Features, The Business of Beauty

Taking Stock of Ulta: With Peak Store-Saturation and Amazon Breathing Down Its Neck, Can It Continue to Rock?

If you’re a beauty retailer, it’s unquestionably fantastic news when Kylie Jenner tweets to her 25.5 million Twitter followers about how psyched she is that her $1 billion juggernaut makeup brand will make its debut in your store just in time for the holidays. But that’s exactly where Ulta is at the moment – smack dab in the middle of the beauty conversation.

Of course. it wasn’t always that way; heck, up until about five years ago, the Bolingbrook, Illinois-based retailer struggled to grasp even a sliver of the cool-factor of its chief competitor, Sephora.

But then something magical happened. And that magical thing was a woman named Mary Dillon.

Massive Vision, Even More Massive Results

When Dillon, whose diverse background includes stints in the top ranks of McDonald’s, PepsiCo and U.S. Cellular, took the reins as CEO in 2013, Ulta was opening stores at a breakneck pace – 125 that year alone, to be precise. And while Dillon has slowed that roll to roughly 100 per annum, it’s currently up to nearly 1000 stores. The ultimate goal? At least 1200, some in the urban markets like Manhattan that Ulta has long steered clear of.

Maybe America was just itching to latch onto another way to get its lipstick and deep conditioner fix. Naaaaah, that wasn’t it. Dillon just had such a clear vision for what Ulta – a bit of an odd duck in beauty retailing, given its high/low product mix, in-store salons and unsexy suburban, “off-mall” locations – could be that she basically willed it into explosive growth.

Founded in 1990 by Richard George, the former president of Osco Drug, Ulta – then known by the clunky moniker Ulta Salon, Cosmetics and Fragrance — lumbered along under the radar for a few years. This was followed by a bit of moving and shaking in the corporate ranks, including the installation of Lyn Kirby, late of Sears Circle of Beauty, as president and CEO. By 2008, it had gone public and opened a second distribution center in Phoenix.

Five years later, Dillon took the helm, with big ideas centered around loyalty memberships, heightened in-store experiences that reduce what she calls the “friction of commerce” and – perhaps most importantly, depending on what kind of chromosomes you’re packing — an executive and associate bench teeming with women.

As a Women-Led Retailer, Ulta Is an Anomaly

When Dillon is tapped to speak at major industry events, her PowerPoint presentations are understandably packed with slides touting the inroads she’s made at Ulta: eye-popping increases in net sales, comps and earnings per share.

But other numbers are equally telling, a real indication that Dillon’s got her finger firmly on the pulse of both today’s beauty consumer as well as the collective, national id.

On the consumer front, there are close to 28 million members of the Ultamate Rewards loyalty program, a straightforward “spend a dollar, earn a point” scenario loaded with perks that has garnered excellent word-of-mouth among bargain-hunters and what Dillon refers to as “beauty enthusiasts.”

And in this emotionally charged era in which women are becoming extraordinarily vocal about equal pay, equal opportunity and just flat-out equality, full-stop, the fact that 92 percent of Ulta’s 37,000+ associates are women is a feather in Dillon’s cap. In addition, more than 6,000 women have been promoted to management roles within the company, and three of its highest-ranking technology execs are female. Round of applause, please.

With a lot of the tiny indie beauty brands I interact with as a journalist, female-led teams are not uncommon. But in big, booming, publicly traded companies like Ulta? It’s a rarity. Yes, there are women in the top ranks at Lauder, L’Oréal and Coty. But not nearly to the same degree as at Ulta. A beauty business run by the individuals who actually use the products? How clever!

Is Amazon Having an Impact?

Of course, it’s great for Dillon when everything is going swimmingly for Ulta. But how about when the stock starts to get slightly wobbly? Though still considered a “hold,” Ulta isn’t quite the darling today that it was even a year ago. And as with virtually every other business hiccup of the past five years or so, the finger can be pointed squarely at Amazon. But let’s do a little compare-and-contrast between Ulta and Amazon, shall we?

Ulta has physical stores. But now Amazon does, too. (Although I went to one last week in New York City and came away decidedly underwhelmed.) Ulta has an incredible selection – 20,000+ items from 500 vendors — of beauty at every price point, and Amazon still hasn’t nabbed, at least directly, a lot of the most highly coveted luxury players in makeup and skincare.

And even in terms of price, Amazon doesn’t always have an edge. Let’s take one Urban Decay SKU – the Naked Cherry eyeshadow palette – as an example. On Ulta’s website, it’s $49. On Amazon, it’s $125.

But here’s the advantage Amazon does have over Ulta – that whole Speedy Gonzalez thing. If I were so desperate to have Urban Decay’s Naked Cherry eyeshadow palette that I was willing to shell out $125 of my hard-earned bucks, I could, as a Prime member, have it in my hot little hands tomorrow. While Dillon is furiously working on faster delivery methods for Ulta, she really can’t compete with Amazon on this front.

At least not yet. But given Dillon’s track record with Ulta, and her laser-sharp focus on serving women’s needs and wants and delivering “all things beauty, all in one place,” you’d be a fool to think she couldn’t get there.

What Mary Dillon Gets Right

  1. She prioritizes customer experience. Shopping for beauty needs to be fun, not intimidating. Ulta has really nailed the right ratio between covetable, “I saw that on ‘Into the Gloss'” merch and approachable associates.
  2. She “gets” digital. Again, there’s a real approachability factor with Ulta’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. Esoteric and artsy isn’t the goal here. Rather, it’s about getting the word out in a straightforward way.
  3. She’s profoundly pro-women. Although this should be a given with anyone at the helm of a beauty company, historically, that hasn’t always been the case. But something tells me Dillon is changing all that.

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