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Consumer Chronicles: On Beauty’s Trail in Boston

In search of an updated makeup look, Beauty Inc's Katherine Bowers hits Boston's popular Burlington Mall as an undercover shopper.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 09/09/2011

Location, location, location: An old real estate adage, sure, but it’s why the Burlington Mall, an
unprepossessing indoor mall about 20 miles west of Boston, in Burlington, Mass., is a metro-area kingpin. It doesn’t have dramatic architecture or retailers you can’t find elsewhere, but because the mall sits at the intersection of three major commuting routes (routes 95, 93 and 3), it’s always busy. Simon Property Group doesn’t release specifics on sales or visits, but let’s just say this: On weekend nights, waits at any of the restaurants run several hours, the holiday Santa makes out like a bandit and rings of smaller centers have been built around the outskirts of the mall to sop up the extra demand. Burlington is anchored by Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Sears and Nordstrom.

This story first appeared in the September 9, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

When I got this assignment to secret-shop local makeup counters, it felt like a karmic nudge: Time to update my look. Something I’d been wanting to do, but approximately 98th on a 100-item To Do list.

 

Here’s the demographic scoop on me: I’m 38, married, two kids; my husband and I both work. I don’t buy beauty products often. Correction, I don’t buy (or wear) makeup often. Skin care and sunblock I believe in. I usually purchase those in Whole Foods during a grocery run. There’s no glamour or trend advice in those aisles, but I can peruse ingredient lists to my heart’s content—something I do regularly with nearly everything I buy as I think about chemicals and health.

This trip I wanted something different, to sit down with a makeup artist and get expert input. I keep my wardrobe current, so why not my makeup?

I hit Nordstrom first. In a few short years, it’s become a family staple, where we get my husband’s suits and my kids’ shoes. But I’ve overlooked the beauty offerings for years because I get sucked into the adjacent shoe department. Now that I’m here, the beauty department is smaller and denser than I expected. In fact, it feels a little squeezed. There are four-top tables like in a restaurant, with trays set in the middle to hold wipes and tissues. There are lots of freestanding shelf cubes and good brand variety (Trish McEvoy, L’Occitane, Kiehl’s and Deborah Lippmann, to name just a few). There’s a lot here, and what I want is a table of staff recommendations like you’d see at an independent bookstore. Maybe I’m too addicted to Web site reviews, but a little editorial opinion would be nice amidst the sea of choices.

Then I see a huge sign at Bobbi Brown: “Tired of Dark Circles? Give us Five Minutes.” Accomplish something in five minutes? I’m in! I’d be in Bobbi’s corner in a flash, except both chairs are occupied with other customers.

 

I end up in front of a wall of Jo Malone, with no intention of buying a fragrance, but drawn by the elegant packaging. Feeling a little lost, I ramble to the Jo Malone associate about my desire to try a light foundation. “Tinted moisturizer,” she pronounces and steers me to Laura Mercier, talking the whole way about how she uses and loves hers. (At last, the personal endorsement I’d been looking for.)

 

Soon I’m in a chair and a Mercier artist is swabbing on primer with a wedge sponge. Then on to moisturizer, which felt pleasingly light. We discussed some of my burning questions: Does the product contain parabens (yes, but less than .2 percent, she says) and should I put on sunblock before makeup or after? Officially, Laura Mercier recommends sunblock as the finale, over everything else you do, but the sunscreen I usually wear (whitening, sometimes gloppy) would wreck the final effect. The real “aha!” is the concealer. The artist used a super-creamy, light-reflecting formula under my eyes. I never realized that the under-eye area requires a different item than, say, a spot on my nose. No caking, no making the, ahem, “laugh lines” look deeper. I love it. It’s a slam-dunk sale.

But they’re out of stock in my shade. Worse, the sales associate doesn’t know when it’ll be restocked, and advises me to call back in a couple of weeks. That’s a bummer. She does offer to have it sent, but that doesn’t seem sensible (we both have visions of a heat wave and it melting in my mailbox). She ends up creating samples by scooping and squirting stuff into empty pots, telling me I should try the primer and moisturizer at home first. It’s not a soft sell, it’s an un-sell. But I came here task-focused, ready to spend! I steer the conversation around to lips. Soft color, nothing that’ll mark up the kids or hubby when I kiss them. I end up buying a Hydratint, a kind of turbo-charged Chapstick that has (yahoo!) SPF 15. It’s a good outcome. I’ve wanted lip sun protection, the price is very reasonable ($20) and the color is terrific. I’d happily buy another again.

