Beauty Incognito: Los Angeles

Our intrepid beauty reporters go undercover in LosAngeles for an insider’s account of the city's thriving beauty retail scene.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 10/08/2010

From the toniest department stores to movie makeup artist havens, tiny specialty boutiques to ethnicoriented offerings, Los Angeles is home to a staggering array of retail beauty formats. Here, our undercover reporters comb the city to discover the best—and worst—beauty buying experiences.

This story first appeared in the October 8, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


Beverly Hills

Neiman Marcus, Beverly Hills
9700 Wilshire Boulevard

Department store shopping in Beverly Hills on a weekday can be intimidating if you’re not a lady who lunches there regularly, but once you start perusing the beauty counters and display cases at Neiman Marcus it’s hard not to get sucked in by the number of brands crammed into its ground-floor makeup department. There are the expected department store makeup brands (Laura Mercier, Bobbi Brown, Dior, Chanel) as well as the harder to find (Le Métier de Beauté, Tom Ford Beauty, Armani Beauty) and the luxurious (La Mer, Natura Bissé). The home fragrance and body care freestanding display cases are full of go-to self-purchase and gift items (Diptyque, Anthousa), and the fragrance bar, while cramped, has one of the best ranges on Wilshire Boulevard.

Service, however, is less predictable: If you come in after work, chances are you’ll feel rushed because, like many stores in Beverly Hills, it closes at 6 p.m. most days and the staff has either checked out close to quitting time or are inattentive to anyone who appears under 30 or less than wealthy. If you come during lunch, you’re likely to get better service, and if you come on the weekends or during a beauty event, you are likely to be competing for a salesperson’s attention. (I tried all of these scenarios during one week and that was my experience.) That said, some of the brand artists and specialists were super helpful and friendly without pushing for a purchase. I found it hard to resist making sure that the sales staff who were unhelpful or dismissive saw me cross the floor and buy products at other counters where the associates were not only helpful, but—gasp—pleasant, too.


Bristol Farms
9039 Beverly Boulevard

Bristol Farms is a fine grocery establishment. Its Beverly Hills patrons probably snub their noses at the standard grocery fare across the street at Ralph’s — and with some good reason. Bristol Farms is situated in the former home of Chasen’s, the famed restaurant where Ronald and Nancy Reagan got engaged and where many a post-Oscar party probably kept raging until night crossed into day. (The stories those walls could tell!) It also boasts tasty, albeit expensive, to-go options, an impressive liquor assortment and scrumptious meats, bakery goods and other assorted gourmet sundries.

What Bristol Farms lacks, however, is a notable beauty selection. At the small store, beauty occupies a tiny slice of real estate. I only spotted two, three-foot-wide shelves across from a much larger spread of canned goods and adjacent to a considerable supply of laundry detergent. Most of that real estate was taken up by easyto- find hair care and skin care brands, including TRESemmé, Neutrogena, Finesse, Pantene, Pert Plus, John Frieda, Nexxus, Jergens, Cetaphil, St. Ives, Curél, Head & Shoulders, Noxzema and Olay.

Befitting an upscale clientele, it appeared customers were attracted to the rarer, pricier offerings. There were price labels on a shelf for nine varieties of South of France fresh milled vegetable soaps at $6.29 a pop, but only five were available. (Ample helpings of Irish Spring soap, three-packs for $2.89, were on a lower shelf.) Only one of three Derma e skin care products ranging from $14.99 to $21.99 was actually in stock.

It’s possible many items might stay on the shelf because of their comparatively lofty prices. A quick Web search of Olay Age Defying Daily Renewal Cleanser, priced at $8.59 in Bristol Farms, turned up the same product at target.com for $4.69. I did see five hair and skin care products advertised as having “Everyday New Lower” prices, but no further discounting was present. Bristol Farms, of course, isn’t for penny-pinchers. They probably buy beauty products at Ralph’s — and why not?


