How to Sell Makeup Online: The Ultimate Guide

How to Sell Makeup Online: The Ultimate Guide

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I need a new mascara. Loyal as I am to certain beauty products, I’m currently a free agent in the mascara department.

My search is not going well: there are over 200 beauty brands sold through my local drug store, and another 250+ represented by Sephora. Any one of those brands may sell ten different mascaras, promising every feature from lengthening to curling to water-resistance. As a customer, I’m faced with a “good” problem—there’s too much choice.

For would-be entrepreneurs entering the beauty space, the saturation presents a real challenge.

Is there really room for another BB cream, or another matte lipstick? How do you, a newbie makeup brand, get your products to stand out in a crowded market? How does a new mascara get visibility among the literal thousands? How can you sell makeup online and incite people to buy?


How do you, a newbie makeup brand, get your products to stand out in a crowded market?

Luckily, ecommerce and access to manufacturing resources have democratized beauty, opening up an industry once dominated by a few massive brands. And surprisingly, there’s still room.

Trends and niche markets spring up almost daily, ready for the taking. Those with the ability to go quick to market (we’ll tell you how), can jump on these trends and fill gaps in the industry.

How to Sell Makeup Online

I interviewed two Shopify merchants who sell makeup online (and in store) to get their first-hand experiences building beauty brands.

India Daykin is the owner of her namesake beauty store, India Rose. She curates natural and beautifully-designed skincare and cosmetic lines in her Vancouver, Canada based brick and mortar and online stores.

sell makeup onlineKate Loveless created Redhead Revolution after finding very few suitable options to suit her fair complexion and light eyelashes. She manufactures and sells products like “Honest Auburn” Mascara via her Shopify ecommerce store.

sell makeup onlineI’ve also pulled from many of our past articles and included examples of a variety of brands using Shopify to sell makeup online: from a beauty vlogger turned merchant, to the manufacturer of Kylie Cosmetics, to a slew of super-niche brands selling makeup to athletes and tweens and women of color.

What to Sell: Positioning your Brand in a Crowded Market

It’s projected that the beauty industry in the US will reach an unfathomable $90 billion by 2020. Want a slice of that pie? Go for it! But first: coffee. And second: ask yourself a few questions:

  • How is your idea different from what’s on the market?
  • Have you identified an audience for your products? How will you reach them?
  • Is that audience underrepresented by current brands?
  • Have you identified an emerging trend?
  • Is your differentiator external to product? Are you instead trying to create a new experience around a common product? How will your branding help achieve this goal?

Trends

One of the best ways to validate a product idea is to research trends. You can do that in a number of ways.

If you’re planning to enter the beauty industry, you should already be consuming beauty content regularly. Make a list of influencers, brands, bloggers, publications, and trendsetters to follow. Subscribe to email lists so you don’t miss anything, use a tool like Pocket to save articles for later, and capture ideas that inspire you in a Pinterest board.


If you’re planning to enter the beauty industry, you should already be consuming beauty content regularly.

You can also check Google Trends to see if there’s growing interest in your idea. Here are a few current beauty trends to consider:

Niche Markets

Many brands have carved out some steady business for themselves by going after audiences with specific beauty needs:

  • Studio10 is targeting an older customer, addressing the issues specific to mature skin.
  • In its physical store, India Rose stocks brands that are exclusive or hard to get in the area, and focuses on an environmentally minded customer who also appreciates luxury and design.

“We sell a bunch of niche brands that are hard to get in Canada, so we have a lot of clients in Quebec because the Quebec laws are so much different. It’s really hard to import to Quebec. Our online store can ship to them, which is great.”

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary

  • Rapidly growing awareness around animal welfare and interest in chemical-free formulations has contributed to the success of vegan, cruelty-free, and organic brands like 100% Pure.
  • Klee found its niche in the tween and teen market, offering subtle colors and gentle formulations for young skin.
  • Redhead Revolution makes mascaras in uncommon shades that work best on light lashes for a natural look.

“The mascara is the key to my business. It’s mainly what redheads need because a lot of them, including me, have blonde eyelashes. We want maybe a more natural look instead of black mascara. You can’t really find light browns.”

– Kate, Redhead Revolution

  • Professional makeup artists look to Makeup Forever for product specifically designed for film and TV.

  • Black Opal is a an industry leader, representing a wide spectrum of shades designed for women of color.
  • Sugarpill’s hyper-pigmented colors and extreme looks appeal to a cosplay audience.
  • Workout-proof makeup is a thing, and Sweat Cosmetics is targeting athletes.

In any image-based industry, branding is especially important. Consider how your packaging, logo, voice, and website design can help reflect brand values, tell a story, and create an experience for your customers.

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Make, Manufacture, or White Label?

