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.ATLANTA
Yes, summertime has arrived in Atlanta, bringing with it the wonderful heat and the horrible humidity. One glance in the mirror told me just how badly this combination was affecting my skin, so I decided that the time had come to break free from drugstore brands and invest in a good all-purpose moisturizer.
I headed down to Rich's at Lenox Square Mall to check out Christian Dior's line. It took me a minute or two to find the counter, but when I did, there was a smiling saleswoman there to greet me.
"Just let me know if I can help you with anything," she said.
Good, I thought: friendly, but not pushy. I explained that I was looking for a light facial lotion that would moisturize but not clog my pores. "Uh..." she hesitated uncertainly. "What kind of skin do you have?"
I told her that I thought it was combination, and described the type of cleansers that I normally used.
She whipped out a small bottle from behind the counter. "Have you heard of Capture?" she asked, shaking the bottle. She massaged a few drops onto the back of my hand. "This stuff is great, one of Dior's bestsellers," she enthused.
The time had come to talk about prices. I asked how much a small bottle of Capture would cost. "Well," she explained, taking my other hand to rub a few drops onto it, "that's why you need to be certain that you really like the product. Christian Dior only makes top-quality products, and I don't know if you've ever bought any Dior before."
She took two boxes of Capture out from behind the counter. "This small one is $52, and this larger one is $73." Wow, I thought. "Wow," I said.
She had been very friendly, and she hadn't tried to push me into buying something that I wasn't completely sold on. When she gave me her business card, I thanked her and told her that I'd look her up if I decided to splurge. Then I grabbed my free samples and headed to Phipps Plaza.
My second stop, at Saks Fifth Avenue, didn't go so well. I stood by the Christian Dior counter for several minutes before a saleswoman came over from another counter to greet me. After I told her what I was looking for, she kindly disapproved of my choice of the Christian Dior line and tried to push Yves Saint Laurent on me.
"It's not my line, I just really believe in the products," she said of YSL.
I was almost ready to give up, but I decided to stop by Macy's in Lenox Square and give Dior another chance.
The Dior counter was easy to find, and a Dior sales associate was there to assist me. She listened as I once again went through my speech, and she immediately brought a small bottle up from behind the counter. "This is exactly the thing you've been looking for," she told me. "It's called Icone, and it is ideal for balancing out problem skin."
She rubbed a few drops of Icone on my hand. "This is really the ideal product for your skin right now," she assured me.
"This small bottle is only $38, and it will last you from eight months to a year," she continued. I was impressed by the price, but I wasn't very impressed by the pitch; the woman hadn't explained anything about Icone--except that it was exactly what I needed.
It had been a long day, but on the way home, I stopped at the drugstore and picked up a large bottle of Oil of Olay. No sales pitch. No hassle. And at $8 a bottle, worth a shot.DALLAS
I left for the Neiman Marcus downtown store thinking I would look for a new moisturizer, since the BeautiControl lotion I'm using now is too heavy in this Texas heat.
I approached the Christian Dior counter, where two saleswomen stood with their backs to me, adding up their sales. All the skin care items were displayed on shelves behind the counter, and I had scanned everything twice before a third woman walked up and asked if I needed help with Dior.
I explained that I was looking for a lightweight moisturizer and that I was concerned about the wrinkles that are starting to show around my eyes.
She walked behind the counter, picked up Capture and dropped some clear gel onto the back of my hand.
"Capture is the most popular skin care product Dior makes, other than its cellulite cream," she claimed.
I asked if it was the moisturizer, and she said it has a little bit of moisturizer to it, but not enough to get you through every day. She explained it was to be used under a moisturizer, and that the two products would work together to keep my cells healthy and plump.
"The cells in your face collect cholesterol around them," she asserted. "If they're not plumped, they shrink and come apart, and this is what causes lines."
Could this possibly be true? I didn't want to know there was something else I needed to worry about. Would Capture repair my shrunken cells?
"No," she replied. "But it helps fight off free radicals from the sun, smoke and things of that nature. It will help firm and smooth the skin tone."
She asserted several times that Capture "addresses the causes of aging, not the results of aging." It supposedly would protect me from future cholesterol collection.
This sounded absurd, but I was intrigued and asked what was in Capture. She told me it was made of liposomes that are very similar to my own cells.
Another saleslady chimed in at this point that Capture would actually moisturize the cell itself.
"How does it do that?" I asked her, but she was already on her way to another counter. I turned to the first woman and asked, "And what are liposomes made of? Is this an animal product? And is there any alpha-hydroxy acid in it?"
"The liposomes are made of soy lecithin," she explained. "Christian Dior does not use animal by-products nor does any testing on animals. As for alpha-hydroxy, at this point Dior does not feel there is enough research to validate the results of alpha-hydroxy. They just don't know what's going to happen in time; if it's going to be beneficial or not."
Now I was a bit confused. I had come here for moisturizer, but now I was concerned about lowering my cholesterol level as well.
I asked how much everything cost. The 1.7-oz. bottle of Capture was $72, but she had a 1-oz. bottle for $50. The Hydra Dior night cream and eye cream were each $38.
I was tempted to go ahead and buy the moisturizer because it was light and it smelled nice, but then I recalled the argument I'd had with my husband earlier in the week about my spending habits and decided this would not be a good idea.
As I left, I wondered why it is that in a department store the idea of spending $38 for a bottle of lotion initially seemed reasonable to me, but in the drugstore I balk at $14.
I guess it's partly because I like the decor and the personal attention in department stores, and to hear the spiel--even when I sometimes doubt the truth of what they say.CHICAGO
I knew I was in desperate need of a different beauty regimen when my face felt sticky after walking one block to Marshall Field's in the summer humidity.
