Don't go shopping at Sephora until you read this

Sephora first opened its doors in France in 1970 — its focus would be on bringing the cosmetics world, from little-known to luxury brands, within reach of everyday shoppers. Twenty-eight years later, the company made its way to the states, with its first U.S. store opening in Soho, New York, and over the following two decades, it would expand to over 2500 more locations, across 32 countries. 

Today, Sephora boasts itself as the leading beauty retailer in France, but its influence in North America is undeniable. With over 460 stores, the chance of coming across one of the company's signature black and white striped facades is pretty high. Although Sephora may be most well-known for its stock of high-end brands, it's managed to make a name for itself by reaching out to lesser-known, niche labels and making them just as accessible, without the pressure of a typical beauty counter.

If you've never ventured into a Sephora store or perused their products online and didn't know where to start, or you do but are looking for a little insider info, here's where you should begin. This is everything you need to know before you shop at Sephora.

The digital shopping experience is top notch

Sephora launched Sephora.com in the U.S. in 1999, which gave both consumers and beauty industry insiders a platform to communicate and share information. Today, Sephora's website — and now its app — has grown into something much more, acting not only as a means of e-commerce and communication, but as quite nearly the digital equivalent to a standalone store.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Julie Bornstein, who acts as both Sephora's Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Digital Officer, said the company's current website is constantly evolving to provide its customers with the best possible experience. "Sephora has moved to make digital as important as the physical product in our stores," she said. "There will always be a new Pinterest, a new Instagram, a new desire from your customers to connect. ...We're constantly evaluating new technologies and platforms." With Sephora's U.S. headquarters located in San Francisco, a city in which Bornstein said they "eat, breathe and live digital," early testing and implementation has become second nature.

Get color matched ahead of time

One of the worst feelings for anyone who wears makeup has to do with buying a new concealer or foundation and then realizing once it's on that it's the completely wrong color. Regardless of a company's generous return policy, the hassle of having to go back and swap it out for something else can be incredibly frustrating. 

According to Bridget Dolan, Sephora's Vice President of Interactive Media, a woman will typically go through seven shades of foundation before she lands on the right color. It's a big reason why the company created its Color IQ system, which uses the same technology as Home Depot's X-Rite color match system to find a person's exact shade. 

Dolan told Forbes that every piece of technology Sephora utilizes is based around customer relevance. "Sephora figured out early on that if we were to get the basics right, we should ask the questions as if we were standing in the store. ...That's where we're heading: 'How do we help guide and navigate you to the right products that are the most relevant for you?'"

Chat with someone in store before buying

If virtual foundation matching isn't your thing, you'll be happy to know that Sephora staff are more than capable of handling any makeup request you may have. Senior Artist and Class Facilitator Kim Carpluk told Mental Floss, "Sephora is amazing about education. ...I've grown so much as an artist in just three years with the company."

Ariel Sullivan, who worked as a company "cast member" for two years, shared with Thirty On Tap how employees are required to go through some pretty extensive ongoing training, which starts with "Sephora University" videos. "There are hundreds of brand videos, stories, how-to's, and guides on SU," she explained. "You also go through separate trainings in Color or Skin, depending on the area in which you want to specialize."

The training for certified makeup artists — the people who can do full consultations or special occasion makeup for customers — is even more extensive. According to Sullivan, though, Sephora is all about employee development. "There is a huge opportunity for growth at Sephora, you just have to take advantage of it," she said.

Beauty meets a Reddit-like community

Sephora's digital experience is more than virtual foundation matching and product recommendations. There's an entire online community dedicated to beauty fanatics and the Sephora customer experience, called the Beauty Insider Community. It's run much the same way as Reddit is, and some of its boards will have a certain familiarity to them if you've ever spent time on the Makeup Addiction subreddit. 

While the Beauty Insider Community is a great resource for answers to questions regarding pretty much anything Sephora-related, it's also become a place for members to share their own makeup looks using Sephora products, to participate in company-sponsored sweepstakes, or to reach out to others with their same skin type and complexion for specific tips and tricks. And, like the Reddit community, the Beauty Insider Community is also a great place to air any beauty-related woes you've been experiencing, like the inevitable regret buying a mini sized item and then running out of product two weeks later.

