I visited Sephora and Ulta to find out why Gen Z prefers to shop at the two beauty stores.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider
  • Sephora is the top beauty store among Gen Z teens. 
  • Ulta follows close behind at number two. 
  • I visited both stores to see how they compare.

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Among the stores Gen Z shops the most, Sephora and Ulta are neck-and-neck for the top beauty stores.

Piper Sandler’s bi-annual survey ranks the top brands among Gen Z. Ulta was the top beauty shopping destination for the last few periods. But in the most recent survey, Sephora moved to the number one slot.

The change could be due to the income level of the survey respondents, Sandler’s analysts noted. This year’s respondents leaned more toward high-income than previous years. The analysts said they would monitor the next few surveys to know for sure if Sephora is gaining market share

The two beauty chains are very similar — both sell hundreds of cosmetics, fragrances, and hair brands, as well as their own private label brands.

But the shopping experience can be quite different.

Sephora focuses more on high-end brands. The company is owned by LVMH, the luxury conglomerate which owns brands like Louis Vuitton and Dior.

Sephora had favorable growth in the first half of the year, LVMH chief financial officer Jean-Jacques Guiony told investors in a July earnings call.

Meanwhile, Ulta carries more brands and has a wider range of products and price points. The brand has seen growth this year as well. According to the company’s latest earnings, net sales increased by 10%.

The Piper Sandler survey also found that both brands have some of the most successful loyalty programs among Gen Z. Of the female teens surveyed with membership accounts, 67% are Sephora Beauty Insiders, and 60% are ULTAmate rewards members.

I visited Sephora and Ulta to see how they compare and what draws Gen Z to both brands.

First, I went to Sephora. The sign was hard to see behind window glare, but the iconic black and white stripes indicated I was in the right place.

The exterior features large, rounded glass windows.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

I went to the Sephora on 60th Street and Lexington, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was the afternoon of Halloween, so the streets were busy with people leaving work or school and dressed up to go out.

Inside, the store was bustling with shoppers

Holiday gift sets were displayed at the front of Sephora.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Holiday gift sets were displayed at the front of the store. I noticed several employees who looked busy helping shoppers.

To my right, I found a large display of Sephora-branded makeup

Sephora carries its own makeup and skincare collections.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The store positioned this display in prime real estate between the entrance and the check out line. There were several people in line at the registers.

I intentionally visited the store without makeup on so I could try some products. I was hoping to find a waterproof mascara and a tinted moisturizer, but quickly noticed that there weren’t any disposable tools to apply makeup or wipes to remove it.

One look at the testers told me they are frequently handled and that I should proceed with caution. I skipped the mascara, but tried some foundation by dapping a tiny amount on my hand and blending it with my finger. There was no way I was putting it on my face.

The store carried celebrity brands like Patrick Ta and Haus Labs by Lady Gaga

Sephora was packed with beauty brands.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The store had cool light fixtures that looked like circular vertebrae.

All the major makeup brands like Charlotte Tilbury, Laura Mercier, Estee Lauder, and Pat McGrath had their own displays, as well as designer brands like Gucci, Dior, and Armani.

The back of the store displayed perfumes

Some of the shelves looked empty.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

While Sephora carried several designer perfumes, the fragrance shelves were sparse. It looked like some testers were missing. One wall was dedicated to “clean” perfumes, a store associate told me. These fragrances are made without certain ingredients that are thought to have negative health effects.

Sephora had a small section of hair products

Hair products on display.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The store had a small section for hair products and carried popular brands like amika and Tracee Ellis Ross’s Pattern.

There was a section that highlighted up-and-coming skincare brands

Newer skincare brands were highlighted on the shelves.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Sephora carries longstanding skincare brands like Kiehl’s and Shiseido, as well as newer brands like Topicals and Glow Recipe.

Sephora is one of 29 companies to sign the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative launched in 2020 asking businesses to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands.

There was a section for Glossier, which was designed to look like one of the brand’s stores

The Glossier shelves were very pink.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The Glossier aisle was designed to look like inside one of the brand’s stores with pink, corrugated displays and pops of red.