West Hollywood


Beauty Collection
8951 Santa Monica Boulevard

Although smaller than its previous location in the Farmer’s Market retail complex, this store (one of three in the greater Los Angeles area along with Santa Monica and Calabasas) scored points for its well-trafficked location in a Pavilions supermarket/ grocery store shopping center with ample free parking in the heart of West Hollywood. While the display cases and shelves are so close to the front entrance they’re practically on the sidewalk, they were well-stocked with a good range of product that is neat and organized. (You can grab 10 bottles of Frédéric Fekkai Au Naturel shampoo off the shelves here without worrying that you’re taking the last one, plus they will have more in the back.) The color cosmetics displays (Stila, Too Faced, Smashbox, Jane Iredale among them) invite sampling, and the plentiful natural light streaming through the glass storefront and open doors is a plus. This is a fairly straightforward store, with mass market domestic and foreign brands (you won’t find anything here you can find at Barneys, say, nor will you find boutiquey local brands), but its helpful and friendly service and added value incentives, like a 10 percent store cash-back coupon with every purchase, make it a positive shopping experience that’s both consistent and dependable. The salon and aesthetician services area seemed quiet and less promoted, which could be a plus given that every other salon in the neighborhood requires an advance appointment.


Apothia at Fred Segal, Melrose
8118 Melrose Avenue

I hadn’t been into Apothia for nearly a decade, but the store hasn’t changed much. The blondwood, shelf-lined mirrored walls and display cases all looked exactly the same, and so did much of the mainstay product (Diptyque, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Creed, Dermalogica, etc). Even the store’s eponymous personal and home fragrance line, created by owner Ron Robinson, occupied ordinary shelf space and blended in with all the other brands. Still, it’s not that hard to fi nd the new product in the tiny store—just be sure to look on every shelf or you may miss a line. The best thing about the store was the lone sales clerk who clearly knew her stuff and was friendly and helpful. When asked what the newest fragrances were, she pulled Creed Acqua Fiorentina off the shelf for a test spritz, then L’Artisan’s new tuberose scent. When quizzed on the bestseller, she picked up a roller tube of Apothia’s If fragrance (the store’s top seller for $58). Asked about California brands, she picked up Child, another Ron Robinson fragrance (created by Susan D. Owens) sold exclusively in the store. As for men’s product, the California brand Body Conscience was touted as one of the newest lines, and the Apothia scented candle Soul as the most popular. She also pointed out that they carry the harder-to-find Comme Des Garçons fragrance. Le Métier, Kissable Couture and Lucy B are among the cosmetics lines, plus the sustainable line W3LL People.




3825 West 6th Street

A grand-opening banner was draped across TheFaceShop’s pint-size store—it appears to be less than 1,000 square feet—in a strip mall along busy 6th Street in Koreatown. The strip mall has parking. I already adore this place. Available, free parking will win over most Angelenos’ hearts.

I soon learned that this month-old TheFaceShop location is the brand’s first corporate store in the U.S. As I entered, I was mesmerized by the brightly lit white environment, imagining the army of cleaners needed to keep it immaculate. On this day, there were two employees present, both of whom I assumed were of Korean origin. I worried they wouldn’t speak English—not unusual for this part of town.

My worries faded when a woman who turned out to be the manager greeted me, noting that TheFaceShop is a natural and cruelty-free Korean brand. The brand tagline, “natural story,” written under its name behind the cash wrap, stresses the natural positioning, as do colorful pictures of natural ingredients and a decorative leafy fake tree, apparently a staple of TheFaceShop stores in Korea.

The left side of the store has a wall full of skin care; makeup, nail polish and associated accessories are at the center; premium skin care is at the rear, and hair care, men’s and more accessories and skin care are to the right. The featured launch is the antiaging skin care line Marine Stem Cell with plant stem cells from the ocean purportedly beneficial for my skin cells. Its toner is $22, moisturizer $30 and cream $35.

