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Undercover Shopper: The Thrill of the Hunt

WWD's Roxanne Robinson checks out the buzzy new MAC counter in Manhattan's Century 21 flagship.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 05/10/2013

I gave up nonessential shopping as a sport right about the time my daughter Manon, who turns 10 this June, was born. I probably couldn’t count more than a dozen shopping trips for just myself and they are usually for clothing. However, in the past few years, I have managed to squeeze in biannual beauty pilgrimages to restock and supplement my makeup basics. The rest of the beauty goodies in my kit are usually gathered from swag bags and the office beauty giveaway counter.

So when I was asked to check out the new MAC counter at the flagship location of Century 21 in lower Manhattan, I hurled myself at the chance to dedicate a couple of hours to the cause of my face and shopping research.

 

I was also a bit curious about Century 21, as I hadn’t been there in eons. I headed out on a Tuesday afternoon, which I recalled later used to be the day new shipments of designer duds arrived. It must have also been French day, because I heard French coming out of every other customer’s mouth I encountered (save for the odd Swedish, German and Yiddish here and there).

Since I hadn’t been to Century 21 in a while, I didn’t realize when I entered from the Broadway side that to get to the main floor beauty department, I would need to wait endlessly to take an elevator with tarpaulin-covered walls to the second floor, where I would snake around the scuffed back hallways where the employees clock in, only to emerge in the men’s department before heading down the escalator to arrive at the beauty department. The majority of the main floor is dedicated to accessories and the beauty department is tucked in the back near Cortlandt Street and looks almost sparse in comparison.

I perused the main counters before heading to MAC, wanting to get a feel for the store. I noticed very helpful and friendly salespeople answering various questions as I walked around. There was an extensive fragrance section that seemed to feature a lot of boxed sets like the kind you see at Christmas and versions of some the most trendy celeb perfumes out there. Brands like Clinique, Clarins and Estée Lauder dominated the left side of the aisle.

But clearly the party was happening over at the recently installed MAC counter.

 

MAC is a world unto itself with its shiny black wall fixtures and counters, sleek leather stools, ashy-blonde wood floors and multicolored neon light fixtures, all set to its own trendy soundtrack. (Dior, the only other prestige brand with its own flooring and cases, is located right next to MAC.) The staff was aplenty and bustling, too; each moving about in the process of helping someone or cleaning and preparing the test tools. I noticed they did this a lot, which I am thankful for—the concept of shared testers in New York is beyond gross. They were also friendly with each other, discussing after-work plans, vacation itineraries and helping one another with the aforementioned tool cleaning. They were all dressed in the prerequisite black, almost all had a spike, grommet or stud on their clothes or accessories and almost everyone sported colored hairdos and the odd piercing. And the ladies (and a few men) all had their faces done to perfection. You could tell they all really loved doing makeup and I, who remember my days as a black-clad misfit in the Midwest who couldn’t have fathomed working in a bank, was grateful that MAC exists for these individuals to thrive in this environment.

Within a few seconds, literally, of stepping into the MAC area, I was approached by a pretty Latina with flawless skin. It was time for me to replenish my foundation. My requirements are anything that I can apply in the backseat of a taxi because that is usually where I do my face. So I prefer a compact cream foundation and have used the Studio Tech product before.

I tried to play dumb so the sales assistant could tell me a bit about it. I pulled out my old compact and she looked at the color number. I was an NW25 according to my last purchase. The artist took me over to a makeup stool and mirror and we tried it on. A perfect match it was not, as I bought it when I still had a summer tan. But as summer was around the corner, I figured it was still probably the best route to go and she concurred. The process was about to be so quick and painless that I kept making small talk and showed interest in some lipstick. I was trying to find a Viva Glam color I had once that was somehow connected to Lady Gaga and a quite neutral pink for everyday use.

My salesperson was more than pleasant, but it was I who was trying to engage her. While answering my many questions about lipstick (What is a Sheer Supreme? Is matte really matte? Do people still wear that?) and preparing—i.e. cleaning—shades for me to try, we were interrupted by a woman with a heavy Russian accent who was looking for a specific red…and I swore I heard her ask for Russian Red. What are the odds!?

The sales person politely excused herself to take this customer to the cash register. While I was left to my own devices for a few minutes, I was asked at least twice if I was being helped. My girl returned, by which time I had settled on the color Syrup, a rosy pink, in the Lustre lipstick range. My sales girl wasn’t overly pushy and was definitely sweet, but I felt the need to engage her and ask about different products. When she walked away to find the lipstick, I starting poking around the eyeliner section thinking a nice deep-blue liner would complement my eyes. I asked about the different shades and while perfectly nice, she wasn’t particularly proactive in trying to sell me more than I was already willing to buy. It came time for me to pay, so the associate went to fetch my various products. It was taking a while, and as I waited, I was asked several times if I needed help.

Then I noticed my salesperson speaking to a young man who went into the stock room. She came back with some unfortunate news. “I’m sorry but we are out of NW25.”

Quelle horreur, I thought. It was the only thing I actually needed. After reconfirming that Studio Tech is MAC’s only cream foundation and even having her check the drawers a second time “hoping for a miracle,” in her words, we still had no luck. She could see that I was disappointed and suggested trying some other shades that may work. I went back to the chair for a third time and did a comparison. While technically I could have worn the NW23 or NC25, the artist thought I would do best with the NW25. For whatever reason, she went back to look a third time and voilà! She found my compact!

I went to the counter to pay and grabbed some replacement sponges, too. The last time I used a drugstore-brand replacement, it was like applying makeup with sand paper. The cash register staff was pleasant and cheerful and I left feeling good about the $71.86 I spent. I could have exited straight
and seamlessly through the Cortlandt Street door, but instead I turned to head upstairs and look for another type of indulgence. I hear they actually have dressing rooms now.

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