Make

Some beauty products, like lip balms, face oils, and bath products are simple to make at home. Carefully test and document your process, so that as you grow or move to a commercial facility, your formula remains consistent.

Even though your “manufacturing facility” may be your kitchen, be sure that you’re still following local regulations. To manufacture cosmetics in the US, for example, the FDA sets guidelines for ventilation, air control, and surfaces.

sell makeup online
Image: Applying Lip Balm, free stock photo by Burst

Manufacture

Here, we’re referring to making formulations from scratch in a manufacturing facility. Large brands may have their own factories, but many manufacturers produce products for multiple brands in the same space.

When Kate launched her cosmetics brand, she was producing products from home and selling on Etsy. When she introduced mascaras to the line, she contacted chemists to help her get the formulas right, before outgrowing her home operation.

“I eventually moved out-of-house into a manufacturer, and then I was able to actually start doing more personalized colors. I just did a ton of research because there are a lot of companies out there. I knew that I was looking for companies that focused a little bit more on higher quality, more natural ingredients. I wasn’t going for completely organic, but just more quality products. Luckily I found a company an hour or two outside of Chicago where I was living at the time, so I was actually able to go there in person, and meet the people, and create a relationship with them.”

– Kate, Redhead Revolution

There are many online resources to help connect you with manufacturers both in North America and overseas.

Try:

White Label

White label (or private label) in cosmetics refers to generically manufactured products that may or may not be customized slightly with color or fragrance, and packaged and sold under your own branding. Many brands may use the same formulation made by the same facility, with subtle variations and different packaging.

White label is an ideal option for brands selling a novelty item or unique concept versus a unique product. For example, if you were to launch a unicorn themed store, maybe you’d private label lipsticks with unicorn packaging and magic/fantasy inspired names. In this case, the lipstick itself is not as important as the branding or concept.

White label a great way to move quickly from idea to finished product, especially if you’re jumping on a hot trend.


White label a great way to move quickly from idea to finished product, especially if you’re jumping on a hot trend.

Additional reading and resources:

Re-sell

You can also sell makeup online by skipping the manufacturing altogether. Buy wholesale from multiple brands, bringing a curated shopping experience to your customers. Think themes: local-only brands, natural or organic products, products for specific skin types or conditions, etc.

“It started out pretty low tech. I had a whiteboard in my dining room with a list of all the brands I wanted to contact and whether or not I had heard back from them. I would say the most effective route I went is just to have a very genuine kind of pitch to them, because essentially I just cold called and pulled emails of all these people. I just tried to speak as genuinely as possible, and send an initial email that was chock full of as much information as I could possibly give them to make it seem enticing and authentic.”

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary


I would say the most effective route I went is just to have a very genuine kind of pitch to them.

Consider:

  • Compatibility of brands. Is there any competition?
  • Availability in your market. If you’re shipping to Canada, for example, who else is shipping that particular brand in this market?
  • Importing fees. Factor in any after-the-fact fees you may incur when pricing your products. India suggests setting up an account with a shipping carrier rather than relying on vendors to ship.


sell makeup onlineManufacturing Cosmetics

However you decide to produce your products, there are a few general guidelines and questions to ask yourself before entering production.

Ingredients and Formulation

To be sure that what you’re claiming on your packaging is what’s actually in the product, research ingredients and suppliers thoroughly. Ask:

  • Are the ingredients skincare grade, and/or approved for use in skincare in your country?
  • Do you care about natural ingredients?
  • What preservatives will you use?
  • Will your products make organic claims? Be sure that the supplier possesses the appropriate certifications.
  • Trace the supply chain. Is the supplier reputable? Can they provide references?
  • What are the labelling laws in your country and the countries where you ship?

Resources:

Packaging

Packaging in cosmetics serves a few purposes:

  1. Represents your brand through design
  2. Protects fragile products like eyeshadows and pressed powders from breakage
  3. Doubles as applicators, as in the case of mascaras and liquid lipsticks
  4. Communicates important information to customers, such as ingredients, expiry date, and usage instructions
  5. Contributes to the customer experience

Be sure to not only rigorously stress test your products, but the packaging, too. And, as Megan learned the hard way, test the two together, especially if you’re producing your formula and the packaging in different facilities.

“Packaging was a really big issue for me—I lost a lot of my customers because it was unreliable. The brushes were glued into place but the formulation didn’t mesh with the glue, so they were falling out. Now I come here and do the quality control myself. I make sure that I keep those relationships intact with my factories because I can’t afford for that to happen again. I think this is my sixth trip this year. Now I just have an apartment here because I’m going back and forth all the time.”

– Megan Cox, Amalie Beauty


Packaging was a really big issue for me—I lost a lot of my customers because it was unreliable.

sell makeup onlineLabelling

Each country has its own rules governing packaging requirements for beauty products. Within your country, there may be state or region-specific rules as well. The regulations, in place to protect consumers, cover everything from packaging language, weight/volume labelling, ingredient listings, and safety/allergy warnings.

