By  on January 5, 2012

Once again, value was the driving factor for holiday beauty sales in mass stores, as shoppers started to open wallets after several tightfisted years, but only for items they deemed worthy.

That said, it was still a healthier holiday for discount stores and drugstores than the last two, with estimates pegging beauty sales increases at 4 percent over last year.

But experts think there are beauty sales being left at the cash register. “Is beauty playing a lesser role in holiday than it used to?” questioned Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail. “I don’t recall seeing as many beauty circulars. There were fewer spritzers in stores. Beauty is a fun category that makes women smile, and it seems a lost opportunity for holiday sales.”

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Industry expert Allan Mottus agreed that beauty didn’t have a buzz this Yule. “I am hearing so little about Christmas,” he said. He also thinks mass might have lost out to aggressive promotions at Sephora and Ulta, featuring makeup and skin care specials.

Kathy Steirly, a former retailer who now consults to the trade, agreed there was “little chatter” about beauty for the holiday season.

That opens up the opportunity for manufacturers and retailers to spend the next months planning how to make beauty more giftable for 2012.

Corlett said gift cards continue to sap the appeal of purchasing a fragrance gift set or blockbuster cosmetics collection. Instead, women crave a MAC or Sephora gift card where they can make their own selections, or even a Visa card they can use at Wal-Mart.

Another factor that hindered what could have been a runaway success year at mass was that early sales tactics used on Black Friday took shoppers out of the market until the very end, when retailers panicked and sliced prices. “We don’t know if retailers brought in more inventory after they got excited for Black Friday,” said Corlett. Unfortunately, traffic fell off, leaving retailers forced to promote heavier after the holiday rush.

Even with competition from gift cards, the ubiquitous infinity scarves, tables and Uggs (which show no signs of slowing down after more than 10 years), sources representing drug and discount stores did identify some holiday winners. At one of the top four drug chains, cosmetics sets did well — primarily because there was a focus on not overstocking them and offering low price points and high value. Indeed, carefully curated sets from Markwins and other suppliers did attract customers looking for gift ideas.

At Duane Reade, Marcia Gaynor, general merchandise manager of beauty and Look Boutique, said nails were attracting shoppers looking for everything from glitter for New Year’s Eve to new salon-style at-home items.

Corlett agreed and said there were many options for nails in the holiday. “Won’t it be funny if nail is the only category that sparkled through the holidays,” she said.

Fragrances were a mixed bag, with retailers who had the right names at good prices happy with the sell-through. Several retailers experimented with programs from companies such a Preferred Fragrances, which offer designer style fragrances with great success.

Some buyers expressed disappointment with some of the traditional fragrance company fragrance sets, sighting a need to overhaul the system for 2012.

One idea that worked in specialty stores was a coffret with a coupon for a full size of the scent a user liked best from the sample assortment. Mottus also said single-note oils filtering into the market make a less expensive fragrance gift.

Retailers tried hard to eliminate discounting fragrance sets prior to Christmas. “We did not run 50 percent off pre-Christmas,” said one source. “But we did have all sets 50 percent off post-Christmas, and sell-through improved dramatically for designer.” The price slashing didn’t move the nondesigner-name sets, she added.

Compounding the problem, said Mottus, is that consumers no longer believe in the pricing structure. “Full price is so vague with all the deal-making that goes on,” he said.

Hands down, shoppers were the winners. “They carried receipts around with them demanding price adjustments on sales,” said Corlett. Consumers noticed they got discounts with or without coupons, with cashiers ringing up discounts with a UPC coupon at the register.

Consumers also seem to like to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to promotions. The once-popular buy one, get one free or half price is being supplanted by buy one, get one free when you want it,” said Corlett.

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