Overall, the prices varied widely—from $2 to $6 for nail polish to $100-plus for a premium skin care set. The packaging also varied widely—from subtle pastels to vivid ingredient imagery. Some packaging has ingredients listed only in Korean. The manager said masks are bestsellers, and there is a vast range of them, sold in single-use packets for $2 to $6 or in bottles for $11 to $16.

The products don’t seem overly expensive for a natural brand with an upscale look, and reasonable entry-level prices make the store good for gifts. I even got my mother a $6 bar soap. As I checked out, the manager told me, “I speak Korean, but I get a lot of Caucasian customers.” I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets more—or at least a return visit from one Caucasian customer, specifically me.



La Curacao
1605 West Olympic Boulevard

As I drove east from Koreatown toward downtown, Spanish began to intermingle with Korean lettering on store signage. When I reached the corner of Union Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, there was a hulking white building decorated with symbols of Mayan and Aztec civilizations that is the home to La Curacao’s corporate headquarters, as well as one of its stores. La Curacao is sort of a superstore aimed at Hispanic consumers that has everything from electronics to furniture to personal care.

Coming into La Curacao, I heard Spanish music and first passed by the credit department. There, shoppers can sign up for La Curacao credit cards. Even before the recession-induced vice grip on credit, La Curacao was known as a place where it was relatively easy to get approved for credit and a friendly environment for Latino applicants who might be given a hard time elsewhere.

The beauty section isn’t far from the entrance— and it is dominated by fragrances. More than onethird of the beauty section is dedicated to scent, as are six tables covered in fragrance sets near glass counters of perfumes. The celebrity fragrance reigns supreme here. Paris Hilton had a full case for her perfumes, but there were others from bold-face names, including Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Paulina Rubio and Jessica Simpson. Posters at the point of sale touted the charms of Siren by Paris Hilton and Queen by Queen Latifah.

As I roamed through the beauty department, which dwarfs TheFaceShop store, I moved from fragrances to cosmetics and skin care. The brand with the largest representation is Shiseido. There were also brands called Aniise Natural Skin Care, Callas Paris, Avani Dead Sea Cosmetics and Cera Di Cupra. Maria B. Cosmetics were in a clearance case.

A saleswoman at the counter asked me, “Que tal?” or “How are you?” I answered, “Fine,” in English, and she said in English that free facials from Aniise are being offered. I declined, preferring to roam around some more. As I did, another woman greeted me in Spanish and asked if I have any questions. I replied in English that I’m OK. As I made my way out of the beauty department and toward the exit, another woman wondered in Spanish if I’d like to get a free experience with the brand Cera Di Cupra. At least, that’s what I thought she said.


San Fernando


Valley Naimie’s Beauty Center
12640 Riverside Drive


My experience in San Fernando Valley—or “over the hill,” as Angelenos call it—has been limited to work-related visits to movie and television studios. Given the plethora of these entertainment institutions in the Valley, it’s not surprising that one of the best-known beauty supply stores for the trade, Naimie’s, is located here in the Valley Village neighborhood. The ground level contains two small glass-walled rooms for appliances and wigs, both empty on a Friday afternoon. In the wig room, I was immediately greeted by two sales clerks sitting behind the counter, and told them I was looking for clip-on bangs. There was a counter-top rack of the Ken Paves-Jessica Simpson Hairdo line, which seemed to be the only packaged brand they carried. The other four walls in the room were lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves displaying various wigs and hairpieces. The appliance room was also very straightforward, with straightening and curling irons along one counter-lined wall, hair dryers along another and so on. Most of the product was enclosed in the glass cases, prices weren’t visible and the clerk was neither nice nor helpful.

