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The case of the Sephora vending machine

I got a frantic text message last week from my friend Selena, who was inexplicably at the mall in the middle of the afternoon despite the fact that she has both (a) a job and (b) children (so don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't have it all, girls):

"Why is there a kiosk/giant vending machine in the 5th Avenue Mall that says 'Sephora' on it in big letters? Is this a tease or a taste of things to come??!!"

Sephora ZoomShop vending machine in Anchorage, Alaska
Maia Nolan photos
This Sephora "ZoomShop" vending machine appeared recently in Anchorage's Fifth Avenue Mall.

A Sephora? In Anchorage? This was indeed worthy of extra punctuation. I had to see it for myself. So in the name of research, I left the office and took off for the Fifth Avenue Mall, where there is, in fact, a giant Sephora vending machine parked near the third-floor skybridge to Nordstrom. Inside I found a small sampling of some of the more popular products offered by the cosmetics retailer: Urban Decay's

, Tarte

, Sephora by OPI

, Ojon's

. Some of the products are Sephora exclusives, but others --

like Hope in a Jar and Purity Made Simple, for example -- are already available across the skybridge at Nordstrom.

The high-end beauty products might be presented for sale as though they were candy bars or packages of cheese crackers, but given the price points, feeding coins into a slot isn't really a viable payment option (that Sephora brand Smokey Eyes set will set you back 144 quarters). Purchasing an item requires navigating a pretty straightforward touch screen menu and swiping a credit card.

I assume your product then drops off its little shelf so you can collect it, but I don't know for sure because I didn't buy anything -- despite the fact that I've been eyeing that mini nail polish set on the website. Why? Because there was no way to enter my V.I.B. card number -- and no way was I going to swipe my credit card before I knew whether I'd receive credit toward my next free gift. That's like buying an airline ticket without getting miles.

Products for sale in a Sephora ZoomShop vending machine
Some of the products for sale are Sephora exclusives; some others are already available at Nordstrom or other local stores.

Limited selection, no rewards points -- besides seeing the Sephora logo in a local mall, I wasn't seeing much to be excited about. The fun thing about Sephora in person is being able to try everything on, and this vending machine certainly doesn't offer that. The real question from Selena's text remained, however: Was this a taste of things to come? We've been told

in Anchorage, but you never know. I called up the Fifth Avenue Mall's marketing office and spoke with an administrative assistant who told me the vending machine is a stand-alone promotion; there are no plans at this time to open a Sephora store in the mall.

After calling the mall, I texted Selena back to let her know the bad news: No store, just the vending machine.

"Damn," she texted back. "Maybe I can reach my arm up into it like at school..."

Maybe, though, Sephora corporate knew something the mall management didn't -- like, do they use these vending machines to test potential new markets? I contacted Sephora, and a public relations coordinator, Rosa Park, said she would arrange for me to be contacted by a press agent.

I then had one of the strangest interactions I've ever had with a press flack.

News reporters are used to dealing with spokespeople who don't want to release specific information, but as (primarily) an arts and features writer, I've mostly encountered press agents who are dying to tell me everything they possibly can about their clients.

This was not the case with Kekst and Company rep Molly Morse, who called me up Wednesday afternoon and told me flatly that she had "no further information" for me and therefore would "have to decline."

This was before I asked her any questions.

Sephora ZoomShop vending machine touch screen
The touch screen is easy to use, but doesn't appear to allow Sephora Beauty Insiders or V.I.B.s to apply their purchases to those reward program accounts.

I'll admit I probably wasn't at my most articulate at this point -- you'd be flustered, too, if you tried to ask someone about a product they're paid to promote and ran into a brick wall -- but I did my best to explain to Morse that I was just looking for some basic information about the machine.

A vending machine that sells lipstick.

Not nuclear codes. And I kept getting the same kind of response Jill usually gets when she tries to find out what's up with the

.

I told Morse I didn't understand her reticence -- don't the words "free publicity" mean anything in these troubling economic times? -- and she finally said she'd try to get me some more information. Not being entirely confident in her, however, I e-mailed Park and asked her if there was someone else I could speak with. Someone who might be able to tell me, for example, whether the products in the machine will always stay the same, or whether Beauty Insiders can earn credit for purchases made there.

It was extremely weird, and what should have been a pretty routine phone call left me wondering: Was Morse just having a bad day, or was Sephora being dodgy on purpose? And if so, why?

Park hasn't responded to my last e-mail. I did get the following from Morse Thursday afternoon:

Maia, Thank you for the email. Below is a description of the Sephora ZoomShop, which is the only information I am able to provide about it. I hope it will be helpful for your post. Best, Molly

The Sephora ZoomShop provides convenient access to an assortment of Sephora's most popular makeup, skincare and fragrance sets and individual items. The kiosk is powered by touch-screen technology, providing product information and pricing, and is topped by a video monitor communicating "how to" instructions and special offers and promotions.

In other words, pretty much exactly what I already knew.

So, shoppers, I can't tell you how the products in the Fifth Avenue Mall's Sephora vending machine were selected, or if they will ever change. I can't tell you if you can apply your purchases to a V.I.B. or Beauty Insider account (which means that personally, if I run out of Purity Made Simple and need to make an emergency cleanser purchase, I'll be going to Nordstrom, where I know I can use my Mod card). I can't tell you if other Alaska shopping centers will be getting machines. I can't tell you if Sephora is considering an Anchorage presence beyond the "ZoomShop."

But I tried -- I really did. Does that count?

Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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