By  on December 16, 1994

NEW YORK -- "Lipstick is ageless in appeal; girls start wearing it when they are eight or nine years old," said Robin Burns, president and chief executive officer of Estee Lauder USA.

Burns was standing on the busy third floor of Bloomingdale's 59th Street flagship three weeks ago, explaining the dynamics of her new experiment in niche marketing. Lauder had just installed a 45-foot-long serpentine counter along a curved wall.

The huge outpost functions as a giant makeup tester unit, beckoning customers to come and play -- smear, paint, daub and streak. One of the objectives was to lure new customers; the younger, the better.

Burns spotted two teenage girls and remarked, "They are the customers of the future, and they are the customers who don't have the time to wait for a beauty adviser."

The Bloomingdale's counter and three others in California have turned a few heads. Although the company would not disclose sales figures, sources say Lauder's sales have jumped 15 to 23 percent in the four stores where the counters opened the weekend after Thanksgiving.

The new counters differ from traditional outposts, Burns said, because they focus on a single product category. She added that emphasizing the color side of Lauder's business, extracting it from treatment and fragrance, "makes it easier for customers to digest."

The new counters are devoted to color because it's the category that can most easily hook the attention of new consumers, she noted. The counters are either on fashion floors or outside the traffic patterns now used by Lauder.

At Bloomingdale's, the counter is located in the bridge sportswear department and is meant to catch the eye of women who may have bought a new outfit and need makeup to match. Jane Scott, vice president of cosmetics, noted that some fashion customers don't even stop in the cosmetics department. "There is traffic that never even gets to the main floor," she said. The tester units include 120 shades of lipstick, 28 blushers, 54 hues of eye shadow and 75 shades of lip, eye and brow pencils.

In addition to beauty advisers, the Bloomingdale's counter is staffed by five of Lauder's veteran makeup artists who give customers tips. To eliminate psychological barriers, the counter was designed without display cases. No merchandise is visible; it's kept in drawers."We don't have the space," Burns said, adding, "With the density of the traffic, there was a concern about theft."

Lauder has cross-promoted its fragrance business by displaying scents on the small shelves and vitrines tucked onto the walls.

Each of the new counters was installed in a high-traffic store. In addition to Bloomingdale's, the others are the San Francisco flagship of Macy's West and the Bullock's units at Southcoast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Beverly Center in Beverly Hills.

According to sources, the counter at Macy's has been averaging $15,000 a week and all three West Coast counters have been doing around 20 percent of Lauder's total business in those stores. There have been no signs of cannibalization.

While other manufacturers like Lancome have built special color installations, Lauder has managed to make a statement with its sheer size and variety.

Michael Lewis, vice president of cosmetics and fragrances at Macy's West, said, "Forty feet has been devoted to color -- that makes it unique." The assortment, he added, offers "such a wide selection that the customers are encouraged to play."

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