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Khloe Kardashian appears At ULTA Beauty's West Hills Store To Promote Kardashian Beauty Hair Care And Styling Line at ULTA Beauty on April 2, 2015 in West Hills, California.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

A major U.S. cosmetics retailer is setting the groundwork for a foray into Canada as early as next year, threatening to steal away business from incumbents in an increasingly crowded beauty market.

Fast-growing chain Ulta Beauty Inc. of Bolingbrook, Ill., is expected to launch its first stores in this country in late 2020 or early 2021, industry sources said. Ulta, which carries a wide range of cosmetics, skincare and fragrance products, has hired Canadian retail real estate veteran Sam Winberg of brokerage Retail CND to scout out attractive store locations here, the sources said.

Mr. Winberg, who declined to comment, has been in touch with major landlords about finding space, the sources said. The sources were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Ulta’s likely arrival in Canada is a sign that the beauty field is still lucrative, even while incumbents expand their offerings and new players arrive on the scene – online and in physical stores. At the same time, Ulta’s entry here could benefit retail landlords that are looking to fill empty sites left by Sears Canada Inc. and other faltering merchants.

Mall owners also feel the pressure of shifting consumer trends as more people shop online. But cosmetics shoppers still often head to a bricks-and-mortar outlet to try out new products or get a makeup makeover or tutorial.

“Ulta has some significant advantages – it is an energetic, aggressive competitor with a lot to offer customers,” said Pamela Danziger, president of retail consultancy Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa. “It creates an energy in the store which is what malls need desperately today to survive.”

It would be Ulta’s first foray outside of the United States. Ulta spokeswoman Karen Twigg May said the company believes in “the potential to be a strong global brand. While international expansion would represent a natural evolution and is something we are evaluating, we have no news to share at this time.”

Ulta would face well-entrenched, dominant beauty players in Canada, Ms. Danziger said. They include department-store retailer Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC), drugstore specialist Shoppers Drug Mart (owned by grocer giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd.) and beauty chain Sephora, which is owned by France-based luxury powerhouse LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE. As well, U.S. upscale department-store chains Nordstrom Inc. and Saks, owned by HBC, arrived in Canada over the past few years, while Inc. is increasingly expanding in the beauty category.

Even Vancouver-based yoga-wear retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc. is launching soon a line of beauty products after having named former Sephora executive Calvin McDonald as chief executive.

Ulta distinguishes itself by having a hair salon and spa services such as facials within its stores – services that are not available online and bring consumers to Ulta’s physical outlets, said Mark Ryski, president of Edmonton-based HeadCount, which tracks retailers’ shopper traffic.

“Services need to be delivered in person,” he said. “These kinds of beauty services occur more frequently than perhaps the need to buy a sweater.”

And Ulta touts a wide range of prices and products from lower-end lines such as Maybelline mascara to higher-end ones – referred to in the industry as “prestige” brands – such as Kiehl’s skincare products.

“Ulta has bridged the distinction between a prestige and a discount makeup store,” said Olivia Ross, an analyst at market researcher IBISWorld in New York. “In Canada, it would draw customers away from Sephora,” but also from drugstores and department stores, she said.

Ulta’s latest financial results have been strong. Its 2018 sales jumped 14.1 per cent to more than US$6.7-billion over the previous year, while profit rose 18.6 per cent to US$658.6-million.

“We still feel like we have a tremendous amount of opportunity to gain share from both the department stores, from the mass [lower end] areas of the business, drug stores, grocery, et cetera,” Tara Simon, a senior vice-president at Ulta, told a conference this month.

Overall Canadian sales at specialty beauty stores continue to climb, although growth is dipping amid the rise of e-commerce, according to IBISWorld. Beauty store sales rose 3.5 per cent annually to $1.6-billion over the five years to 2019, but are expected to increase by an annual 1.6 per cent in the five years to 2024, IBISWorld said.

Even more attractive are the operating profit margins: they represent 11.5 per cent of overall beauty-store sales compared with just 3.7 per cent of grocery sales and 3.4 per cent of women’s apparel store sales, Ms. Ross said.

Meanwhile, sales of Canadian prestige beauty products in all types of stores rose 4.4 per cent to $2.4-billion in 2018, roughly half the growth rate of the previous year, according to researcher NPD Group.

The beauty sector remains an alluring one for malls, Mr. Ryski said. And Ulta is “one of the juggernauts. … Increasingly malls are looking for ways to fill in the gaps either left by Sears and other retailers that have shuttered and failed.”

Other incumbents aren’t standing still. Sephora has expanded rapidly in Canada and is a strong, digitally friendly player, Ms. Danziger said.

Hudson’s Bay launched last fall its “Elle 2” beauty concept in its Toronto flagship store that includes “K beauty” such as trendy Korean face masks and natural “green beauty" items, said chief merchant Wayne Drummond. Luxury retailer Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd. is expanding its main-floor “beauty hall” to the lower level at its Toronto flagship while having moved and enlarged the beauty hall to the lower level at its Ogilvy store in Montreal, a spokeswoman said.

Shoppers Drug Mart is focusing on marrying beauty and health, said category director Catherine Woods. Among its latest initiatives, she said, are the introduction of multipurpose, gender-neutral skincare products, do-it-yourself facials and makeup with a “myriad of shades” to respond to diverse consumers.

Follow Marina Strauss on Twitter: @MarinaStraussOpens in a new window

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