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Ulta Beauty looks to brand partnerships to boost makeup sales after Covid slump

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Inside an Ulta store location in New York.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Ulta Beauty is banking on new brand partnerships to boost lagging makeup sales.

For the full year 2021, cosmetics accounted for 43% of the retailer’s total sales, the largest segment share by far but a slight dip from fiscal year 2020. The company said during its fourth-quarter earnings report that brands like Olaplex, Fenty and Supergoop should help push performance in its flagship segment.

Net sales rose 40% year over year in 2021 to $8.6 billion, and rose 24% year over year during the fourth quarter to $2.7 billion, matching Wall Street expectations for both periods, according to Refinitiv consensus estimates.

CEO Dave Kimbell said as sales have recovered from a 2020 slump, the company’s makeup segment has proven more volatile and lagged behind other categories. Makeup faces greater fluctuations from Covid- related changes in shopping and rising prices for consumers, he said.

“As we look at the beauty category, even with these headwinds, we remain positive. The category is healthy. It is growing. It’s emotionally important and connected to our consumers,” Kimbell said.

In August, the company opened its first mini shop locations via a partnership with Target. Ulta has opened more than 100 shops inside of Target stores to date, and hopes to add another 250 locations this year.

Executives said the partnership has fueled membership of Ulta’s loyalty program, Ultamate Rewards, which added 4 million members in 2021 for a total of 37 million.

The company’s growing rewards base lays a “foundation for ongoing momentum as 2022 reopens,” according to Barclays Capital analyst Adrienne Yih.

“The combination of increasing brand awareness, the Target partnership, and new brand additions, such as Olaplex, N1 de Chanel and Fenty, are driving new customer acquisition,” said Yih in a research note.

Ulta has also launched a diversity initiative to support beauty brands by and for people who identify as Black, indigenous and people of color. Fenty, founded by singer and entrepreneur Rihanna, is one of several Black-owned brands that the retailer has introduced to shelves in recent months.

“We’re not here just to get these brands on the shelf. It’s one thing to arrive on our shelves — it’s another thing to thrive. And that’s how we’re measuring success,” Kimbell said on the company’s earnings call. “We’re doing this to drive engagement with our guests and we’re seeing it for our brands. So we’re optimistic about beauty – about makeup, and BIPOC will be one of the elements that will help us drive growth going forward.”

Looking ahead to the upcoming year, Ulta expects full-year earnings per share of between $18.20 and $18.70 on revenue of between $9.05 billion and $9.15 billion. Analysts had forecast 2022 earnings per share of $17.84 and revenue of $9.14 billion, according to Refinitiv.

Shares of Ulta fell nearly 3% Friday following the earnings release and are up roughly 6% over the last 12 months.

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