You can trust employees' opinions

Rest assured that not only do the people at Sephora know what they're talking about, but they also won't hesitate to give you their honest opinion about a product. That's because on top of their extensive training, no one in-store works off of commission. Kim Carpluk told Mental Floss that a big reason a lot of people choose to work for the company is because they won't be forced to hock particular products to customers. "We just really care," she said. "We're there to support each other and make our clients feel beautiful and happy, and suggest what's right for them based on their particular concerns."

Just because they don't work off of commission doesn't mean there aren't incentives for high-selling employees, however. Those who meet hourly sales goals are often treated to free beauty products by their managers, according to Mental Floss. Rewards are also given out to those who are rated well in customer experience surveys.

They do keep an eye on returns

If, for whatever reason, a Sephora purchase winds up not living up to your expectations, the company can and will accept it as a return. The most important thing to remember, though, is to hold on to the receipt. Sephora has a pretty easygoing return policy (which does, in fact, include used or opened items), but employees are going to be less inclined to take something back if there isn't proof of purchase.

One nice piece of return info the company doesn't advertise on their site is in regards to sales. Redditor Lucky1289 said Sephora's customer service will issue a return for the price difference on a purchased item that's since gone on sale, so long as it was bought within two weeks. "As long as you have a receipt or order number, you can call Sephora's customer service phone number and they'll work with you," they explained.

Sephora does, however, keep track of product returns. According to the website, the company monitors return activity, and if you're flagged for abuse of the policy, it will limit your ability to make returns or exchanges in the future, at any location.

In-store samples are totally safe to try

So what if you do happen to find yourself with some unwanted, gently-used product? According to Sephora's Beauty Insider Community, you won't ever have to worry about seeing it pop up post-return somewhere on the sales floor as a sample. Sephora employees are keen on keeping sanitary testers, and using returned product would be the farthest thing from that. The truth is, for as many returns as Sephora receives, not a single one of them winds up being used in-store.

Instead, all of those opened mascaras, concealers, and lip glosses get sent back to their respective manufacturers. Community member and former Sephora employee with the username dianabt answered the question by saying, "When I worked in a Sephora store we would always set aside all returns in a separate bin that would later be sorted, damaged out, and returned to the brands. Rest assured no used, damaged or open items are returned to the sales floor!"

Book a pro service

The experience inside a Sephora store isn't meant to just end at makeup recommendations and purchases. Many locations offer in-store services and classes that you can sign up for, which range anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how pampered you're trying to get. The class selection, made up mostly of quick tutorials and a few longer how-tos, covers pretty much anything, from how to achieve the perfect winged liner to how to rebuild brows and lashes after cancer treatment.

The best part about a lot of the services that Sephora offers is that they come at little to sometimes no cost. The Makeup Mini services are all free, but are limited to one per customer per day. Even the more extensive services customers are able to choose from, like the Skincare Deluxe: Revitalizing Facial Powered by Perk, are complimentary with a $75 purchase — which, if we're being completely honest here, isn't that difficult to make happen at Sephora.

Load up on freebies

Sephora prides itself on its continuously growing product assortment, and the company wants their customers to take part in that. So, naturally, the best way to win someone over — especially when it comes to some pretty pricey beauty brands — is to allow customers to try them out for free. Sephora is more than willing to give away samples of its products... you just have to ask.

According to a Beauty Insider Community member with the username oliviabt, there are three ways to get free samples when you're checking out online. The first is to simply choose three freebies from a list of 12, which can be done on any order. Beauty Insiders can use 100 of their points toward the addition of one deluxe sample, and if you're spending over $25, Sephora's offers page has a list of promo codes for even more free stuff to add.

In store, all you have to do is ask an employee, and, according to Insider, they'll be happy to give you up to three samples from any area, with the exception of mascara and eyeliner. And these samples aren't relegated to a limited online list; if you want to try something, chances are you'll be able to.

