Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 05/09/2008

Four cities, four undercover reporters in search of a spring skin care regimen-and a satisfying shopping experience.

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


As a Westerner living in Shanghai, my beauty shopping experiences here have primarily been negative: Salesgirls are usually either sullen and indifferent or overeager and pushy. Moreover, they usually hard-sell the most popular (and expensive) items like wrinkle reducers and whitening creams, products that are rather pointless for a pasty, youngish thing like myself.

On a recent Monday evening, I decided to hit the stores for a good restorative night cream: The urban pollution and endless parties are starting to take their toll. I was also looking for a better pore reducer, and I’m always up for fun new lip and eye makeup.

I headed first to Printemps, the French department store that was one of the first in Shanghai and remains among the most elite. It and Parkson’s, directly across Huaihai Road, form the heart of the downtown shopping district. Centering the first floor beauty section is a gleaming, pristinely white Estée Lauder counter, with a white leather sofa in a little alcove giving it a welcoming feel. The shop attendant was wonderfully knowledgeable—one of the most polite and professional retail agents I have encountered in a decade of Shanghai shopping. She gave me a presentation on restorative serums, outlining the comparative advantages of different products, and apologized for not having any promotional materials in English. However, she was very competent in explaining the products in simple enough Chinese for a non-native speaker like myself to understand. She happily gave a sample, and did not pressure me to buy—but I will definitely return if I like the sample.

Next I headed to Aupres, where the comparatively low price point (it’s the only brand in the store with price points under $15) had me about to buy. However, the attitude of the saleswoman and the complete lack of explanatory materials in any language stopped me.

The saleswoman immediately approached and followed me around, but answered all of my questions about the products with shrugs and grunts and quickly got bored and ignored me to chat with her friend and pick distractedly at her nails. There were several products that piqued my interest, but my inability to secure any detailed information about their function precluded my purchasing. Samples weren’t available. Finally, when I departed without buying, the saleswoman pouted and glared and made a rude comment to her friend.

However, the adjacent Helena Rubinstein counter provided an entire 180. The saleswoman appeared at my elbow as if out of nowhere as soon as I started to poke about the products. She was courteous, knowledgeable and patient. I left with a free sample of Pore Genius, and if I like it I may return despite the high price.

I then departed the rarified atmosphere of Printemps for the more mass market Parkson’s across the street. I again started out at Estée Lauder, which again was a pretty space in a prime location and done up in white and silver. However, it was a lot less sparkling than at Printemps—the same urban dust and grime that I need to get off of my face had accumulated somewhat on the counters and products.

When trying on a few lipsticks, I found them to be rather old and crumbling. The two sales assistants were very nice and friendly, but much less knowledgeable about the product lines than their colleague across the way. There was one lipstick I quite liked, but I decided I would wait and go buy it at the nicer Printemps shop.

I figured that the familiar products of Clinique, with their reassuringly white-coated older sales associates, would prove more welcoming. Unfortunately, the counter was bustling, and I had to wait for a while before one of their harried ranks could assist me. She then gave me an unconvincing pitch for a pore product, followed by some cursory information about the night repair line I was interested in. I can recall Clinique’s fairly generous sample practices in the U.S., so the strict no-samples policy in China was off-putting. While my trip was not the most productive, I might return; Estée Lauder and Helena Rubinstein just may have converted me.