores with their phones as a way to work their way through a wish list, find out information ? for example, scan products to read ratings and reviews to help them make a decision. That is a really powerful thing. You now have the power of all of the information that is digital, and you?ve got in your store.

Something that we rolled out that I think will contribute to that is earlier this year Sephora launched My Beauty Bag. Basically, it is a collection of all your past purchases, it is very easy to come back and find things like the color of the foundation you purchased. It is all going to be in there in your past purchases history and the other thing is your wish list, the things that you love. And your shopping list, the things that you want to look at it.

For holiday, we launched an addition for My Beauty Bag where you can send your wish list through mobile to another person. If someone is shopping for me, I have a pretty robust wish list, and I can actually send that out to anyone who might be shopping for me, and they can easily access it on their phone when they are shopping in store to shop for products for me.

What is the biggest advance in mobile in retail since last year?
The thing that I am not hearing this year and I am really happy is I am not hearing retailers talk about showrooming. I think we need to be embracing the fact that the commerce experience needs to be about what our client wants and providing her the best customer service and providing her the best experience to bring her back rather than trying to have this very limited view, if someone is showrooming in my store, then I want to chase them out. I think a lot of retailers are embracing telling clients to get their phones out because the store is going to make the experience better.

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York