By  on July 22, 2005

NEW YORK — Trying before buying is becoming a reality in self-serve, mass market outlets.

One problem endemic to selling cosmetics in drug, food and discount stores has been a lack of samples and the chance to road test new colors. Very often, plastic color chips aren’t real representations of what’s inside bottles. Intrepid consumers frequently peel open packages to see the real product — rendering those items unsalable. Retailers and suppliers each look to the other to buck up for the price of the items that can’t be sold.

On the other hand, without sales associates keeping a watchful eye, testers frequently disappear from stores. Missing testers not only mar the look of beauty displays, but reduce sales as shoppers cannot experiment with the items.

But as mass market suppliers and retailers seek ways to appeal to the tastes of more discerning consumers — often former department store customers — they are finding ways to allow shoppers to sample before plunking down their dollars. And most are offering money-back-guarantee policies in the event a color still isn’t right when shoppers get home.

Revlon, L’Oréal, Cover Girl and Maybelline are at the forefront of improving in-store testing. Revlon learned its lesson years ago with ColorStay lipsticks. Shoppers couldn’t see the colors and opened up so many packages that retailers put the lipsticks behind cash registers, which discouraged some consumers. When Revlon repackaged Super Lustrous, the company put in a clear end to the lipstick tube so shoppers could see the real color.

The advent of color-adapting makeups last year ignited sales of foundations. The concept, however, was a tough self-serve sell. The solution was to offer tiny samples within the displays. That philosophy is a major reason L’Oréal’s Infallible, a new foundation, is getting snapped up at retail. The fixture for Infallible features mini bottles of the 14 shades. The bottles are glued into the fixture so consumers can’t steal them.

Cover Girl was one of the pioneers of a unique method to encourage self-serve sales with its introduction of salable sample sizes.  Shoppers didn’t flinch at spending a dollar or two to try a new color.And L’Oréal has devised mini boutiques that can be installed in mass stores that have areas for shoppers to experiment with beauty products.

With more chains adding beauty advisers back into stores, the hope is there will be a watchful eye to guard against pilferage. CVS, Walgreens and Brooks-Eckerd are among those bringing service back, as previously reported in WWD. Retailers are also contracting outside firms such as Cosmetic Promotions to bring staff to store openings to distribute more manufacturer samples.

One manufacturer has a novel solution to getting more samples into mass doors. Grant Berry, creator of Styli-Style, suggests manufacturers pay to position a person in-store to maintain tester programs. “How much would manufacturers actually save while incurring less of an expense with much lower returns?” asked Berry. “Plus, sales would most probably increase if the consumer were allowed to play more. Also, let’s try not to forget that cosmetics are fun to shop and we should not think of hindering the consumer in this environment.”

Berry said a good percentage of returned goods expenses could be reduced or eliminated under this system. “If both the manufacturers and retailers increase sales as a result of consumer testing — and return costs are reduced as a result of lower returns — the revenue stream could be redirected and focused to cover the additional costs for testing in the store,” proposed Berry. He doesn’t put all the weight on suppliers. Berry also believes retailers have to do a better job of making consumers more responsible for damaging merchandise.

It is time to set up for back-to-school and the experts at WSL Strategic Retail suggest retailers think about this season in a new way. WSL noted how last year’s Christmas selling period saw savvy shoppers delaying the purchase of Christmas presents until after December 25 if it meant a better deal. Gift cards also transformed the length of the season as recipients redeemed them after the holidays. Twenty percent, WSL reported, were cashed in as late as March.

WSL believes the same could be true for back-to-school. Kids no longer buy everything before school starts. Now kids wait to see what others have and return for more shopping weeks after school starts. WSL recommends ensuring products are available through the season. And, pumping in new products frequently so shoppers don’t have a “been there, done that” mentality is becoming more critical. At first blush, the need for trendy seems linked to apparel. Not so, according to Candace Corlett, principal at WSL: The same is true for beauty, over-the-counter medications and even home decor.

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