Consult your local government for more information:

General manufacturing resources:

Managing Inventory

Managing beauty inventory can be a little more finicky than with other products, as India discovered. Based on her experience stocking a large number of skus and managing inventory between her online and physical stores, she has some advice for new entrepreneurs:

  • Shelf life: natural products and ingredients generally have shorter shelf life. Before you have any sales history to help with forecasting, order smaller quantities to avoid waste.

“I tend to buy in smaller quantities since natural cosmetics and skincare does have a shelf life, even if the product is unopened. I would rather buy more frequently and have newer product than buying too much at a time and having it sit there.”

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary

  • Temperature and humidity: be sure that your products are stored away for heat, sunlight, and moisture, which can melt or damage them.

“We have air conditioning (finally) in the store because it would get so hot in the store in the summer that product would melt. It felt like such a luxury at first, and it is, but I realized how truly necessary it was when a customer was trying on a lipstick and it snapped in half from the heat.” 

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary

  • If you’re not using a fulfillment house, and are warehousing the product yourself, stay organized. Cosmetics products are small and sometimes labelling between colors isn’t easy to identify. Create a system that allows product to be easy accessed and identified.

“Managing inventory can always be a bit of a struggle because the product is so small and can easily be misplaced. Once we thought we were completely out of a certain product, when really it was just hiding in an unlabeled box in the back room. We keep everything in in big drawers throughout the store. We use desk dividers, or make our own out of small shipping boxes to keep everything organized and to allow us to easily switch things up between drawers.” 

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary


Managing inventory can always be a bit of a struggle because the product is so small and can easily be misplaced.

  • Rotate stock: as with edibles and any other product with a shelf life, be sure that anyone handling your stock understands the importance of rotation.

Setting up your Online Store

First, let’s set you up on Shopify. It only takes a few minutes to get started, and we’ll give you 14 days to play around before committing.

Product descriptions, as we continue to nag you, are extremely important. Seriously! They not only help with SEO, but provide valuable information to help customers make informed purchases, and reduce returns. For makeup, use the main space to describe the texture, finish, application, and use of the product.

You can use an app like EasyTabs to create tabs on your product page to keep it less cluttered while adding full ingredient listings, warnings, allergy notices, and beauty tips.

sell makeup online
Example of organizing product page info by tabs, via 100% Pure

Enhance product pages with large, clear images of the product on a white or clean background, as well as lifestyle/beauty images that capture the product used on a model (ideally on several models of varying skin tones).

“Color has definitely has been an issue, especially with the lipsticks. I hope to actually have more photo shoots, and even maybe start doing some YouTube tutorials where people can actively see a redhead putting them on. I’ve had a lot of customers reach out before they purchase. Sometimes I’ll send them a photo of a swatch that I put on my own skin, or something to help them make a decision. There’s a little bit more hands-on interaction with customers.”

– Kate, Redhead Revolution


Sometimes I’ll send them a photo of a swatch that I put on my own skin, or something to help them make a decision.

Consider additional media, too, like video lookbooks and makeup tutorials that can live on product pages, or in a blog or gallery on the website.

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Apps

Shopify App Store suggestions for selling makeup online:

  • Prominently feature large lifestyle photos with Lookbook app
  • Limespot Personalizer is a great way to suggest compatible products, or feature all products used in a makeup look or makeup tutorial
  • Embed video content into product pages with EasyVideo
  • Makeup Magic Mirror allows customers to virtually “try on” cosmetics before buying
  • Turn variants into colour swatches with this handy app
sell makeup online
Example of color variants using Swatches app, via Cate McNabb

Themes

Choose a theme from the Shopify Theme Store. Filter by desired features, or use one of these, recommended as ideal for beauty businesses:


sell makeup onlineMarketing your Cosmetics Brand

Competing for attention in the beauty space is challenging for emerging brands, while the industry is saturated with large brands with even larger ad spends. Find your niche. If you took my advice from the beginning of this guide, you’ve likely nestled into a particular segment of beauty with less competition.

Your niche audience may be smaller, but, you’ve identified, they’ve been underrepresented and are looking for your product. Find out where they “hang out”, and be strategic with your partnerships.

Kate partnered with How to be a Redhead a complimentary blog and beauty box business with a massive audience of her own target customers.

“Last August my sales doubled again when I worked with the company How to be a Redhead. I reached out to them, and they featured the auburn mascara in their August box. I just gave them the free product, and then it’s free advertising for that whole month.”

– Kate, Redhead Revolution


Last August my sales doubled again when I worked with the company How to be a Redhead.

Social Proof

We’ve told you before about the power of reviews and social proof: over 70% of Americans say they look at product reviews before making a purchase. There are few industries that exemplify the impact better than the beauty industry.

