ATLANTAThe idea of aging freaks me out a little. OK, a lot. So I dragged Pamela, my close friend and colleague, to the mall to check out the hype on Elizabeth Arden's Alpha-Ceramide four-step treatment, the newest cure for aging skin.First stop: Rich's at Lenox Square Mall. Oversized green bottles embellished with Arden's insignia were encased in secure lucite boxes.We lingered about five minutes at the Arden counter eagerly awaiting someone's attention. Finally, a loud Southern drawl pierced the air."Do you need some help?" yelled a woman with a blond crew cut from three counters over. We gave her a nod and asked her to tell us about Arden's fountain of youth.She didn't push or nag, but she was emphatic that no other beauty company markets anything like Alpha-Ceramide. For $55, I'd get step 4 of the product with a 7.5 percent acid concentration, which she said was the highest on the market. As a bonus gift, I'd get the first three steps, which have increasing concentrations.Our resources were limited though. We decided to think about the purchase and continued our shopping, winding up at Parisian.A horde of women were at the Arden counter trying to get their hands on Alpha-Ceramide. As Pam and I stepped closer to the counter, a smiling saleswomen descended upon us.She was all over the product, ranting and raving about its miraculous effects, enumerating facts, drawing us in. She seemed to have a sixth sense for detecting when to back off and let us think and talk between ourselves."Right now, if you purchase step four, you get steps one through three free," she said. "And starting the 24th, with any $17 purchase, you also get the whispering blush, matte velvet lipstick, bath and shower gel and a neat black and white tote to go with it."She definitely had a firm grip on the know-hows of selling a product and kindly let me know that Alpha-Ceramide doesn't only act as a treatment for the elasticity of my skin, but that "it will help clear up some of those blemishes as well."Pam brought the point home. "Well, you have been looking for something to help clear your skin up."So I whipped out my wallet, and $55 later, I started treating myself with Alpha-Ceramide, working my way up to that 7.5 percent solution.TORONTOI knew that Elizabeth Arden's new Alpha-Ceramide wouldn't hit Canadian cosmetics counters until March 15, but I dropped by a downtown Eaton's department store a few weeks early to see what I could learn about the product.I told the young consultant that I'd read about the new product in an American magazine and wanted to know more."I'm sorry, we won't have it for a few more weeks," she said, explaining that she would be attending an Arden information seminar later that week. I'd been playing with a jar of Ceramide Moisture Cream while we talked. But after I opened it and found it empty, my consultant retrieved a full jar and dabbed a bit onto the back of my hand with a cotton swab."Ceramide Moisture Cream has alpha-hydroxy too," she noted as I massaged it into my skin and wondered why she avoided using the word acid. "But the new system has more."Although she wasn't entirely sure about the concentration of alpha-hydroxy in Alpha-Ceramide, she obviously grasped the product's basic concept and she refused to bluff her way through her answers."So, are you saying that the higher the percent, the more effective it is?" I asked."That's the first question I'll ask when I'm at the seminar this week," she promised, adding, "You get about two weeks worth of lotion in each bottle, maximum. You start with the lowest percent and work your way up every two weeks. You use Alpha-Ceramide at night, and Moisture Cream in the morning.""It sounds complicated. I bet you'll have to do a lot of explaining to customers when you finally get it in the store," I said.She assured me that by the time it launched in mid-March, she would have attended two product education seminars and Arden would include easy-to-follow instructions with every purchase.The sales associate offered to call me when Alpha-Ceramide came in. I agreed and before leaving asked for some Ceramide samples.DALLASDillard's at NorthPark Center here is in the midst of a massive facelift. The service in the beauty department, though, appears to be in need of no overhaul.That was my conclusion after shopping one Thursday afternoon for Elizabeth Arden's new Alpha-Ceramide treatment regime. A chipper sales associate greeted me and asked what I was looking for, and I told her I wanted to learn more about Arden's new treatment line."We just got it in, and it's fabulous," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't sell Arden, though."She introduced me to another sales associate, to whom