The largest section on the ground level was the studio makeup area, a warehouselike space with rows of shelves carrying fake blood, hair elastics by the case, latex face prostheses and so forth. Note to self: return for Halloween costume. Upstairs, the beauty retail store and hair salon featured much friendlier salespeople, who answered my questions in practically every aisle, as opposed to the dour staff downstairs who seemed to assume that professionals are going to buy things whether they get good service or not and to heck with the regular shoppers. While the selection of cosmetics, skin, hair and nail care, and bath and body was nowhere near as extensive as a Sephora (and I think the selections at beauty supply stores such as La Peer Beauty or Larchmont Beauty are better), there was plenty to browse. Although I only purchased a packet of $3 makeup sponges, I got a smile and a “come back and see us again” from the cashier.


Santa Monica


Nordstrom, Santa Monica Place
395 Santa Monica Place


I stopped by the Nordstrom store at Santa Monica Place for its grand opening gala on Aug. 25 but had little time then to fully explore the beauty department. In my return trip, I was going to be sure to check out everything new that I could.

First up was Le Métier de Beauté, which I was told by the salesman had recently entered Nordstrom after being primarily available at Neiman Marcus. In what would become a theme of my visit, the salesman was happy to indulge my curiosity without pressuring me to buy. He explained the skin care ingredients in the cosmetics, specifically singling out the retinol in the latest product Peau Vierge Anti Aging Complex Tinted Treatment SPF 20. But when he said the price—$125—I gasped. He justified the expense by detailing that the product would handle my makeup, skin care and sun care needs. Would it also pay for itself?

I moved to the Advanced Skincare section and a saleswoman immediately asked if I had any questions. “What’s new?,” I inquired. She pointed to the nail polish brand Butter London, and to the skin care line Arcona, both of which have sort of been West Coast-based cult favorites. Other brands were more common fare, including Bliss, Caudalie, Mario Badescu and the saleswoman’s main concern, Elemis. She guided me through a number of Elemis’ products and eventually handed me a sample of the antiaging Papaya Enzyme Peel that she instructed me to test around my eyes.

Thrilled with my 0.1-oz. tube of peel, I was about to leave the Nordstrom beauty department when an Anastasia Beverly Hills brow specialist approached me. She was doing free brow consultations, no purchase required. My brows were spiffed up quickly with a brow pencil and a highlighter, among other products, while I sat at a chair behind an opaque screen on the department floor. After my brows were defined, I was given a list of $15 to $40 waxing services offered at the location for future reference.


Pacific Palisades


15150 West Sunset Boulevard

Upon entering Pharmaca, I noticed that an outfi t of Lululemon Athletica yoga wear was recommended attire, if not a required uniform. If that didn’t clue me in to the type of store Pharmaca is, a discussion about the ins and outs of natural childbirth between a fellow shopper and a staff member certainly did. This is a lifestyle store for people whose lifestyle most likely doesn’t consist of sitting on the couch and munching on Funyuns.

As someone who blends the Lululemon and the Funyuns genera, my lifestyle is often at odds with naturally inclined retailers. I’m happy to check out the organic options but am always craving a Diet Coke, for example, when I walk into the Diet Cokefree zone that is Whole Foods.

The Pharmaca beauty assortment combines a wide array of natural products with a sprinkling of mainstream merchandise on lower shelves. There were soaps and bath care items from natural brands Jason, Pangea, Mrs. Meyer’s, One With Nature, Dr. Bronner’s, Kiss My Face, ShiKai and more, but also Dove. And there were skin care items from Juice Organics, Nature’s Gate, Desert Essence Organics, Collective Wellbeing, Burt’s Bees and Avalon, but also Cetaphil, Eucerin and Neutrogena. Price comparisons between natural brands and other brands are easy when they are side by side. Mrs. Meyer’s soap for $5.99, for instance, didn’t seem that bad near a two-pack of Dove for $3.99.

