AT THE COUNTER

Byline: CHANTAL GOUPIL / CAROLINE RITTENBERRY / ANN PAYNE / SHANNON M. SAUTER / CAROL EMERT

NEW YORK--High-end merchants and vendors continue to stress service as their point of difference from the mass market. For a first-hand impression of the workings of a typical department store sales staff, WWD sent reporters to Christian Dior counters to see how Dior, one of the costliest brands in the class arena, is pitched to increasingly price-conscious consumers.
The results were mixed: While some visitors were impressed with the products and the level of information provided by the sales associates, others found that haphazard service and inconsistent evaluations marred the classy Dior image.
Most striking, though, was the reaction of the reporter in Washington, D.C. A lifelong drugstore shopper, she was so taken with the Dior line and the knowledgeable beauty consultant that she charged nearly $180 worth of goods.

PARIS
Because I think skin care is important, I regularly visit cosmetics counters in big department stores. Even though I am familiar with most brands, I regretted not being very knowledgeable about the Christian Dior skin care line.
It was in Printemps, the famed Paris department store, that I decided to remedy this lack. It was early in the afternoon, and the makeup side of the Dior counter was busy. I headed for the treatment products area and was greeted by a smiling sales associate.
I explained that I wanted to know more about Dior skin care products.
"The Hydra-Star line is ideal because you will be able to get exactly the moisturizer your skin needs," she said, "from the moisture fluid, if you like a lighter texture, to the moisture cream, if you prefer more protection."
"I would not know which one to choose. I would appreciate your advice," I said.
"What is your skin type? I think a light moisturizer will be suitable for your skin." She looked at my face.
"I believe I have a normal complexion, maybe a little on the oily side."
Handing me a few samples to try, she said, "If you have time, you can get your skin diagnosed. The beautician will be with you in a minute."
I thanked her for the samples and accepted her invitation. While I was waiting, I looked at the samples, which were neatly arranged in a cardboard display envelope. Inside was a moisture fluid, a moisture emulsion, a moisture cream and a night treatment cream, all for normal and combination skin from the Hydra-Star line.
I waited more than 15 minutes, as the counter was getting busier with women making large purchases. The beautician and the clerk came over every few minutes to ask me to be patient.
I tried to be patient, but I was very eager to get my skin diagnosed with the special machine. It looked like a television. The beautician came over, noticed my skin seemed properly moisturized and started to get me ready for the diagnostic. She was very gentle and professional.
The beautician analyzed at length the picture on the screen, and I must admit I felt very pleased with her explanations and the comments she made about my skin. She then recommended the moisture fluid.
"The texture is light, comfortable, and it is very suitable now that we are getting into summer and moister air. You may need more protection during winter months, but you can change then to the moisture cream."
She was so articulate about the products that I decided to ask her about the Capture treatment line, as well. She patiently showed it to me, but insisted that Capture was not for my skin type and that I try the Hydra-Star cleansing mask. It sold for 172 francs, or about $31.
Since she had done such a great job, I felt a little guilty about not buying anything, but I thanked her and left.
Then, as satisfied as I was with the beautician's advice, I headed for the Dior boutique on Avenue Montaigne. Three saleswomen were standing by the cosmetics counter. Two of them were listening to a customer's complaint--I heard the word allergy--and the third was standing right in front of the Hydra-Star display, blocking my view.
After a few minutes, and after the complaining customer left, the clerk who was in my way moved aside but did not ask to help me. Her colleague acknowledged me only after I greeted her.
I inquired about Hydra-Star, and the sales associate offered me samples. "I'm sorry we are out of normal and combination skin samples. We only have dry skin samples. You can try the moisture emulsion. It's light-textured. But don't bother with the cream. It's not for your skin. Your skin is not dry," she said authoritatively.
She didn't seem very interested in making a sale, or in me, so I asked for some prices and left. I know where I will go when I decide to purchase Dior's Hydra-Star cleansing mask.

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