I explained that I had seen Alpha-Ceramide in several magazines and was thinking of starting a regimen to head off signs of aging."The Alpha-Ceramide uses a patented acid-based formulation that is going to shake up the industry," the Arden consultant said. "It will reduce visible signs of aging."It's a sequential process for steps 1 through 3," she added. "Each is to be used singularly for two weeks. After six weeks, when you've completed the cycle for step 3, the maintenance begins with step 4.""But what do these products accomplish?" I inquired. "And will they make my face red? I have very sensitive skin, and that's the main reason I currently don't use anything on my face."She told me that the products graduate in acid content from 3 percent in step 1 to 7.5 percent in step 4, and that my face would peel a bit. She assured me, though, that redness wasn't a side effect."My main problem is wrinkling around the eyes," I admitted. "Are these products safe?"She quickly put down the bottle and told me I must not use Alpha-Ceramide around my eyes because the skin was too thin and sensitive. Somewhat dismayed, I still pressed for information on the steps."Step 4 is the maintenance product," she said. "It has 7.5 percent acid and is to be used nightly for as long as you use the system. I must tell you, though, that if you quit using step 4 for over a week you have to start all over."The thought of peeling my already-sensitive skin scared me, and I knew I wasn't interested in purchasing the line. Out of curiosity, I asked the cost of the regime.She told me that steps 1 through 3, each in a 1/4-oz. bottle, come together in a starter kit and normally sell for $45. Step 4, in a 1.85-oz. bottle, costs $55."For a limited time, though, we're offering steps 1 through 3 as a gift if you purchase step 4," she explained. "Would you like to give it a try?"After I told her no, she asked me to come back if I had further questions and thanked me for stopping at the Arden counter.WASHINGTONLike a lamb to slaughter, I took my eager 29-year-old face to a local Elizabeth Arden counter to inspect the new four-step Alpha-Ceramide anti-aging system. But the sales associate just wasn't biting.In 20 minutes at the Woodward & Lothrop counter, during which I was the only customer, I fired off question after question about the new formula. I told the associate I was concerned about some fine lines developing on my forehead and about getting more wrinkles later. I even made a point of checking to make sure I had my wallet.But while the clerk politely responded to my questions and even dripped some formula from step 1 on the back of my hand, she didn't offer to sell me anything, even a regular moisturizer."So what about these lines I'm starting to get on my forehead," I offered. "Would Alpha-Ceramide help?""I would just say that if lines are your biggest problem, you should use this product," she said diplomatically.After asking me how old I am, the saleswoman said the product is generally for women "in their late 30s and 40s," or as young as 30 if they really have a lot of lines.To pique her interest in a sale, I mentioned that I have an older, more wrinkled friend who is interested in Alpha-Ceramide. But the clerk never gave me a business card or invited my friend to stop by.She was unable to explain how each of the four steps actually works on the skin, other than to repeat that the cells increasingly "tighten" and the formula "penetrates the skin." Otherwise, she merely repeated the effects of using the product -- fine lines eventually disappear, the skin softens and the skin tone evens out."I always wondered what would happen if I used something to even out my skin tone," I said, my mother's Irish blood burning brightly in the middle of my cheeks. "Would this make my cheeks less pink only if they're dry, or what would it do?""It might even out the pink," she ventured.But when I asked her how, she gave me the same old answer: The product "penetrates the skin."The clerk also told me the formula is "dermatologist tested," but she couldn't say if that was equivalent to being hypoallergenic.By the end of my lunch break, I was convinced I did not need any Elizabeth Arden Alpha-Ceramide.I'm also certain that if I go back to Woodie's anytime soon, I'll stop by the Prescriptives counter, where a young salesman collared me when I first entered the store. He invited me to have my colors done, asked what I was looking for from Arden and gave me a sample of a Prescriptives moisturizer and a brochure."Now come back if that doesn't work for you and I'll give you a sample of another moisturizer," he said.Now that's a salesman.

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