With my clean-canvas face (primer, tinted moisturizer and concealer on), I’m ready to play. Aesthetically, Lord & Taylor is my favorite of this mall’s anchors. The store, which has great dresses, was redone within the last five years. It’s lovely. Whether it’s the lighting, or the shining, pure-white floor, the product pops beautifully. The beauty department has chic white leather high-top chairs and tall vases of green reeds for a clean, bright and natural feel.

 

An artist at Dior looks like she’s in for the long haul with a client, so I play by myself with glittering Nars eye shadows. Galapagos is a shimmering copper while X-Rated is an incandescent chartreuse. How fun, if someone could show me how to wear them? Yet, when I track down an associate in a Lancôme vest and ask about Nars, I hear I’m out of luck. The artist for that counter has moved away, and the position is unstaffed for the foreseeable future. Those colors, while gorgeous, aren’t ones you can just wing.

 

The Lancôme associate says she’s off to a meeting, but I delay her long enough to ask her to find (and sell) me the Laura Mercier concealer I’d wanted in Nordstrom ($34 for two kinds of concealer and a setting powder that I had no idea came with it and I have no idea how to use). Where should I go for color? Clearly anxious to make the meeting, she glances around and says, “Oh, there’s someone at Chanel who can help you.”

 

I feel passed-off and might’ve left, but Chanel is, well, Chanel. The artist paints on a going-out look for my eyes that was glam but soft. My favorite is the liquid shadow in a swamp-green shade (officially called Torrent). It goes on as a delicate wash that’s easy to layer and blend. The gold powder shadow, a last touch, doesn’t seem like a must, nor the purple mascara (“It comes out a soft brown on your eyes,” the artist coaxes, but I have black lashes so what’s the point of turning them brown?) I buy the purple eye pencil, in part because she shows me a couple of new ways to use it and has me practice. Do these artists work in part on commission? I hope so, because the pencil purchase ($29) is a thank-you.

Bottom line, a good visit. No one “attacked” with a fragrance to spray. The brand choice at both stores was good, but since I was going there for service and expertise, I wanted more on that score. More opinions, more conversation and yes, a little more (skillful) selling. Still, I’ll be back—without waiting as long next time.

 

NORDSTROM
The service-friendly department store has a broad and appealing selection—but Bowers, a beauty novice, longed for more visible staff recommendations.


LORD & TAYLOR

Bowers loved the store’s chic design, but found sales associates in short supply at some counters.

Beauty Advisor Confidential:

 

Beauty Advisor Talks Trends and Services

 

I have worked at a makeup counter for seven years and am trained as a makeup artist as well. My typical consumer is a fashion-savvy, cosmopolitan woman between 25 and 40 years old, who isn’t afraid to try new trends and stylish colors. The beauty advisors at my counter are trained every season in new techniques and looks, based on the latest trends. We recently learned how to give a “glowy” complexion, which I achieve by adding a swipe of golden eye shadow or lotion to the cheek and then blending. When a shopper comes to my counter, I start by sitting her down. When a client is comfortable, she’s more likely to ask questions about products and spend more. I like to let my customers know that the line I represent is exclusive and available in only a handful of U.S. stores, which also makes them more inclined to purchase. I start my consultation by asking about the person—what is her personal style? Is she adventurous when it comes to makeup? Does she have any special skin needs like oiliness or redness? I examine her face and make recommendations personalized to her traits. Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of requests for a bright tangerine or bold red-orange lip. I always ask the customer how she likes it and if I should pull the shade from our stock for her to purchase. Depending on the answer and enthusiasm to purchase, I will continue to sample products on her or I will politely cut the makeover short. Our policy is that a makeover is complimentary with a purchase and I have to always be aware of who is coming to buy and who is coming for a free service. This is the job’s biggest challenge. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This was written by a cosmetics salesperson at a specialty store chain in the East.]

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