This Man Helps Sephora Put its Best Face Forward

Jason Arth of Sephora details the consistency that drives the company’s success and the complicated pieces involved in building and maintaining it

Photo: Taiyo Watanabe

For almost 20 years, one store has stood out as a go-to resource for high-end skincare, fragrance, and beauty needs. Although customers might be shopping for items from well-known brands such as Tarte, Urban Decay, and Laura Mercier, Sephora is known just as well for its iconic black and white storefronts (often with a touch of red to accent) that dot the globe.

That strong identity is just how Jason Arth, senior director of store planning at Sephora, wants customers to know the brand.

“Sephora stores have a very strong brand presence, a very strong brand feel,” Arth says. “Whether you go to Ottawa, Mexico City, Florida, Chicago, or Los Angeles, you know you’re in a Sephora store. It’s that strong brand consistency, no matter the store shape or location, that I keep as my main goal.”

Consistency in store processes wasn’t always in place. Arth joined Sephora in 2006 while the company was still small, but starting its ascent to the popularity it enjoys today. Sephora was growing so exponentially, he says, that the focus was more about opening stores as quickly as possible rather than finding a way to construct quality stores efficiently.

“To have a successful roll-out, retail is about a repeating process, and we weren’t doing that as well as we knew we could,” Arth says. “We were constantly reinventing the wheel due to the immense pressures of opening a great number of stores in a very short amount of time. The stores looked great and were profitable, and I was lucky to have joined at a time when I could say, ‘Let’s take a moment here and evaluate our current processes to see what’s working and what’s not.’”

Crafting a Reliable Wheel

Arth began the evaluation process by gathering information. He interviewed internal and external partners—consultants, employees, fixture designers, merchants, stakeholders, and more—to gain a greater understanding of what was already working, what needed to be improved, and to gain buy-in from all parties before presenting the idea to leadership. As it turned out, the executive team was already on board.

With the executives’ approval, Arth moved to build his team. Under the previous system, there were six project managers. Each manager was expected to perform as a designer, architect, and project manager. Arth went to the project managers and asked them about their interests. Those interested in design were assigned to control that aspect of the project. Those interested in management focused on project management. By aligning teams to their strengths and passions, Arth guaranteed that a new store design would go smoothly.

“Now there are two people responsible for making sure the design standards are upheld and the design is consistent across the fleet,” he says. “The project managers don’t worry about storefront design because that’s not their wheelhouse. That was a huge amount of savings because people were now aligned with their expertise and their passion.”

“We make sure that the lighting is flattering, but not artificially flattering. It must approximate as closely as possible to the world outside of a Sephora.”

The next step was crafting a series of processes. Based on previous research and the types of locations that Sephora typically occupied, Arth created a series of drawings as a template. The template allowed teams to focus on details instead of the baseline, affording the company the capability to better predict timelines for each build.

“It’s great because everyone knows you get a project on day one, but on day ‘X,’ I need to see the floor plan,” he says. “On day ‘Y,’ I need to see this elevation, on day ‘Z,’ it goes to this group for sign off, and a week later, you get comments to review. Everything is now trackable. There’s accountability, a timeline, a process, a schedule. The first few were difficult, but very quickly it became second nature.”

Feedback from all parties also became more streamlined. The real estate team were able to provide metrics earlier, allowing Arth to go to the merchants and ensure enough merchandise is in the store. A design is drawn up, and the executive team signs off on the project. The architect can then get a city permit, the construction teams, and then the contractor. The template ensures everyone is on the same page throughout.

With the previous process, consultants found it difficult to staff a team properly because they couldn’t accurately predict their workload. It led to under or over-staffing and a store that wasn’t well resolved. By having the right people in the right place, more work could be accomplished with fewer people as consultants could pinpoint their staffing numbers.

Still, the templates are in a continued state of evolution. After each completed store, Arth goes back to the construction team to see where the template worked and in which areas it could be improved. Occasionally, it was something further down the line—a certain tile that was in the plan didn’t work, and a new tile had to be ordered. These notes then affected how Arth approached stores down the line, as replacing that tile could mean future savings for each location.

“The goal is always to keep a consistent look of the store, but if I can save money on the kind of hinges we use, the kind of toilet, hand dryers, tiles—whatever it may be—it changes things,” Arth says. “When you do a project once and you order a couple of hand dryers, it’s no big deal. But if you’re doing 50 stores a year and you order three per store, there are some savings in there that come right away.”

An Illuminating Situation

Streamlining teams and construction elements were only the beginning for Arth. For the interior design of the store, Sephora found how to keep up with a rapidly changing industry. A test store, located in a warehouse in San Francisco, provides testing grounds for new store designs. If Arth gets asked to update a lighting fixture, he can install them in the test facility for immediate feedback. With that information, Arth can redesign store elements before putting the new feature out for tests and potential rollout.

“The testing site was made for the standard store size and location,” he explains. “That’s our bread-and-butter store. A large percentage of our work is directly influenced by that set.”

Through this test warehouse, Arth and his team determined how to create better traffic flow in stores, conceived a new front-of-store design, and reworked lighting. Although many companies are moving from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, Sephora yielded an entirely new customer experience with the switch. Incandescent light bulbs don’t always create light that flatters all skin tones. When customers tried on makeup, the way it looked in the store could be different than in natural light. LEDs, on the other hand, let clients see their skin clearly when trying on products.

“We make sure that the lighting is flattering, but not artificially flattering,” Arth explains. “It must approximate as closely as possible to the world outside of a Sephora so clients get the same effect when they leave the store as they do when trying on makeup during their
shopping experience.”

Bulbs aside, lighting the space itself also presents complication. Clients should be able to see themselves properly anywhere in the store. If everything is evenly illuminated, however, Arth says “it can be an extremely boring experience.” Instead, he seeks to create a balance between the highs and lows that naturally draw a shopper’s attention to certain areas of the store with high-quality light that also permits makeup application throughout.

“It can be tricky to balance highlighting certain product displays with the even illumination required by a Sephora shopper in a try and buy atmosphere,” he says.

Also, for a company well known for its black-and-white theme, Arth says the trickiest part of store design is color scheme. Color is easily integrated through paint colors and fabrics, but it’s much more difficult to find high-quality materials that are relatively inexpensive and available in black and white. Sephora stores feature several different textures—the blacks used are often shiny to create an air of premium quality. It’s a gloss that comes at a cost.

“The facilities group spends a fair amount of time and effort making sure those reflective surfaces look great,” Arth laughs. “My goal is to always try and use materials that can stand a lot of abuse (I call it love), but are also reflective, long lasting, and easy to clean. It’s a tall order.”

All Around The World

The processes and designs that Arth has put in place in the United States and Canada have helped maintain Sephora’s success. In fact, his store processes have been implemented around the world. At about the time he was utilizing these measures stateside, Sephora branched out into Australia and Arth was asked to help open those stores. He also helped with new stores in Thailand and Mexico.

“I was more than happy to share my learnings within the company and have everyone be better for it,” he says.