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Brush up at the counter

Options in makeup can be dizzying. And how do you apply it? Pros can help (but not always for free).

June 13, 2010|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times

To say there are more makeup options than ever is a colossal understatement. Thousands of new beauty products are introduced each year, giving rise to entirely new makeup categories that didn't even exist a few years ago. With the lip plumpers and eyelash enhancers, the high-def and SPF foundations, and the air brush and all-natural applicators, the choices have become a bit mind-boggling.

Figuring out the best products and tools has never been easy, but the situation has become even more challenging in recent years, thanks to the speed cycling of beauty trends, an endless parade of fashion magazines' "picks," celebrity product endorsements and an economy that has value-oriented fashionistas looking for supplemental makeup items rather than tossing out their entire makeup collections each season.

Where's a woman to turn for information and advice? The Internet is a great place for research, but it's makeup counters that provide the hands-on, up-close, see-it-feel-it-sample-it experience that is probably the best way to determine if a product is right for an individual customer.

According to a recent beauty shopper survey cited by Gabrielle Fisher, vice president of education and field Development for Clinique in New York, 46% of department store cosmetics shoppers know exactly what they want when they visit a makeup counter, but 27% are looking for makeup tips or advice and an additional another 26% know they want a mascara or other item but are undecided about the exact brand or type.

Those statistics indicate a major shift in cosmetics shopping behavior — a shift that's tracked with the economy's decline over the last 11/2 years, Fisher said.

"We always claimed that 80% of our clients knew what they wanted and only 20% were coming in looking for expertise," Fisher said. "Now we know that customers want additional service and support."

And Clinique, like several other makeup brands and outlets, is tailoring the education of its behind-the-counter beauty "consultants" to address the informational needs of its customers.

Makeup application at Clinique is "always 100% complimentary," Fisher said, adding that one of the experiences Clinique now offers is the "half-face teaching consultation." The Clinique sales representative, or "consultant," applies makeup to one side of a client's face and the other half is applied by the client "so when she gets those products back in to her makeup bag, she feels more confident about being able to replicate what was recommended for her."

Recognizing a void between the 200 brands and 13,000 products it carries and the challenge that presents to customers, the Sephora makeup and skin-care chain started offering "express services" about a year ago.

The free, 10-minute consultations in specific techniques, such as how to create a "smoky eye" or how to match a foundation according to skin tone and texture, were born "so customers don't have to feel overwhelmed by a wall of product," said Allison Slater , vice president of retail marketing for Sephora, whose North American headquarters are in San Francisco.

Sephora doesn't have counters, so express services take place in a quasi-salon-like setting called the Beauty Studio, where Sephora's black-smocked "cast members" work their magic on "stage," a.k.a. the store floor.

In case you're wondering why Sephora's "cast" and the makeup artists working at different cosmetic counters are so much better at applying makeup than you are, it's because they receive near-constant training, not only with specific products but in trends.

Estée Lauder's "beauty advisors," for example, go through a beauty "basic training" to learn about Estée Lauder products when they are first hired. They then go through seminars in makeup application techniques, attend seasonal seminars and receive ongoing online education.

"Today the customer is smarter than she ever was before," said Beth Zurn, vice president of education and special events for Estée Lauder in New York. "Previously, she'd see an ad in the magazine and head to the department store to buy that product. Today she comes to the counter and she's trying to figure out how one product might fit with her existing routine or how it compares to another product by another brand."

Estée Lauder offers a menu of free, two-minute services, including popular "two-minute touchups" such as the Fatigue Fighter (during which a beauty advisor applies concealer). Customers who desire a service that requires more time, such as a full-face makeover, can get one. The service is free, Zurn said, and doesn't require a product purchase.

"One of the things we try to train our beauty advisors to do is to understand their work may not be a purchase today, but if it's a fabulous experience, word of mouth is much more powerful than a big sale. Customer service is what gives you great customers," Zurn said.

In other words, they'll come back.

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