Word of mouth from your average customer can be powerful, and it can take the form of traditional reviews (try an app like Yotpo) or customer generated social buzz.

Beauty Influencers

In 2014, beauty-related YouTube video views were topping 700 million per month, and the total non-brand-affiliated YouTube beauty channels—influencers and vloggers—was 45,000.

Because of the nature of the product, beauty customers are turning to their favourite online creators before purchasing. Honest influencer reviews cut through the “promises” made by the beauty industry (an industry spending upwards of 2 billion on advertising each year), and demo products on “real” people in a myriad of skins tones and looks.

Beauty vloggers have achieved cult status, many parlaying their fame into their own cosmetic brands. Eshani Patel launched Rani Cosmetics on Shopify after her success with beauty unboxings on her 142K-subscriber channel:

Working with influencers (bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers) can be incredibly effective to access engaged audiences.

💡 Tip: to cut costs, look for emerging influencers who fit your customer profile and who have smaller but highly engaged audiences. They may be willing to trade a review for product, to help build their own brands.

Content and UGC

It’s difficult to tell if I’m going to like a lipstick if I can only judge by a written description and a photo of the product itself.

Invest in creating your own content (like lifestyle photos or video shoots with a variety of models) to add to product pages, or feature on Instagram. You may actually help reduce returns, too. Megan Cox of Amalie Beauty took the idea one step further, cashing in on the appeal of beauty reviews and unboxings and doing them herself. The traffic she drives to her blog helps drive sales for her store.

For India, UGC (user-generated content) has proved an effective tool to help find new customers.

“Instagram is amazing for the cosmetics industry because I’m not the only one doing my marketing. Sure, I’m posting pictures of the products we sell and the makeup that I do and that gives people information and helps them to decide if they want to shop from me, but instagram also showcases the experience of shopping at my store from the POV of the customer. They’re posting pictures of the products they buy, selfies with lipstick they bought from me, and, most commonly, the unboxing experience when they receive their order. The marketing campaigns that have proven to be the most successful are ones centered around engagement and connection, rather than just offering a promotion on a certain product. ”

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary

sell makeup online


Instagram also showcases the experience of shopping at my store from the POV of the customer.

💡 Tip: try an app like Social Photos to help showcase products on different skin tones and face shapes. Aggregate user-generated Instagram photos using a hashtag, and import them into a mini gallery on your product pages.

sell makeup online
100% Pure product page featuring user-generated Instagram images

Additional Resources:

Shipping and Customer Service

Shipping cosmetics can be a tricky endeavour, especially with products like pressed powders. Kate experienced issues with broken product before beefing up her packaging with bubble wrap on fragile products. Remember: consider shipping and handling at the product and packaging design stage!

As cosmetic preferences are very personal and color on screen can look very different in person, expect that you’ll inevitably deal with replacing product or refunding customers. Be sure you have a solid returns policy in place, and a convenient process in place to ensure that returns are seamless for customers and painless for you.

An app like Returns Center by Aftership (free) can help you initiate and track returns, and notify customers throughout the process.

Growing your Business: Pop-Ups and Retail

Take your brand to the streets! Regardless of industry, there’s incredible value in IRL brand experiences—reward your loyal customers, allow them to interact with the product in person, and access new audience (as in the case of a market).

IRL ideas for makeup brands:

  • Run a pop-up shop, complete with a tester bar or free mini-makeovers
  • Sponsor a fashion show of event, using your products on models and/or contributing to swag bags
  • Rent temporary space within a retailer who sells complementary products to your ideal audience
sell makeup online
India Daykin, image via A Life Well Consumed

While you’re still in the design phase of your product, think about how the product and package might be displayed in a physical setting. Should you make any tweaks to the design at this stage to account for any possible future IRL applications? Yes!

“What’s important to remember when it comes to merchandising cosmetics is that these are high-touch products but also high-theft, since they’re typically so small. It’s so crucial to have testers so that people can try the product on themselves, smell it, etc. but I try to display little to no sellable product. Not only so people can’t steal it, but also to make sure that it isn’t damaged by exposure to sunlight or heat. Apart from that, merchandising is pretty easy since most cosmetics lines have great displays and signage for you to merchandise with.”

– India, India Rose Cosmeticary


These are high-touch products but also high-theft, since they’re typically so small.

1, 2, 3, Go!

Ready to launch your beauty brand, but can’t get over that mental block? It’s normal. It’s a big scary thing that you built with blood, sweat, and tears.

Removing the password from your online store and sharing your brand with the world is just a jumping off point, though—it doesn’t have to be perfect yet. In fact, it won’t be. As you learn about your customers’ habits, you’ll evolve.

Get inspired by the stories of other beauty brands that took the plunge and built successful brands:

Do you sell makeup online? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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