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Sephora Versus Ulta: Which is Better?

Maria Lalonde

In the beauty retail realm, Sephora and Ulta reign as queen cosmetic retailers. For years, makeup aficionados have argued over which brand is the best.

Both Sephora and Ulta shine in selection, services and in-store experience, and both reward devotees with free stuff, rewards and other perks. So which brand is right for you? Decide for yourself with this Sephora versus Ulta guide.

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Sephora. According to the retailer's website, Sephora features a "carefully curated selection" of more than 17,000 listed products from more than 300 brands. Its inventory includes makeup, skin care, fragrance, hair care and tools from classic, indie and up-and-coming luxury manufacturers. Sephora also peddles its own house line, Sephora Collection, which includes high-quality products at more modest price points than many of its high-end brands.

Ulta. While Sephora focuses on luxury brands, Ulta embraces both the upscale and the affordable. The store's selection includes more than 20,000 different products from more than 500 different brands, including high-end brands such as MAC cosmetics and Clinique in addition to drugstore brands such as Maybelline and Neutrogena. Since Ulta has an on-site salon, the store can offer hair care from salon-exclusive manufacturers such as Matrix and Redken. The retailer features a wide selection of hair tools and more than 50 different types of blow dryers with a wide range of prices. Ulta also offers its own product line, which includes makeup, skin care and bath and body products.

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Sephora Beauty Insider. Sephora provides shoppers with the opportunity to join its rewards program to earn points and other perks. Benefits of Sephora Beauty Insider include:

Points. Sephora Beauty Insiders earn one point for every $1 spent. Points never expire.

Rewards. Once shoppers earn 100 points, they can redeem their earnings for Rewards. Sephora releases new Rewards every Tuesday and Thursday in its Rewards Bazaar. Rewards range from travel-size makeup and skin care products (100 points) to custom makeovers (500 points) to invitations to VIP parties (2,000-plus points).

Birthday gift. Sephora treats members to a free mini gift, available in-store or online throughout their birthday month.

Beauty classes. Beauty Insiders can attend beauty classes at Sephora stores for free. Topics include age-defying skin care, teen makeup and brow shaping.

Membership tiers. Sephora offers three levels of membership:

-- Beauty Insider: Free to join.

-- VIB: To reach VIB status, shoppers must spend $350 or more per calendar year. In addition to all the perks of Beauty Insider, VIB members receive one free makeover, one 10 percent off offer and one free standard shipping offer. VIB members also enjoy exclusive savings and handpicked gifts throughout the year.

-- VIB Rouge: VIB Rouge status is awarded to customers who spend $1,000 or more per calendar year. In addition to all the perks of Beauty Insider and VIB, VIB Rouge members also get unlimited free custom makeovers, free two-day shipping, invitations to exclusive events and access to a private hotline.

Ultamate Rewards

Points. Ultamate Rewards members also earn one point per dollar spent on products or hair, skin and brow services. Points expire after one year.

Rewards. Shoppers can exchange points for credits to use toward Ulta purchases. The point structure is as follows:

-- 100 points = $3 off

-- 250 points = $8 off

-- 500 points = $17.50 off

-- 750 points = $30 off

-- 1,000 points = $50 off

-- 2,000 points = $125 off

Birthday gift. Ulta members receive an email coupon for a gift on their birthdays. Members can redeem their birthday coupon in the store for a gift. Ulta features a new gift every quarter. Past gifts have included mini mascara, travel-size makeup sets and full-size eyeshadow. In addition to their gift, shoppers earn double points on all their Ulta purchases during their birthday month.

Membership tiers. Ulta has two levels of membership: Ultamate Rewards and Ultamate Rewards Platinum. You can achieve Platinum status by spending $450 or more in a calendar year. Platinum members earn 1.25 points per every dollar spent, and points never expire. Platinum members receive a gift and a $10 off coupon for their birthdays, and exclusive offers and invitations to special events throughout the year.

In-store experience

Sephora. Sephora was a beauty industry pioneer, moving makeup from behind the counter onto the floor for customers to try, touch and explore. Instead of salespeople, Sephora staffed its stores with non-commissioned "beauty advisors" to offer guidance and suggestions. Sampling is a big part of Sephora's business model, and all stores give shoppers the opportunity to try products before making a purchase. Sephora also offers custom makeovers and group classes, where specialists tackle topics such as false lashes, smoky eye and teen makeup.

This year, Sephora rolled out the "New Sephora Experience," introducing advanced tech to select stores to help make shopping more intuitive and enjoyable. New in-store features include a digital workstation where consumers can watch video tutorials and touch-screen kiosks that help shoppers find the right foundation, concealer, lipstick and skin treatments for their skin type.

Ulta. Ulta has undergone a transformation over the last few years with a focus on improving customer experience. Ulta entices shoppers with free samples for both high-end and drugstore brands, and invites shoppers to play with its hairdryers and electronic beauty tools. While shopping, customers can use the Ulta app to read reviews, receive suggestions and add products to their favorites list.

Ulta sets itself apart with its full-service, in-store salons. Ulta salons offer a comprehensive range of hair, makeup, nails and brow services, plus skin treatments from Dermalogica.

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Online experience

Sephora. On Sephora's user-friendly website, you can shop its full selection of makeup, skin care, hair care and tools. Using the site, you can track recent orders and check your Beauty Insider point balance.

Sephora provides free three-day shipping on online orders of more than $50. Orders of less than $50 receive three-day shipping for $5.95. The retailer also offers customers with the option to purchase free two-day or "Flash" shipping on all orders for $10 per year.

Ulta. Ulta's intuitive site includes its complete collection of makeup, skin care, hair care, and other products. On Ulta.com, you can check your Ultamate Rewards points and book beauty appointments.

Like Sephora, Ulta hooks up online shoppers with free standard shipping on orders of more than $50, and $5.95 shipping on orders of less than $50. Standard shipments from Ulta arrive within three to eight business days.

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