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Perfumes, makeup and other beauty products scare me. Or, more correctly, the notion of shopping for any of them ranks right up there with, say, global warming or juggling chain saws. This, of course, is utterly silly and unbecoming of someone who, as a reporter at WWD, has grilled some of beauty’s top executives. Shopping is a simple process and something I do successfully all the time. And the women in my life are all lovely and appreciative and understanding when a gift misses the mark.
Still, there’s something about beauty products. They’re so intimate. They help improve upon nature or even create the face and aura women choose to present to the world. That’s a hard thing to tinker with.
But there comes a time for all fears to be faced, so I agreed to be a secret shopper in search of holiday gifts for my mom and my wife, and then write about the beauty-buying experience from a guy’s point of view.
To battle! And foreign lands: the beauty department at Saks Fifth Avenue—a store I know well enough but have never actually shopped. I grasp the brass door handle on Fifth Avenue and notice that it’s worn, not polished to a sheen. That’s an imperfection I can relate to. I just might make it out of this.
The air inside is a cacophony of fragrance, and the center of the store is dominated by a warren of counters. Salespeople are milling about, ready to help with a spray bottle and a little slip of paper. Anonymous music thumps lowly in the background.
I’ve committed to my mission but am not quite ready to engage. I try not to make eye contact with anyone as I roam the counters.
I get halfway around the floor when a woman at the Chanel counter connects. She says something—I don’t know exactly what—but it works. Before I can think about it, I’m standing in front of a lineup of small rectangular bottles. There’s a brief moment of terror— They all look the same! How do I choose?—but that passes as I explain that my mom would like some fragrance for Christmas.
The saleswoman immediately picks up Chanel N°5. “It’s a classic,” she explains. It does smell nice, but how am I supposed to know this is the one? My mom is classy and fun and smart, but I’m not sure “classic” has the right ring to it. My hesitation prompts her to ask my mom’s age. She then offers up Coco Mademoiselle as an alternative, which costs $115—a price that seems surprisingly accessible, given my perception of Saks.
The saleswoman assures me that this scent is good for a woman of any age. Okay. But how do I know it will be good for my mom? The saleswoman is patient, telling me that all I have to do is shop around, put some effort and thought into it and try to get her something she will like.
Good. That’s a shopping paradigm under which I can’t fail.
I’m starting to feel better and move on to the Bond No. 9 counter, where a tall woman with a warm smile greets me. She shows me the Scent of Peace, created after Sept. 11. It smells nice, but the Sept. 11 pitch seems like it would work better on tourists. I don’t mix terrorist attacks with my Christmas presents.
The saleswoman is great and asks why I don’t know what my mom likes by now. I laugh and offer up that my mom likes gardening.
Bond No. 9 has just the fragrance: Central Park West, which includes gardenia. Nice, earthy. Almost. But I’m not done yet.
At Jo Malone, the bottles are lined up in a semicircle. I take a brochure touting “The Art of Fragrance Combining.” Wow. I’m really excited.
If I had them create a nice perfume, and then present it as a personalized scent, my mom would really like it. I would have really gone through the process of shopping and selecting that the woman at Chanel described. I ask the salesman how it works. Do I choose a few scents and you mix them together in the back?
A blank stare.
Oh. Then realization sinks in. They don’t make you a scent. You buy two of them and layer them on. The salesman tells me to take some time testing the scents and drifts away. I do the same.
I’m heading for the door when a manager offers help. He steers me across the floor to a counter for Reem Acra’s new fragrance, where I meet a young guy, well groomed. He’s the only salesperson to offer his name and shake my hand. I like him.
I explain my predicament. He tells me a list of ingredients in the fragrance. To be honest, I don’t care. He then removes the top of the bottle and hands it to me. It’s hefty, substantial. He places the rectangular bottle, encased in gold metal, on the display and the light shines through it attractively.
It’s built to be like a gold block, he says, explaining how well designed it is. The bottle, I think, would appeal to my mom. I think she’d like to have it there with the other things in her morning routine. Even if she doesn’t like the scent, the bottle could brighten her day.
With my confidence steadying, I make a quick trip to Sephora to find something for my wife. Fragrance gives her headaches, and she very rarely wears makeup, so I’m hunting for face creams, maybe eyeliner— “Good brands, no teenybopper stuff,” is how she describes her brand preference.
Sephora, while not as intimidating as Saks, is still a different world. Salespeople, dressed in black, with headsets in their ears, are everywhere, and mostly on the go.
After a moment of wandering around, an associate stops me and I lay it out: creams, no teenybopper stuff.
“Got it,” she says, and leads me to Tarte’s Carried Away Collector’s Set.
It costs $54 but is labeled a $512 value, which seems like a leap. The set is laid out impressively in a glass display. It’s beautiful, but there are lots of eye shadows and blush and finishing powder. I’m not sure the salesperson really “got it” when I told her what I was looking for. Then she shows me an eyeliner set. I hem and haw and mention the creams again, and she directs me to the back of the store, where I connect with a saleswoman who is stationed near Philosophy.
I like the brand’s The Care Package, which costs $89 but is a $157 value. There’s a microdelivery peel that’s activated by another substance and actually heats up as it cleanses. Very eighth-grade science class, very cool.
The salesperson also recommends the $69 ($130 value) Hope for the Best Set, which has a facial cleaner, Eye Hope and Hope in a Jar (whatever that is), as well as a triple-acid brightening peel.
I feel good about it all. The Philosophy saleswoman quickly shows me what some of the other brands offer, but I’ve been bowled over by all that hope. Mission accomplished.