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CVS is Hoping to Change The Way You Shop for Beauty Products at the Drugstore

The drugstore is hoping to compete with the likes of Ulta and Sephora.
CVS Pharmacy is re-thinking the way it sells beauty products. Photo: Justin Sullian/Getty Images

CVS Pharmacy is re-thinking the way it sells beauty products. Photo: Justin Sullian/Getty Images

Before Sephora, Ulta and department stores, there was the drugstore. It was likely the first place you ever purchased your shampoo and lip gloss. But in recent years, those first two beauty giants have revolutionized the way the world shops for beauty products (had you heard?) and drugstores have struggled to reestablish themselves in the beauty market. Duane Reade has pulled somewhat of an imitation game with its Look Boutiques, peddling the same brands as its upmarket competitors. And then there's CVS, which is banking on a different, pretty old-school tactic: impulse purchases.

Leaning into its health image, CVS is replacing 25 percent of the candy at its checkouts with healthy snacks, and rolling out beauty and health product display enhancements to 2,000 stores on top of that. What that means are line organizers at checkout that mimic Sephora's Beauty on the Fly section — a Siren song of Fekkai minis, NKD SKN self-tanner and lip balm through which every in-store customer must pass.

According to retail analysts, CVS's bid on impulse is actually a smart bet. On the simplest level, it's about keeping customers entertained from start to finish. Boredom is the enemy as brick-and-mortar struggles to compete with "want it, got it" digital shopping, and these organizers make every moment count, says Karen Doskow, the Director of Consumer Products at consulting and research firm Kline & Company.

Add in the treasure-hunt feel of discovering something cheap and fun in (often intentionally) un-pristine organizers, and you've got a moneymaker, says Karen Grant, Global Beauty Industry Analyst for the NPD Group. And with beauty being the fastest-growing industry NPD's tracked over the past five years, CVS's product swap makes sense. If you haven't seen it yet, you'll see it soon — according to Alex Perez-Tenessa, Vice President of Merchandising in Beauty and Personal Care at CVS Pharmacy, the fixture count is being doubled by the end of the year, and more enhancements, like a "petting zoo" of makeup brushes, are on the way.

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"I think the power of beauty, the strength of beauty and the stability of beauty makes it attractive," Grant says — and the couple-buck cost of a lip gloss means no one leaves unscathed. Another noteworthy point? Brand loyalty — which is typically a major factor in  beauty purchases — matters less when it comes to inexpensive goods. So instead of each cashier going it alone, the "Disney ride" line strategy has caught on: everyone waits in the same line, stepping up to whoever's ready, says Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA, a retail design strategy firm. It's more efficient, and Nisch reasons that it seems more democratic, as anyone who's unwittingly stepped behind someone with 80 returns can attest.

Impulse buy areas usually account for somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of stores' sales, says Nisch. Bumping a customer's total from $13 to $17 is the retailer's goal, and the beauty lies in the high-margin items stores choose — so goodbye dollar candy bars and hello $7.99 dry shampoo.

Plus, with everyone in it together, these condensed queues create the prime captive shopping environment, Doskow says, increasingly rare in retail's choose-your-own-adventure, Sephora-led environment. On top of that, consumers have been proven to be antsy toward the end of any shopping trip, and more likely to grab and go with impulse purchases, says Peter Fader, Ph.D, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School.

Fader says the next frontier is making the most of these line organizers, with only a handful of retailers taking advantage of known shopping patterns. CVS's move is a smart shift, adds Nisch, but he notes the challenges as well: No one likes a line that looks like airport security, and while it makes every second of our reduced shopping trips count, no one's cracked how to translate the impulse experience online. To which we say, maybe that's for the best. Two a.m. exists, after all. 

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