For anyone looking to escape coronavirus headlines last night — travel banned, Forrest Gump tested positive, basketball was canceled — Sephora was your safe space. Okay, maybe not safe from the virus, but safe from thinking about it at least. It was the place to stick your head in glittery sand.
I swung by a store in midtown Manhattan last night, in between picking up new contacts and heading home to catch Trump’s apocalyptic address. As someone who hoards Sephora’s beauty reward points, I figured I’d check out what was up at the location just down the street from my eye doctor. I expected a store with samples on lock down, with empty shelves as people hoarded eyebrow pencils in preparation for their coronavirus confinement and to look good in all the conference calls to come.
On my way, I walk past a man wearing a surgical mask while he fiddles on his phone. A few feet ahead, another guy coughs without covering his face, sniffles, and wipes his nose with the heel of his hand. I shudder. Sephora’s just around the corner.
Every Sephora has the same feel. Bright lights and pops of color stand out against the brand’s black and white aesthetic. Customers walk around with one of three looks: there are those with steely determination to grab their go-to products, careless wanderers playing with palettes, and then the deer in the headlights trying to choose between an ungodly number of products that all claim to do the same thing.
A few steps into Sephora, I do a double take — not because things are different, but because they’re pretty much the same. Eye, blush, and face contour palettes line the aisles — calling for me to touch them. Others have already given in and are smearing eyeshadow directly onto their fingertips.
I am one of those customers who knows exactly what I want, so I head to my girl Rihanna’s makeup line, Fenty Beauty. I’ve been wanting to try the new lip gloss colors. There they are: shiny glass tubes lined up for me to try. I look around, am I really allowed to do this? The CDC recommends that we avoid touching our faces amid the outbreaks. How about trying on a lip gloss sample in a store that’s a free-for-all for anyone who walks in?
There isn’t a sample for the color I really wanted to try, shimmering brown “hot chocolit.” Maybe someone swiped it. But there is “glass slipper,” a simple transparent gloss. I pick up the tube and dab a swatch on my hand. The smear makes it look like I licked myself. But it smells like cotton candy. Nice.
At this point, I am down the rabbit hole. I have been lulled into submission; I am part of the problem. A sales associate stops by to ask me and the woman staring at lipsticks beside me if we have any questions. Actually, I do. I’m not so happy with my current foundation, I want a color match. I know what to expect — she takes a phone with a special camera or lens attached and touches that to my cheek to scan my skin and then recommends a brand and shade. Then she takes me over to another aisle to try a swatch.
At this point, I ask her how they sterilize the samples. She dabs a cotton pad with alcohol and wipes the applicator of the foundation. Someone cleans the samples each night, she says, although she can’t explain how it’s done because she doesn’t stay that late in the store. And they wipe down the tester with alcohol before applying it on anyone, which is more than what I or other customers do on our own. I mention the novel coronavirus and she assures me that they’ve put out more hand sanitizer because of that. “See how dry my hands are from the hand sanitizer?” she shows me. The first swatch she puts on my face doesn’t have the right undertone, it’s too pink. She tries one that’s more peach. That one’s better.
On the other side of the makeup aisle, I can see the bottles of hand sanitizer on vanities where the store’s artists do makeovers for customers. A woman with short pixie-cut hair is getting her eye makeup applied. Thanking the sales associate who helped me, I head toward the vanities to slather the sanitizer on my hands and jawbone to remove the makeup I feel guilty for trying.
Behind the woman getting her makeover, another employee stands next to a cart; it’s loaded with makeup applicators on the bottom and Clorox wipes and a giant jug of hand sanitizer on the top. Now that I don’t normally see on my trips to Sephora. The employee is wiping down a tissue box with what looks like a Clorox wipe. I ask her if I can use the hand sanitizer, and if she’s been busier than usual. “Lots to do,” she tells me, but adds that regularly cleaning the vanities and aisles is something they’ve always done.
An hour later at home, Trump addresses America with unprecedented and convoluted measures intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. An hour or so after that, Sephora emails customers with new measures it says it’s taking in stores. It is indeed putting out more hand sanitizer, cleaning makeup testers multiple times a day with disinfectant, and disinfecting high-touch areas with hospital-grade cleaners, according to the email. It won’t offer makeovers in store. Customers are encouraged to test samples on their arms with disposable applicators instead of faces. That doesn’t reassure me much, although I’ve clearly made questionable decisions in the past 24 hours. I am glad to learn, though, that Sephora is offering paid sick leave to employees, and says it will pay any workers who are asked to self-quarantine.
“We are monitoring the global COVID-19 outbreak very closely, following the guidance recommended by our government, health officials and local leadership,” a spokesperson for Sephora emailed me. “As the situation remains fluid, we will continue to assess needs to maintain our client experience in our stores and via our site.”
Sephora is probably a different place today than it was last night, it seems the whole world is. Our regular stomping grounds, from schools to Sephora, are struggling to adapt. Museums, concert halls, and stadiums have closed completely. Sales are down for travel and tech companies. But many of the daily places where we work and shop are still trying to find some way to carry on in this new era of social distancing. It will be a long time before we figure out whether any of those measures worked.
In the meantime, Sephora is rewarding shoppers (unlike me) who follow public health recommendations and stay home — they’ll waive shipping fees throughout the month of March.