Sephora's VP Interactive On Mobile Technology: Threat or Opportunity?

Sephora execs may have heard Silicon Valley veteran Marc Andreessen predicting the death of traditional retailers earlier this year. But with its leadership in digital and mobile technology, Sephora's future is bright.

Customer experience is the remaining advantage physical retailers have over eCommerce pureplays like Fab.com, Andreessen said, and technology is closing that gap. So why is Sephora, the 1969-born beauty retailer with 1,398 stores in 30 countries, justifiably confident in its future?

Bridget Dolan, Vice President Interactive Media at Sephora, shared these thoughts in an email interview* on her marketing team's use of mobile technology to enhance the customer experience.

Sephora's Mobile App is a True Utility

"Sephora is a customer-centric company. Our mobile app, Sephora to Go for iPhone, is designed to be a true utility to our customers while they shop. Having their Beauty Insider (loyalty program) information easily accessible to them at all times both inspires and empowers them to shop with us in a more convenient way."

It Empowers an Engaged Audience

"When we made Ratings & Reviews available on our mobile app, our customers told us they loved being able to read reviews - but why not write them from mobile too? What we'd once assumed was too difficult to do on a phone turns out to be very compelling for customers who love a product and want to share their opinion."

Omnichannel Experiences Are Consistent

"Whether a customer signs into her Beauty Insider account online, in her mobile app, or when she visits a Sephora store - we can provide a consistent experience. Utilities like a shared shopping cart, wish list and Beauty Insider perks let her easily move across devices and between online and in store, however it fits her needs."

Sephora's mobile app has one of the most robust features list in retail, accessible in any store through free Wi-Fi: access the loyalty card in Passbook; find new products with What's New and Today's Obsession; view past purchases for shades of foundation or which moisturizer was sampled; check out using the iPhone; scan any product; find highlighted mobile offers; and access a previously built shopping list.

So which is it for physical retailers, dark clouds or sunny skies? Mark Larson, Global Head of Retail for KPMG International, gives his perspective. "It is somewhat ironic that new technology presents a significant threat to the traditional retail business model," he said. "Yet that same technology presents a tremendous opportunity for bricks and mortar retailers to transform their businesses."

Despite Sephora's digital lead, some gaps still stand out. Site registration is a blank form instead of being auto-filled with profile data from a social log-in. While that's just a few keystrokes more on a laptop, the limitations are magnified for mobile and tablet visitors, which now comprise 1/3 of all Sephora.com traffic.

This means more than just abandonments and typos. Since Sephora isn't capturing or using social data from its 8 million global Facebook fans, it's missing out on opportunities for greater personalization and customer intimacy.

Given its digital leadership and momentum, Sephora will no doubt catch up in the social data space. And while Andreessen may be proven right with his doomsday prediction for physical-only retailers, digitally savvy leaders like Sephora will continue to improve customer experiences across all channels and ensure their own success for years to come.

*Please see the full interview for details on Sephora's mobile POS solution, 2012 growth stats, social media campaigns and more.

Disclosure: the author is CEO of Authintic, an analytics technology company helping retailers sell more using site and social data.