There were a few people getting their makeup done at Sephora’s Beauty Studio

Employees provide makeup services.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The Beauty Studio offers appointments to get your makeup done. These services range from $15 for lash application to a $75 beauty lesson.

At the front, there was a station for MAC makeovers

The MAC station inside Ulta offers makeup application and lessons.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Select Ulta stores have beauty stations where customers who buy MAC products can get their makeup done by a MAC-certified makeup artist. With purchases of $30, you can get an express application or a 30 minute lesson. With purchases of $60, you can get a full application or a 60 minute lesson.

The store was spread out and wasn’t nearly as busy

Ulta aisles were wide and spread out.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The aisles in Ulta were much emptier than they were at Sephora. Here, I rarely saw anyone in the same aisle as me, whereas at Sephora, there were at least one to two shoppers in every aisle.

However, I noticed about the same number of customers in line at the registers in Ulta.

Ulta had an entire aisle devoted to Fenty Beauty

A section devoted to Fenty Beauty.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

The store carried every shade of foundation, bronzer, contour, highlighter, blush, and several tools from Rihanna’s popular Fenty Beauty line. I’d never used Fenty foundation before, and I don’t usually wear foundation in general, so I tested the Eaze Drop Blur + Smooth Tint Stick, which is supposed to have lighter coverage. As the name indicates, the swatch I swiped onto my hand blended well onto my skin.

The store also had a small collection of products from the ‘clean’ makeup seller Credo

A small display of Credo products.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

I recently heard about Credo from a couple of friends who prefer “clean” makeup products made from natural ingredients. The beauty and skincare retailer has a couple of stores in New York, so I was surprised to find this small display in Ulta. It didn’t offer many products, so it seemed more like marketing to go check out Credo’s website.

Ulta had a wide range of body products, nail polish, and press-on nails

Artificial nail kits and body products on display.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

All of these products were missing from Sephora, which keeps its focus on makeup, skincare, and fragrance.

Ulta’s salon sat in the back of the store

Ulta has a salon for hair, skin, and makeup services.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

Ulta offers a range of beauty services, from haircuts and piercings to special event makeup and brow waxing. I later looked up prices at this store which ranged from $10 for lash application to $282 for a keratin hair treatment.

One side of the store was devoted to haircare

A wall full of hair dryers.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

There was a wall full of hair tools like curling irons and hair dryers.

I was surprised to find hair products for men too

Men’s hair products on display.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

I was already surprised by the wide range of women’s hair products. But it never occurred to me that the store would have men’s products too.

I noticed brands that are geared to younger shoppers

A display of Essence makeup.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

I found brands like Essence and Elf, which offer makeup at drugstore prices. This signaled to me that Ulta’s range from luxury to low-end truly caters to every age and income.

And there were some cool brands that I didn’t see at Sephora

Juvia’s Place is a Black-owned makeup brand that specializes in highly-pigmented colors.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

I was delighted to see a Black-owned makeup brand that wasn’t founded by a celebrity — and that it was given a large placement towards the front of the store.

Ulta also signed the 15 Percent Pledge to dedicate 15% of its shelf space to Black-owned brands.

Sephora was more compact and limited, whereas Ulta was a one-stop shop for all beauty needs

Ulta was a one-stop-shop.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Insider

While I’m certainly no makeup maven, I have certain brands and products that I like and use regularly. From time to time, I’ll try a new lip color or eyeshadow, but I usually shop online or in drug stores.

After visiting Sephora and Ulta, I would consider returning to both stores for my next beauty purchases, keeping in mind that each has a different purpose.

I spent more time in Sephora because the shopping experience was more engaging and exciting. But the store has a limited number of brands, and prices tend to be higher than I prefer to spend on cosmetics. I would go to Sephora for the thrill of trying new products and perhaps to get my makeup done.

Meanwhile, shopping at Ulta was a no-frills experience similar to shopping in a drug store. But it was much larger and had a wider range of brands, products, and prices. I would go to Ulta to find a very specific product, shop on a budget, or for hair products.

Do you work at Sephora or Ulta? To tell your story, please email this reporter at jortakales@insider.com or text (646) 768-4742 using the Signal app.

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