Beauty Supply Website Review: Sally Beauty Supply vs. ULTA
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Beauty Supply Website Review: Sally Beauty Supply vs. ULTA

In this report

Beauty supply website stores swarm the internet.  And no wonder.  The chic, savvy, modern woman whips out her credit card to make her hair feel silkier, her skin rejuvenated, her nails carefully manicured.  Bath, bedtime, and morning beauty prep are rituals she thoroughly enjoys.  These rituals help her step into a world of self-indulgence and pampering--a private world that belongs to her alone.  She yearns for products with ingredients that don't sound like a crazy chemical lab.  She craves products that revitalize, rejuvenate and recondition.  Her world is chaotic and fast-paced.  She doesn't mind spending more for a supreme product.  She cybershops for quality and naturally-organic products minus toxins and carcinogenic chemicals.  She not only anticipates the physical communion of the product uniting with her body, but also looks forward to the elating experience of applying it:  the smell, the feel, the exuberance.  She dreams of a beauty product that will give her a transcending, zen experience. 

Considering this revelation, how does Sally Beauty Supply and ULTA fulfill the modern woman's wish? 

#1 - Sally Beauty Supply

Sally Beauty Supply targets the average female shopper.  It nestles its small shops within 2nd-tier, strip-shopping malls and also has an online store.  Sally sells wholesale beauty products at bargain prices.  Its marketing concept is unique:  Not only does it offer the wholesale prices to the jane doe, but it also caters to the trade (professional hairdressers, salon staff and cosmetology students).  Sally has been around for almost 50 years.  Its first shop opened in 1964 on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  It was a struggling but solid small beauty business.  In 1969, Alberto Culver bought Sally and the business grew and flourished.  Today Sally sells about 6,000 products for hair, skin and nails and is the largest beauty supply company worldwide.

Sallly began selling online in October, 2007.  Many of Sally's haircare products target the black woman with coarse, frizzy hair.  Consumer studies report that the average black female spends three times more on beauty care than the average white woman.  A breakdown of its customer base is 30% trade people and 70% average shoppers.  Sally's revenues average 2.6 billion dollars a year and 2010 proved to be a good year for Sally as it opened its 4,000th store.  Sally has created an international market for itself which reaches into Central America, South America, Europe and Asia.

Its mere survival in a sagging economy is positive, but its strength in capturing a piece of this economy is impressive.  Online shopping is a moneymaker for a beauty business such as Sally.  According to Nielsen, recent consumer-buying habits show that customers were twice as likely to buy a product because of an online ad (iAd) rather than a newspaper or TV ad.  Sally's prices are reasonable and fair with many good deals online.

However, the website needs an immediate facelift.  A major problem with Sally's website is trying to find the best deal.  The website bombards a shopper instantly with an online coupon flyer, special discounts, clearances, BOGOFs and special holiday sales prices.  Sally has remained strong because of a solid, loyal customer base which it worked hard to build; i.e., Sally has always offered an honest price to its customer.  When so many advertising gimmicks are tossed at customers, they will eventually question the truth of whether they are getting the best bang for their buck.  And then with a click of the mouse, they are off to another beauty supply website.

Chaos and confusion describes Sally's website.  First-time Sally shoppers might question the three different discount cards for purchases:  tradespeople, trade students and beauty club members.  Ads are oversized and brightly-colored.  They practically smack a consumer right in the face.  An example would be the Valentines Day ads where red-heart images are downright annoying, too profound and squeezed into important front-page space.  Why does Sally include horoscopes and magazine names that sell Sally items?  Who cares? 

Sally's website looks like one big Wal-Mart ad where everything is imaged-and-priced, imaged-and-priced.  It does not try to excite the senses at all--which is what personal-care sites should do.  The site is void of ambience.  The customer is never lured by images, words or music to stay and shop.  It mimics a supermarket cash-and-carry rather than a beauty boutique.  It is slow to hop on the bandwagon for new and innovative beauty products.  It offers plenty of goop, cream and ointments but fails to list ingredients.  Today's savvy beauty shopper is looking to minimize chemicals and maximize organic products.  The smoke-and-mirrors marketing ploy of giving a price to a buyer and then replacing it with another price, and yet another (coupons, BOGOFs, holiday and membership discounts) will only send loyal customers away.  The website needs a total makeover using cyberspace ambience to create a more pleasurable online shopping experience.  It also needs to showcase its natural organic products and work toward depleting its chemically-based, carcinogenic products.                  

#2 - ULTA

Like Sally, ULTA sells better beauty treatment at "reasonable" prices.  ULTA is still the new-kid-on-the-block in the beauty trade; it first opened its doors in 1990.  It places its stores in first-tier strip-shopping centers or indoor malls.  ULTA caters to the classy, educated, working woman with ample residual income.  It sees itself as a one-stop-shop for the woman-on-the-go.  Its better beauty products include high-end cosmetics, hair care, toiletries, and bath-and-body items.  It strives to be viewed by its customers as a beauty-supply superstore and encourages a three-fold retail concept:  a salon, a department store, a drugstore.  ULTA carries over 12,000 products and 400 brands at higher prices than Sally's. 

ULTA remains strong in the beauty market with loyal customers.  Nielsen identified Baby-Boomer women (born between 1946-1964) as being a huge, affluent segment of shoppers spending the most in today's tight economy.  The female professional earns upward of $100,000/year--ULTA takes this consumer-marketing fact quite seriously.  Pam Danziger of Unity Marketing noted an important change in today's luxury consumer:  The shopper expects not only a quality product but also an experience to color one's memory of a product.  ULTA delivers this very well.

ULTA incorporates these marketing concepts into its website.  It carries cheaper and pricy products from suppliers that include Clinique, Maybelline, Bare Escentuals and L'Oreal.  It is focusing more on selling cosmetics with natural organics and steering away from cosmetics overloaded with chemicals.  E. Huff of described the modern affluent shopper:  "What was once a basic cleansing protocol has turned into a lifestyle of trying the latest and greatest products in an effort to maintain youthful beauty."  A consumer-shopping study showed that the average adult uses nine personal-care products a day.  A recent British study showed the average Brit uses 515 chemicals a day from beauty products alone.  According to the US Bureau of Statistics, a woman spends >$400/year on personal care (emollients, fragrances, vitamins, etc.). 

A unique feature of ULTA's website allows the customer to do custom searches by brand, category or product type.  It makes ULTA seem like a beauty boutique as internet shoppers cyber-roam its store aisles.  A recent University of Pennsylvania study on female shopping habits found that women like to browse, pick the best item (quality and cost), and then make their choice; i.e., cyberspace window-shopping.  ULTA does very well at creating online ambience, product presentation and organization.  I decided to try it out for myself.  Last year, ULTA sent me a sample via mail for Hempz hair conditioner.  It was remarkable--no oily residue, good body, organic (hemp-based).  A search produced this result:  Hempz hair conditioner is only sold in our shops and not in our online store.  This bad news pushed me to immediately leave their website and google-search for the product, which took me to another site. 

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