LONDON — As someone who regularly haunted the aisles of Sephora’s Champs-Élysées store in Paris as a foreign exchange student in the late Nineties, I have gone through quite a few jars of anti-wrinkle cream waiting for the retailer to open a store close to where I now live in London.
Back in the day, my girlfriends and I would stop by Sephora for a spritz of Dior’s Hypnotic Poison, L’Eau d’Issey or Chanel Allure before going out on the town, and wile away afternoons listening to single-gloved sales associates share makeup and skin care insights with the authority of CERN scientists. (We would also queue to access the in-store internet-connected computers, which were ostensibly for researching beauty-related topics, but more frequently used to check email accounts in those long-ago pre-iPhone days.)
After a relatively short-lived foray into the U.K. market in the early Aughts, Sephora finally opened a space in West London’s Westfield shopping center in March. I wondered if the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned chain could bring the electrifying energy I recalled from my student days to the shopping scene here. With the country in the grips of a cost-of-living crisis, we could sure do with the diversion.
Not that the crisis was evident when I visited the store on a Friday afternoon just days after its official opening. I joined a queue of eager shoppers, some of whom used their phones to snap photos and film the shopfront where Sephora staff members, surrounded by oversized black balloons, waved flags to welcome the crowd. (While the line was considerable, it moved quickly and was not as vast as one I had witnessed for a Pokémon pop-up in the same shopping mall pre-COVID-19. Clearly, queueing is par for the course if you’ve gotta catch ’em all!)
I walked into Sephora prepared to be surprised and delighted by all the retailer had to offer. And, within moments, surprised and delighted I was. It was not the cosmetics, fragrance and skin care offer, though, which made my eyes widen in appreciation. It was the inclusive nature of the store’s staff, which instantly struck me. As one staff member (sporting fabulous bold eyeliner) moved past me in a wheelchair, I looked around to take in a veritable United Nations of skin tones, body shapes, hair textures and approaches to beauty (here a striking purple lip, there a low-key natural look). Beyond glossy imagery and cleverly curated product displays, the staff’s diversity made the store feel of the moment and reflective of London’s cosmopolitan melting-pot nature.
“Oh, they have it!” gasped a young female shopper, reaching for a bottle of Color Wow Dream Coat, which was part of a Hot on Social Media display. I naturally slipped a bottle into my basket too; even though I was unaware of what the fuss was about, the lady’s enthusiasm was so convincing she had unwittingly created an ultra-micro-influencer moment.
At this point, my phone rang. When I answered, my friend, hearing the background din, asked if I was at a club. When I explained I was at Sephora, she excitedly insisted I look for a Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask. (As a former airline cabin crew member, she knows her skin care and used to stock up regularly at Sephora in New York City.) I dutifully found the product and popped it into my basket, all the while ruminating about why my friend was unruffled by the notion that I was clubbing at 1 p.m. on a school day.
After I had perused a few displays, a friendly sales associate asked me if I would like some help. I vaguely replied that I was on the lookout for something exciting. She immediately ushered me to a Sunday Riley display, talking me through a gift set featuring a full night-time skin care routine, and the price advantage it offered when compared to buying each product individually. We then stopped by a Sephora own-brand treatment display, where she encouraged me to try under-eye and hand masks packaged in eye-catching single-serve sachets. Next, we took a whistle-stop tour of some of her favorite fragrances, including Tears from the Moon from Gucci’s The Alchemist’s Garden collection and Tom Ford’s Velvet Orchid and Lost Cherry.
Later, when I was joined by a friend who was looking for an under-eye concealer, the same sales associate quickly found a colleague equipped with makeup brushes to select an appropriate Nars product for her, while I was invited to have my hair done using the Dyson Airwrap styler. In a matter of moments, the sales associate had created bouncy waves to frame my face. I was impressed by how the tool seemed to control flyaways, which I generally find impossible to tame. She mentioned the Airwrap had a smoothing tool, too, and proceeded to straighten the hair at the back of my head. Taking in the price (479.99 pounds, or $580.45), I mentioned it was a shame my birthday was the following day, otherwise, I would have hinted to my husband that I would have appreciated it as a gift. With that, she zipped off to find samples to celebrate my special day.
Now, sporting my new party-at-the-front, business-at-the-back hairdo, my friend and I made our way to the cash desk. Passing a lady having her eyebrows groomed, a DJ at a mixing desk and a central island where further beauty services were on offer, the general vibe was busy, fun and beauty-obsessed.
Compared to my days as an awestruck student in the Champs-Élysées store, the experience here felt less about the splendor of the store, (indeed, to me, the store design felt relatively low-key) and more about the relatability and approachability of the staff. Perhaps I am less dazzled by doodads and more appreciative of the human touch now that I am older. Fortunately, among my samples were plenty of anti-wrinkle products to help with that pesky aging process!