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Consumer Chronicles: The Latest in Beauty Retail from London

WWD visits Harrods and Selfridges, two of London’s leading beauty emporiums, to see how they stack up in skin care.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 10/14/2011

WWD Beauty Inc’s NINA JONES has always gravitated to the pharmacy channel for her skin care needs. But now that she’s 30, she’s looking for some TLC that only a department store can provide. Here, how two of London’s leading beauty emporiums stacked up.

This story first appeared in the October 14, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

 

Harrods of Knightsbridge and Selfridges on Oxford Street are among London’s most exciting department stores, and their respective beauty departments are always hives of activity, with eager tourists, day trippers and London locals wandering the halls and browsing the state-of-the-art skin care and cosmetics displays. There’s also always an army of glossy sales associates stationed by the counters, a fact that often makes me wary of shopping for skin care in department stores. Working in the fashion and beauty industry, I’m pretty aware of the latest trends and developments, and I prefer to get my advice from dermatologists when they’re polled in magazines and newspapers—especially if they’re not affiliated with a particular brand.

On previous shopping trips, I’d had the impression that beauty consultants were on a mission to flog their latest launch—regardless of its suitability for one’s skin type—and wouldn’t offer much in the way of genuine advice. In fact, my unease about the beauty counter experience means I’m more comfortable browsing pharmacies for European skin care brands, which seem to be packed with active ingredients but tend to launch without much hype.

 

However, since I turned 30 late last year, I’m on guard for those fabled “first signs of aging” and have started to think that perhaps my combination skin could benefit from the TLC that luxury skin care labels claim to provide. So I was excited to revisit the beauty counter for this assignment, to see what a skin care consultation could offer.

 

My first stop was Harrods’ gleaming White Beauty Hall, which I visited on a Sunday afternoon. While—as usual—the store was ultrabusy, the White Beauty Hall, which carries luxe lines ranging from Clarins, Clinique and Estée Lauder to Crème de la Mer, Sisley and Kanebo, was an oasis of calm. I headed first to Clarins to buy a cleanser for my combination skin that wouldn’t over-dry it. I’ve used Clarins on and off since I was a teen, and my mother, who has sensitive skin, raves about the brand’s Beauty Flash Balm.

 

As I examined the product selection, a sales associate soon approached. I explained my cleanser quest, and related that while oiliness and blemishes are a concern, I’m starting to worry about staving off wrinkles, too. Luckily, the associate said she had “exactly the same issues.” She steered me towards Clarins’ Pure Melt Cleansing Gel. After establishing that Pure Melt is famous for “melting away makeup” (another essential for me), and rinses off easily, I decided to plump for the product, which cost a modest 18 pounds ($29).

 

While I was only in the market for a cleanser, the associate was happy to answer my general skin care questions. (Should I moisturize at night if I have combination skin? Apparently yes, as in her experience, a moisturizer helps heal any lingering imperfections.) In addition, when I purchased the cleanser, she threw in samples of several Clarins moisturizers that she’d recommended.

Emboldened, I made for Clinique’s counter in Harrods’ new Beauty Apothecary, where I scanned the brand’s scientific-sounding launches, such as Repairwear Laser Focus Wrinkle & UV Damage Corrector and Derma White Brightening Moisturizer. Clinique’s products have always intimidated me a little as they sound so technologically advanced. I was eager to learn how to navigate them.

This time, I told the sales associate I was looking for a moisturizer to address combination skin. Did I have time to do a skin consultation, she asked? I jumped at the chance, especially as Harrods is premiering the brand’s iPad-based consultation program. After whipping through the questions about my skin type and lifestyle (Do you live in a city? What is your stress level?), the program prescribed a dizzying array of products. But having the consultant on hand to guide me through was illuminating. While I always thought my skin had all the moisture it needed, she explained it could be oily but still dehydrated, which she demonstrated by showing me the worrying horizontal lines that appeared when she prodded my cheek. There was a laundry list of products to pick from, but I’d decided to limit my purchases to a moisturizer and opted for Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel (28.50 pounds or $45). I didn’t feel that the associate had pushed me to buy, but after all the time spent on the consultation I did feel obliged to make a purchase.

 

The next day, I hit Selfridges. The store has the same “wow” factor as Harrods, but takes a more trendy, less rarefied approach to retail. I’d thought that a Monday evening would be relatively quiet, but when I entered Selfridges’ beauty hall—an expansive space with grand, high ceilings—there was something of a commotion around the Lancôme counter. Several consultants were rushing around in turquoise T-shirts, which I soon figured out were to launch the brand’s Visionnaire Advanced Skin Corrector Recovery Serum. I had a quick look, but it was so busy I took a lap around the hall to see what else caught my eye. When I returned, the rush had died down. I asked a consultant about finding a moisturizer for combination skin. But this time, I thought I would ask about trying a sample before I made a purchase. The consultant happily talked me through Lancôme’s moisturizers and recommended Hydra Zen Neurocalm Extreme. I also couldn’t resist asking about Visionnaire. She explained that it was a gentler alternative to retinol-type preparations, effective at refining pores and correcting wrinkles, and, as the ultimate endorsement, confided that the brand had sold bottles to Kate and Pippa Middleton. “It’s been flying off the shelves,” she said. I asked for a sample of Hydra Zen, in case my skin reacted adversely (which it’s wont to do). Unfortunately, there were no miniatures left, so I dabbed a bit on my cheek, while the consultant wrote down the product name should I decide to return.

 

My last stop was Kiehl’s. The brand’s quirky sensibility and pharmaceutical air have always appealed, and its consultants, clothed in white coats, seem as if they’ll be a font of dermatology knowledge. As I studied the brand’s cleansers, a consultant approached me and guided me through the cleansing options. They all seemed enticing, but I ummed and aahed over whether the formulas would dry out my skin. No matter, as the consultant was quick to retrieve samples for me. “We’d rather you try out something than get a product that isn’t right,” she said. That was music to my ears, and it was a bonus that I didn’t have to ask for a sample myself, which I often find a little awkward.

Ultimately, I found shopping for skin care at department stores to be far more informative, and less about the hard- sell, than expected. And it brought home the fact that no matter how much online and press information I devour, discussing my skin care issues with real-life consultants gives a new perspective. The only downside is that after quizzing a consultant, it’s difficult not to feel compelled to make a purchase in return for their advice.

 

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