I Love Sephora, But I Love This Beauty Robot More

I’m going to start buying my makeup from a robot.

OK, not exactly. But I did have a great experience with a new chatbot called HelloAva, an artificial intelligence service that proved more helpful to me in figuring out which products suited my skincare needs compared to any in-store experience I’d had at a makeup specialty store like Sephora.

It works like this: You use Facebook messenger or send an SMS text message to the HelloAva bot, which then prompts you with a 12-question quiz about your skincare habits and existing products in your routine (it takes less than five minutes, and you can choose a response easily from four possible answers for each question.) You can also upload a photo of yourself so that the bot can analyze things like your complexion. You can opt out of both the quiz and uploading a photo if you prefer.

A screenshot from my conversation with “Ava,” part-bot, part-human.
A screenshot from my conversation with “Ava,” part-bot, part-human.

Ava works because it blends automated responses with real human interaction. The beginning of your conversation — mainly the quiz — is generated by the bot component, but once you’ve answered those questions, a real person facilitates the conversation with the bot in case questions are asked that the bot hasn’t learned how to answer yet.

That part-human part-robot approach made my conversation with “Ava” fluid and efficient. There was no, “sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,” or “could you please repeat that?” The products that were recommended to me were also accompanied by an explanation for why they could work on my skin, an important educational step in the buying process often overlooked in my own in-store experiences.

Once I’d decided to purchase a product through the HelloAva platform, the bot sent me a link that led me to an easy online purchase (I didn’t have to seek out the product on another website.) A few days later, my moisturizer arrived at my apartment, accompanied by a free sample hydrating serum from the same brand of products already in my makeup bag, plus a handwritten note thanking me for trying HelloAva and encouraging me to reach out to the bot if I had any questions.

While I had a successful experience using HelloAva, a few colleagues noted their skepticism, reflecting issues in the beauty market at large: Were there enough products for people of varying skin tones? Are HelloAva’s aestheticians knowledgable about diverse skincare concerns?

HelloAva launched this year in beta, meaning the company is testing its service on a small number of users to work out any kinks in the platform. For now, the chatbot doesn’t allow you to browse its product inventory, but instead recommends products to you based on your quiz answers.

Its founder, Siqi Mou, said that as more users try HelloAva for themselves, the bot will become smarter, relying on data from existing users to better serve new users. For example, if I use HelloAva and then recommend my friend, who may have similar skin issues as I do, to use the service, HelloAva would more easily be able to recommend products to her based on the success it had recommending products to me.

HelloAva’s 10-person team (comprised of four full-time employees and six part-time advisers) works “religiously” to test products both on themselves and in a lab over a 56-day period before including them in the platform’s database, Mou told Yahoo Beauty.

Other chatbots aren’t as helpful

Despite my positive experience with HelloAva, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a better bot out there who could answer my skincare and makeup questions more adequately. I tested two Sephora bots, one on Facebook Messenger geared toward customer service and another for makeup tips on KiK Messenger, both of which launched last year, though neither mimicked HelloAva’s language proficiency quite as well.

Sephora’s Facebook Messenger bot is geared towards booking in-store services like makeovers, and doesn’t offer an opportunity to chat with a human to address my makeup or skincare needs. For that, users are encouraged to download the KiK Messenger app and chat with “Sephora.” Unfortunately, the Sephora KiK Messenger bot seemed a little confused by the most basic language.

Sephora’s bot might be useful for a cosmetics newbie to learn about makeup application, but it didn’t educate me on why a certain product was better for me than another. That is, I can look up makeup tutorials myself on YouTube, but I can’t interact with a vlogger about why they chose to use a kale-based moisturizer.

I also tried L’Oreal’s Beauty Gifter bot on Facebook Messenger, which I found to be nearly as limiting as the Sephora bot. (The bot becomes confused when you indicate you don’t actually want to gift any cosmetics to anyone, but are looking for products to use yourself. Plus, rather than offering recommendations of individual items, it suggests entire boxes of products.) One positive feature of the L’Oreal bot: It asks users about their budget, a feature none other offered.

Ulta Beauty’s app features a “virtual beauty try-on experience” called GLAMlab, which lives within the store’s smartphone app. GLAMlab allows you to upload a selfie (or use an existing models face provided in the app) to “try on” over 1,700 makeup products from 25 brands by editing the photo you’ve used with a virtual application.

Again, the major pitfall of this feature is the lack of education the user gets when choosing products (why is the MAC lipstick a better option than the Butter London tube, for example?)

It’s worth noting that Sephora also has a “try-on” feature in its app, though both the Ulta and Sephora virtual try-on experiences end up feeling like you’ve applied unfortunate Snapchat filters to your selfie.

“Chatbots are the new apps”

Just because the other bots weren’t as helpful doesn’t mean big companies aren’t ponying up more money to get some skin in the beauty-tech game. Mou said HelloAva has raised $500,000 in angel investing, but that figure pales when compared to the big money players like Sephora’s parent company, luxury powerhouse LVMH Moet Hennessy, and Ulta — a company valued at nearly $18.8 billion — can afford to spend on new tech.

To be sure, the beauty industry en masse is flush with cash. Market research company NPD Group said beauty sales in the U.S. increased $15.9 billion (a 6 percent jump) in a year’s time ending in February.

That said, Sephora and Ulta’s aims at improving their smartphone apps may be misguided, at least according to tech veterans like Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, who, a year ago, said “chatbots are the new apps.”

That’s also why HelloAva’s Mou said her company has no plans to launch an app, focusing instead on improving the machine-learning capabilities of its bot.

According to a 2015 report from analytics firm eMarketer, 1.4 billion people use messenger apps, and Silicon Valley investors eagerly throw money at the growing space. Rulai, a customer experience chatbot developer, raised $6.5 million in venture capital funding in late May. $3 million went over to the chatbot service Tribe; $20 million went to a security chatbot in February. Overall, second round funding for chatbots has increased 400 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Sephora customers get makeup applied at the Beauty Studio in Sephora Brooklyn. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sephora customers get makeup applied at the Beauty Studio in Sephora Brooklyn. (Photo: Getty Images)

In-store remains important

For now, Sephora’s tech focus seems to remain in-store. The company declined to say how many people use its bots, but said it saw an 11 percent “higher booking rate for [in-store] makeovers through Messenger than our other vehicles.” And those makeover bookings made on Facebook Messenger ultimately drove higher store traffic.

Once customers are in a physical Sephora location, they’re encouraged to try out virtual reality systems (note: not the makeup itself) and indulge in a full in-store experience.

Sephora, which opened in 1970, unveiled its largest location in the U.S. this year, which spans more than 11,000 square feet in New York City. That location, “the Mount Rushmore” of makeup stores, features the company’s new “Tap and Try” service (a virtual try-on system) and its “Moisture Meter,” which measures the amount of moisture in the skin, presumably to indicate a shopper’s skincare needs. But the in-store tech has its own missteps.

Another advantage of using HelloAva: The consultation is free, whereas a one-on-one, in-depth consultation in a Sephora location is not. According to Mary Beth Laughton, SVP of Digital for Sephora, 45-minute custom makeovers and 90-minute personal one-on-ones with a Sephora consultant are appropriate “if you’re looking for more in-depth advice,” but require a $50 minimum purchase.

There is at least one free option at Sephora, though: Aside from mini makeovers, the company offers educational and interactive “Beauty Classes,” with topics on how to achieve “No Makeup Makeup” or “Age-Defying Skincare,” which are free for Beauty Insiders. Those sessions can be booked, of course, through Sephora’s Facebook Messenger bot.

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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.