The Beauty Advantage: Six Ugly Secrets of the Cosmetics Counter

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If you’ve ever set foot in a department store, you’ve probably had to navigate through the beauty and fragrance gauntlet—bombarded by salespeople in medical-inspired lab coats, spritzed with the latest scent, or pressured to be “made over” with the season’s newest colors.

I used to be one of these people. For seven years, I worked as a makeup artist in almost every high-end retail store—from Saks Fifth Avenue to Barneys. Dressed in the beauty-counter uniform of head-to-toe black, my job was to make people spend—even if they didn’t want to. If I failed? Well, I was out of a job. Most cosmetics counters run on freelance labor, and beauty companies supply stores with makeup artists who work without benefits and with little job security. But the pay is decent, the free products are great, and without a college degree, my options could have been worse. So I spent my days dutifully, but not happily, stopping strangers like you to ask, “Would you like a makeover today?”

Eight years later (and with a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College), I’m a photo editor at NEWSWEEK—and an artist documenting the beauty industry. I also, on occasion, reveal the tricks of my former trade. (Like how I was trained to turn “I’m just looking” into several hundred dollars in sales.) So before you head to Bergdorf’s, or any other department store, consider these six secret tactics of beauty-counter makeover artists:

1. Invoke science.
The single best marketing idea ever created for a cosmetics line is the Clinique white lab coat. People are trained to listen to what people in lab coats have to tell them. By extension, a makeup salesperson in a lab coat is an automatic “expert”—they must know what products are best!—except that what they’re spewing is nothing more than marketing mumbo jumbo. Try this test: next time you’re in Sephora, check out how many products have the words “doctor,” “derma,” “chemist,” or “Rx.” Implying some kind of medical or scientific backing is a surefire way to sell a product.

2. Play the expert.
Another option is to play up the philosophy of the brand, and provide a long list of “proven” facts why this product is superior. Brands that bear the name of makeup artists and brands from foreign countries are best for this trick—because “the water is better in France,” or “this makeup artist does so-and-so’s makeup” and if it’s good enough for her, you should feel lucky to use it. There’s a reason every cosmetics ad out there is graced by the face of the actress du jour.

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3. Disparage other products.
There are several versions of this method, the most common being to ask customers what products they’re currently using, and then give them “the look.” The look, of course, is a combination of horror and disgust that clearly lets them know that what they’re currently using is crap, or that they’ve chosen the wrong product/shade/color. (The bitchier the look, the more horrified the customer.)

Option two is to gain trust by praising one product they use in order to make them think you’re genuine—which, of course, you’re not. I would often employ the “take-away” trick at the end of a makeover. After laying out all the products I was recommending to the client, I’d remove one or two, and tell them what they were already using “would be just fine.” Nine times out of 10, they’d grab the products back from me and insist they needed them.

4. More expensive equals better.
There’s a reason the cult cream, Crème de la Mer, became an immediate bestseller when it was introduced in the early 1990s, at $150 an ounce: it was more than twice the price of anything else on the market—and price, in beautyland, is the ultimate symbol of quality. In fact, the “if it’s more expensive, it must be better” trick is one of the oldest (and most successful) in the book. Just look at what’s happened to skin-care prices since la Mer was introduced: La Prarie has a platinum cream that sells for $650 a jar; there are various other top sellers hawking the use of gold that, “at best, [does] nothing, and at worst, can give you irritation of the skin,” one dermatologist told The New York Times. The recession, meanwhile, hasn’t seemed to slow anything down. Why do women keep buying? Maybe because when they come to the cosmetics counter, we are there to tell them how these expensive ingredients work miracles.

5. Become your friend.
Yes, that’s right, those kind souls wielding blush brushes want to know all about you, what do you do for living, where you’re from—in fact, they want to know everything you wish people would ask you about. They enjoy hearing about your daughter’s wedding last year, and can’t wait to hear all about your problems with your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, or how your boss is a raving jerk—because they care about you. Except that they don’t.

During my time at the counter, I often dreaded having to hear customers prattle on about people I didn’t know or care about, but I knew that if I feigned interest, the client would trust me all the more to select the products they just couldn’t live without. If makeup artists were really your friends, they wouldn’t use brushes or tester products that, in some cases, have been used on hundreds of people—or sell you multiple products when you only need one.

6. Yes, it’s free (if you buy at least two products).
This is one of the biggest secrets of the beauty counter: most department stores do not allow cosmetics counters to charge for services. But there is an unspoken rule: if you sit in a chair, expect to buy at least two products. So is that makeup artist insisting there’s a two-product minimum to have your face done? Well, that’s just one more reason to run for the elevators.

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