You know the scenario: you’re carrying an armful of make-up swatches, you’ve stolen a spritz of perfume and you’ve moisturised up to your elbows at the skincare aisle, all while filling your basket with the latest beauty products. Where are you? Sephora. But in just a matter of weeks, this sensorial experience became a part of history. And today, months since the pandemic broke, we live in what is essentially a zero-touch society to keep each other safe—a post COVID-19 world where touch-and-try testers have become relics and the tactile pleasure of beauty retail therapy and product discovery has become but a distant memory.
BRAINS & BEAUTY
Like the most unpredictable silver lining, the pandemic has sparked major innovations, serving as a catalyst that has propelled alternative marketing tools into the spotlight. Testers have been replaced by augmented reality (AR) experiences as phone apps and website plug-ins enable virtual try-ons; while artificial intelligence has taken on the role of beauty advisers, making data-driven recommendations based on skin diagnosis, beauty concerns and wish lists—all leading to an uptick in engagement, basket size and sales for brands and retailers alike.
As of July, online sales were reportedly up by 20 to 30 percent for beauty omnichannel retailers, versus 2019, according to Eleanor Jones, founder of AI-based skincare solutions developer, Skintelligent. “Directional data tells us that usage of artificial intelligence-enabled beauty apps have gone up 200 to 300 percent as well,” she adds. Just over a year old, Skintelligent applies data science to skincare—and most recently, hair care—discovery through something we all have on our phones: the camera. While customisable to client’s needs, Skintelligent’s platform comprises a 15-step form that measures skin condition, type and concerns like under-eye circles, pigmentation and fine lines against age, geolocation and environmental metrics, supported with uploaded visuals of the user for better examination. This technology then provides calculated product recommendations drawn from 2,800 SKUs carried by Sephora—much like a beauty adviser would, but on a much wider, deeper and data-driven scale that cross-checks problems or preferences with ingredients, formula innovations and textures for a selection cherry-picked just for you.
Also leveraging AI, this time in the world of haute perfumery, is Singapore-based Maison 21G. Its virtual, tailor-made fragrance journey begins with your preference, a choice between personality, ingredient or favourite perfume, as the starting point. This then leads you through a questionnaire and an impressive bank of scent information on ingredients, blends and characteristics, before concocting your bespoke eau de parfum from a library of endless combinations.
It is, however, Taiwanese technology company, Perfect Corp that’s dominating the beauty technology arena. It’s best known for its suite of AI and AR beauty tools that include YouCam for Web and the award-winning YouCam Makeup App, which boasts over 800 million consumer downloads and over 250 brand partners.
One of its more recent developments is YouCam’s AI Skin Diagnostic Technology, which uses AI and machine learning technology to provide instant and detailed skin analysis to users, coupled with corresponding product recommendations. It does so by tracking four skin conditions— spots, wrinkles, texture and dark circles—with advanced iterations to include hydration, sebum production and redness, before generating a skin health score with accompanying formulas to target each concern. The company has since deepened its skin diagnostic offerings by partnering with Dr Jason Emer, a noted dermatologist, to spotlight the efficacy of YouCam’s skin technology as well as provide in-app expert advice and a weekly video series to answer users’ beauty questions. On the custom front, La Roche-Posay has integrated YouCam-powered SpotScan, the first personalised digital acne diagnosis tool powered by AI—perfect for maskne sufferers to find the right targeted treatment quickly. It is all about reimagining skincare consultations through a digital lens, both remotely and in a touch-free in- store environment.
In the realm of AR, which is more suitable for make-up, YouCam has also rolled out fortified features for brands to integrate into their digital platforms. At LVMH-owned Benefit Cosmetics, which reported e-commerce business growth of double digits in Asia-Pacific since the outbreak, there was a need to reach consumers in the evolving universe of virtual touch points. This led to the extension of its Benefit Brow Try-On Experience from its website and partner online retailers to WeChat, so users could find the right eyebrow shape and style, plus the products, and book an appointment in a few clicks. With everyone wearing a mask, eyes have become an even greater focal point, elevating the brow category to become the brand’s strongest post-outbreak.
Interestingly enough, when Perfect Corp launched in 2014, the use of AR for beauty try-ons was still perceived as more gamification than utility. According to Adam Gam, US chief marketing officer, it was “preconceived notions about the accuracy of AR that stalled the widespread adoption of digital try-on tools throughout the industry”. Despite having achieved global acclaim, nothing and no one could’ve predicted the exponential growth witnessed in 2020 during lockdown. “The YouCam Makeup app has seen some staggering increases in user behaviour over the last two months including a 32 percent increase in virtual product try-ons. We have also seen 57 percent more calls through the on-demand YouCam Beauty Advisor one- on-one service, which offers interactive video beauty consultations virtually through your phone.” Clients, too, are reaping the benefits of adapting their digital-first approach. “Our brand partners have reported upwards of 2.5x conversion rates, an eight percent decrease in returns thanks to virtual try- on solutions, and spend 4.3x more time on their website thanks to YouCam’s AI-powered interactive try-on solutions.”
Similarly at Sephora, the power of a virtual makeover at users’ fingertips has existed since 2016, but is now more crucial for beauty discovery than ever before. Sephora’s Virtual Artist takes the guesswork out of make-up colours by applying hyper-realistic filters of lipsticks, eyeshadows and even blushes or contours directly onto one’s face, better illustrating each colour, texture and finish on your skin. And its Find Your Shade foundation matcher allows you to input your current foundation details to find the corresponding shade of any other base make-up found on the site.
Today, with stores open with safety measures in place, shopping has become a more ‘phygital’ experience, where technology and calculated touches seamlessly collide. Sephora added virtual services in May, which includes one-on-one beauty consultations over Zoom, while a new Scan-to-Interact feature on its app allows in-store shoppers to scan a barcode that leads to reviews and ratings on that product—so you get personal recommendations without physical interaction.
Despite the digital tools in place, one firm, however, still believes it can help the beauty world’s need for touch. Over the last few months, Hong Kong-based beauty packaging company, Meiyume, channelled its energies to touchless testers, rolling out motion-activated product displays that dispense liquid skincare formulas or fragrances in a safe, hygienic way. While distribution is still a work in progress, this could well be the saviour of the in-store tester.
KEEPING IT REAL
Also seeking to put the reality back into virtual reality experiences are brands like La Mer, Chanel and Dior, which have launched one-to- one virtual consultations with beauty experts who talk through the client’s needs and desires as they would at a retail counter, complete with real- world application tips, while their orders are being processed. It’s like having a personal shopper for your vanity.
Another tool found at counters and that has been brought into homes is the smart mirror. Taiwan’s HiMirror is an interactive device that masquerades as an oversized mirror with a ring light but once activated, provides deep-learning diagnostics that measure the number and depth of fine lines, wrinkles, dark circles, spots, texture and pores. One of the key highlights is that it can scan, analyse and store images of your face daily to track improvements—or non-improvements— of your skin, determining whether your products and clinical treatments are really working for you. It also has an in-built skincare management system called My Beauty Box, which keeps tracks of your purchases, product efficacy and expiry dates, and also provides personalised product recommendations based on acute characteristics of your skin.
And what is a mirror if not for applying make-up? This one not only houses AR technology to plan your beauty style and shades before you create your look, it actually adjusts its LED light colour, temperature and brightness according to where you’re going to ensure you put on the most flattering face. You can even watch a YouTube make-up tutorial on the mirror interface for step-by-step instructions, magnify certain parts of your face, and connect to Spotify, Instagram and Amazon Alexa to order you a ride, meal or new moisturiser. When it comes to mirrors, it’s undeniably one of the finest of them all.