Pharmaca has plentiful stocks of everyday natural personal care, but it doesn’t skimp on premium skin care as well. Sanitas, Astara, Avalon, Dr. Hauschka, Jurlique, Primavera, Collective Wellbeing and Weleda were among the brands grouped together in a prestige-looking section that has a banner overhead that reads “Feel Better About Safe Cosmetics” and a wood-panel fl oor below. Jane Iredale and ZuZu were the makeup lines represented. The premium products were defi nitely not cheap, and I spotted a 1-oz. Sanitas PeptiDerm Anti-Aging Serum on sale for $135.99 from the original price of $169.99.

With the exception of the prestige beauty area, Pharmaca’s namesake house brand took up about one shelf in every beauty category. There was also a display of 20 percent off Pharmaca personal care products. I couldn’t resist picking up a Pharmaca Lavender Body Wash. One thing I didn’t see at the store was Diet Coke. I settled for Honest Tea.

Culver City


Rite Aid
30802 Culver Center Street


It’s impossible to ignore beauty at the Rite Aid in Culver City. Heading into the store through sliding doors, I passed through security sensors wrapped in an Olay Regenerist advertisement. The entire beauty and personal care section was in front, just to the right of the sliding doors.

As I scanned its contents, I noticed a strong presence of salon hair care brands. There was an endcap with brands such as Sexy Hair, Matrix, Bed Head and Paul Mitchell, and an adjacent aisle with those brands and more, including Joico, Sebastian and American Crew. Most of the salon brands’ products, predominantly in the $8.99 to $20 range, were situated behind plastic to signal their preciousness. Nearby salons can’t be happy.

Discounts are another attraction of Rite Aid beauty and personal care. Yellow promotional tags hanging below original prices were everywhere. Aside from their ubiquity, there seemed to be little consistency to the promotional offers. Neutrogena bath and skin care products were 50 percent off; L’Oréal Paris facial moisturizers were 30 percent off; Garnier Nutritioniste skin care was buy one, get a second one at 50 percent off; Cover Girl face and lip cosmetics were buy one, get a second one free, and Olay facial moisturizers and cleansers were marked down to $6.99 from $11.49.

In its corporate statements, Rite Aid has expressed that its private label program is a priority. Private label products were introduced in what appears to be a very strategic manner in the beauty and personal section, with a large selection of the private label natural brand Pure Spring taking up almost four shelves, rivaled only by Burt’s Bees, which occupied a bank of four shelves.

Olay Regenerist had head-to-head competition from Rite Aid’s namesake skin care brand. For example, sitting right next to Olay Regenerist’s Recovery Cream Moisturize for $21.99 was Rite Aid’s Regenerating Night Cream for $14.99 in packaging that, if I wasn’t wearing my contacts, could pass for Olay. I’m not usually wearing my contacts in the bathroom anyway, so I opted for the latter, deciding I might as well fool myself for $7 in savings.


Los Angeles


132 South Robertson Boulevard

The heavily trafficked retail stretch of Robertson Boulevard isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking of facials or skin care products, but Kalologie does fill a niche on the apparel and accessories-heavy street (a Kiehl’s a block away is the closest beauty retailer, and Kinara Spa is a few more blocks north). Still, it’s debatable whether you’d want to walk out the front door post-facial or laser treatment when there are paparazzi permanently stationed outside The Ivy and Kitson across the street.

Kalologie is best known as a day spa favored by celebs, but for those more in the mood to shop there is a very small selection of skin care brands in the front retail area. On the day I visited, the shelves were pitifully low on stock and there were only a handful of brands, such as Dr. Dennis Gross MD Skincare, Arcona, Jack Black, Dermalogica and the Kalologie brand. The sales clerk was perky and informed but seemed aware that the selection was limited. Still, she touted the competing Arcona line as one of the best and apologized for the lack of service menus (due to an open house earlier in the week, the spa was out of them). She did her best to explain the current promotion: a pay-up-front series of six facials that discounted the service to just $59 a visit, which was also posted on a decal on the front door. In short, the sea green color scheme and low-lighting didn’t do much to enhance the already meager retail experience, but the salesclerk interaction was a plus.

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