When I met my husband 12 years ago, he admired my ivory skin. Never one to wear much makeup—a little foundation, along with mascara and eyeliner to frame my blue eyes—I was thrilled by the compliment that still makes me swoon after 10 years of marriage. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in dolling up my face, with disastrous results, even when expertly applied by department store makeup artists. When wearing foundation, under-eye concealer, blush, eye makeup, lip liner and lipstick, I tend to look like I just stepped off a stage.
Limiting my beauty regime is sensitive skin, rendered even more delicate by some chemical peels years ago to diminish acne scars. While the long-term result of these treatments has been a more youthful appearance for my middle-age years, I’m still dogged with the same beauty quest: How do I perk up my face and still look like me?
So when I got this assignment to shop two very different makeup counters—a CVS pharmacy in downtown San Francisco and Macy’s flagship a couple blocks away on Union Square—I was thrilled by the prospect of doing some personal beauty research.
The CVS on Market Street is one of two locations in the city of San Francisco that constitutes the sole chain drug store competing among a sea of Walgreens, which has 66 city locations here (and over 8,000 stores nationwide.)
Three years ago, CVS, the national chain with more than 7,000 locations, entered the Bay Area market by buying the Longs Drug Store chain. Outside the two San Francisco CVS outposts, there are now 150 locations in the region.
When I stopped by the CVS, a couple doors away from the Four Seasons Hotel, the beauty department was well stocked with a variety of mass market makeup brands, skin and hair care products, all self-service and with no test products. There were no employees nearby to answer questions, although there was a button I could have pushed for service. However, I didn’t feel compelled to summon anyone to help me navigate the three beauty aisles arranged in low shelves with product easily in arms reach, which invited me to browse and were relatively self-explanatory.
In contrast, Macy’s flagship in San Francisco is the West Coast equivalent of the storied Herald Square monument to retailing. The makeup department is like a beauty museum, covering a large portion of the ground floor with brightly lit kiosks and alcoves representing myriad prestige brands, all staffed by beauty consultants. A portion of the space is also devoted to Macy’s Impulse self-service beauty counters, which feature more niche brands.
With two completely different places to shop for makeup, I knew I needed to bring balance to my undercover shopping assignment so I narrowed my search to one product: foundation. Because CVS didn’t have any testers, at Macy’s I declined offers to dab foundation on the back of my hands, preferring to use my time with consultants to ask about what made their products special and what they might recommend for my skin type.
On my visit to CVS, the beauty department at the front of the store was easy to spot on the left beyond the checkout counters. Overall, the store seemed tranquil, with white walls and gray carpet. Turquoise signs with white lettering across the top of a wall of makeup highlighted the various brands. Similar oval signs at head level along the aisles demarcated beauty categories, making it easy to shop. At the end of aisles, display shelves featuring products including $10 robes, $20 Beyoncé Heat fragrance, 99-cent nail polish and $5 novelty wrist wallets caught my eye.
I studied Cover Girl, Revlon and L’Oréal foundations, in liquid and powder and in shades from pale to light brown, priced in the $8 to $15 range. It was hard to discern differences among the three brands (all of which I’ve bought alternately over the years, with water-based liquid foundation as my frequent choice.) I pondered the mineral powder offerings as well, concerned that without trying them first I might make a wrong choice in terms of color and consistency of application.
Not ready to make a selection, I nonetheless considered the organized presentation and depth of merchandise were worth returning to for further consideration. I also studied the various deals on offer, like buy-one-get-one-free or 50-percent off a second purchase. It also seemed worthwhile to sign up for a CVS card with money-back deals, including $5 for every $50 spent on beauty.
On my visit to Macy’s, after dodging the smokers at two entrances on O’Farrell Street, I entered the beauty department from Stockton Street. Sizing up the expanse of beauty counters, I was glad I had a shopping strategy. The array of brands was overwhelming at first—a long-held worry that has kept my shopping for makeup at department and specialty stores to a minimum. Also confounding was a duplication of brands represented at kiosks at different locations in the department, presumably to have more chances to catch customers passing through.
At every counter stood sales consultants ready to help. Explaining that I was on a mission to learn about foundations first before trying any, I found them happy to field my questions and explain their products. Thankfully, no one was pushy.
I stopped at a Clinique counter first, since it’s the department store brand I’ve bought most frequently. In my cosmetics bag at home I have a few drops left of Clinque’s Perfectly Real base. I was concerned that I might have outgrown the brand, but the consultant gave me a thorough rundown of foundation choices and said the line was good for any age.
At Clarins, I learned about Skin Illusion, which the consultant said would even out my skin tone, while at Shiseido, a bright orange vinyl tote—free with two purchases—was enough to make me stop and ask about the various foundations, priced from $38.50 to $43.50, One of the consultants said the makeup was “lifting and firming”—a common claim that’s always perplexed me.
By now feeling confident about breaking new beauty ground, I stopped by Chanel and Dior, where the consultants demystified the notion of buying designer cosmetics, though truth be told, the prices for foundations and powders, which ranged from $32 to $50, seemed a little steep.
I also stopped by Bare Escentuals, Lancôme and Origins, where I received straight-forward pitches. I made sure to not forget another mission. Out of nostalgia, I swung by the Estée Lauder counter, solely because I met the cosmetics company’s namesake while covering the 1989 inaugural celebrations of President George H.W. Bush for WWD.
I found Mrs. Lauder to be a warm but practical person, which really struck a cord in me. So it seemed fitting that at Macy’s, when I asked the Estée Lauder consultant about whether I needed blush on top of my foundation, she said it was unnecessary.
Macy’s Union Square 170 O’Farrell Street The grande dame of San Francisco’s retail scene has a lively beauty floor with a broad selection.
CVS 731 Market Street A recent entry to the San Fran shopping landscape, this mass giant has an easy-to-navigate beauty section.
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