Take advantage of heavy discounts and offers

Every week, Sephora puts together a list of discounted products and beauty offers. While the discounted products, which can be around 50% off high end brands, can be found both online and in-store, the best deals are going to be found online. Sephora's beauty offers page is a virtual treasure trove of add-ons, from free-with-purchase trial size foundations to clutches and face masks.

The company also has two big sales per year, during the spring and the fall. According to the Beauty Insider Community, Rouge and VIB members can get an extra 15% off their purchases during the spring sale, and an extra 20% off during the fall. For regular Beauty Insiders, it's 10% during the spring and 15% in the fall. And as far as Black Friday goes? A community member with the username rmval calls it "garbage," while user Kim888 says, "Sephora has not traditionally given any discount codes for Black Friday. Generally they just have some value sets and specific items on sale."

Expand your product selection on the cheap

Beauty subscription boxes aren't limited to online sellers that curate items from outside retailers. Sephora has gotten in on the beauty box trend and put together its own version called Play! by Sephora, which is comprised of trial-sized samples that can be found in its stores and online. So if you happen to find something you totally fall in love with, it's easy to restock. The box can be completely tailored as well... just answer a few questions about your beauty preferences once you've signed up.

As far as cost goes, Play! lands on the lower end of the spectrum with a $10 per month price tag, especially considering a lot of what's been added to the box is on the high end of retail. And it isn't limited to just beauty samples, either. In addition to skincare, makeup, and hair products, Play! subscribers also get extra Beauty Insider points, tutorials, and how-to's for the products in their box. 

Become an Insider

The best way to take advantage of Sephora's deals is by signing up to be a Beauty Insider. It's completely free and essentially works on a points system. The more you spend, the more points you earn, which can be used for anything in the company's Rewards Bazaar. Individual sample sizes start at 100 points, but if you're disciplined enough to save them, you can eventually get something pretty spectacular, like a Benefit Cosmetics Beauty Party for you and eight of your closest friends.

But beyond being just a rewards system, Sephora's Beauty Insider program allows for a completely customizable shopping experience. Bridget Dolan told Forbes it's about learning who Sephora's customer is and then making recommendations tailored specifically for them. "If she tells us that she has dry skin then the product that she's going to receive in an email will have that attribute," she said. "It's not like we just want to know things about our customer and there's nothing in it for her... providing some information will actually help you as a client to get to that product faster."

Here's why you should shop in-store on a Friday

There's nothing worse for a consumer than walking into a store with a particular product in mind, only to find that it's out of stock. While Sephora's website is kept updated on a daily basis, its brick and mortal locations, unfortunately, are not. So there's a chance that your favorite location might be out of what you're looking for the day you go in.

According to Beauty Insider Community member dianabt, new items arrive in stores on Fridays (they're added to the online stock Monday or Tuesday night), which means that if there's a specific item you're dying to get your hands on, the best time to do it is over the weekend. She did mention, however, that it's always a good idea to reach out to individual stores, saying, "Check with your local store if you want something in particular and keep an eye out online or sign up for notifications of specific items!"

Diversity really is a big deal

In a 2018 interview with Forbes, Sephora's Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand, Deborah Yeh, discussed the company's tagline change to "Let's beauty together," saying, "Beauty is diverse and has many voices and faces. We believe it's for our clients to define and for us to celebrate." Sephora's dedication to reaching out to varied beauty groups can be seen across their social channels, each of which Yeh said "serves a different communal purpose."

While outwardly, the company seemed to be celebrating diversity, an incident in early 2019 involving R&B star SZA had Sephora re-examining its in-store approach to inclusivity. 

In June 2019, Sephora closed the doors to all of its retail locations for an hour to have staff participate in an "inclusivity workshop," which, according to The New York Times, was "meant to outline the brand's commitment to championing diversity and self-expression." Sephora has said the training didn't come about as a result of the SZA incident, but did admit that "it does reinforce why belonging is now more important than ever."