After circling the beauty department, I finally found the Christian Dior counter. A smiling face came up from behind the display and asked, "May I help you?"
"Yes, do you have an equivalent product to Clinique's Turnaround Cream?" I asked.
"Christian Dior doesn't make any alpha-hydroxy [acid] products since it's still unsure whether it's harmful or not," she said.
Concerned about what I should do to make my skin healthier, I asked her what Dior products suit my skin type and what she'd recommend.
"Your face is a normal skin type and I don't see any problems. The most important thing for you and for anybody is to use the exfoliating gel twice a week," she said, quickly taking out a tube of exfoliating gel and squirting a small dab on the back of my left hand.
I visualized the tiny capsules penetrating my skin to remove the dead surface cells.
"Do you like a foam or cream cleanser?" she asked.
Having never thought about it before, I realized I used a foam cleanser.
"Before you go to bed, you should cleanse with the Gel Fraicheur Wash-Off Cleansing Gel. It will remove all the dirt and oil accumulated during the day. Even though it foams up, it is not a soap," she said.
The consultant was down-to-earth and told me honestly she had always used drugstore brands until she finally stepped up to finer beauty products. We had a lot in common.
"What about mixing and matching other brands with Dior?" I asked.
"Dior products are made to work together as a unit. You shouldn't use one product from each company together," she advised.
I asked her to write down the prices of each product on the brochures which she tucked into a small folder marked "Personal Skincare Program."
She then poured sample portions of each into small containers while explaining that she only does that for a few customers. After handing me the folder and her card, she encouraged me to let her know what I thought about the products either way.
I said, "Definitely," grabbed my samples and my folder and shuffled back onto muggy State Street, heading quickly for the air-conditioned office.
Deep down I knew I'd return the next week with a charge card in hand to buy Dior from her. She deserved it and so did I.WASHINGTON
I went to the Christian Dior treatment counter on a routine assignment. I left a changed woman.
In one hour I was transformed from a lazy, drugstore-shopping skinflint who had always taken her face for granted into a four-step-a-day skin care nut, concerned about the 29 years of neglect I have wreaked on my face, but confident I am on the road to a full recovery.
I wasn't sure what to ask the sales associate when I showed up at the Christian Dior corner at the Neiman Marcus in Chevy Chase. My regimen, with which I was basically happy, consisted of whatever soap was in the soap dish during my morning shower and, in cold weather only, whatever lotion was on sale at the drug store.
Missing adolescent acne, I think, made me complacent. Plus, I have a lot of color high in my cheeks, so my complexion never required much attention, either with cosmetics or with treatment.
Or so I thought.
I decided to ask the sales associate about my only obvious skin problem: I was perspiring a lot in Washington's sweltering 98-degree heat and humidity. And my nose was perspiring disproportionately.
The associate, a groovy-looking Asian woman wearing big rhinestone earrings shaped like starfish, immediately asked me about my treatment routine.
"I don't really use a moisturizer in hot weather because I'm sweating already," I said. "I wash my face in the morning with soap while I'm in the shower and that's about it."
This just wouldn't do, of course. The associate, who said her name was Kay, smoothed EquitÄ cleanser onto my face and then removed it with a spritz of Evian water and some cotton balls.
I voiced some skepticism when she then started applying a toner. I had always had a suspicion that toner was an unnecessary product the skin care industry dreamed up just to sell more merchandise.
After all, once your face is clean and moisturized, what more do you need?
But Kay explained that toner is needed to remove residues from other products. (My traditional response has simply been not to use the other products.) She said toner will restore a healthy ph balance to my skin.
I still wasn't completely convinced. But then she said my skin had small lumps and bumps and wasn't as healthy as it should be because I wasn't using toner. Well, that scared me a little.
Then she applied an eye-area moisturizer from a small tube and explained why I couldn't use the same formula around my eyes as on the rest of my face. One is tissue paper, and the other is regular wrapping paper, she said.
"You're lucky you don't have lines around your eyes," she added, "and now that you're nearly 30 you should make an effort to keep them that way." I nodded. She scored a point with that one.
The next step was a moisturizer, which Kay applied with a light touch. She told me my skin was dehydrated. She explained that, contrary to my long-held belief, sweat is not an adequate moisturizer.
Having dispensed with the recommended twice-daily treatment, Kay presented two additional tubes of gel that she said I should use twice each week on my face.
She rubbed the first one, which contained eensy-weensy silicon balls, into the back of my hand and explained how the balls gently slough off dead skin. The rolling motion of the little balls was wonderfully invigorating.
After removing the exfoliator, she smoothed on another gel, a purifying mask, and left it on for five minutes, explaining that "the exfoliator is like dusting and the mask is like vacuuming."
When she cleaned off the gel mask, the back of my hand felt soft, healthy, alive. It felt better than any other skin anywhere on my body ever before in my life. "Wow, that's unbelievable," I remarked.
By this time I knew I would wind up dropping some bucks into Mr. Dior's pocket that day.
My face felt good, too, although not as remarkable as my hand. When Kay suggested that I try some foundation or powder, I admitted that I have been thinking about buying some makeup for my impending wedding.
My traditional cosmetics routine consisted of only lipstick, with the addition of black mascara and maybe a touch of eye shadow for dress-up. I had always avoided skin-covering cosmetics because they seemed unhealthy.
Kay had an answer for this one, too--no surprise. In clean, rural areas, it's better for your skin to go uncovered, but in dirty cities like Washington, makeup acts as a barrier to the pollutants, she said.
And on it went. She whipped out a case of five complementary eye colors and applied them to my bare lids. Concealer. Lip pencil. Lipstick. Eyebrow pencil. Mascara. I turned to the mirror. I screamed. I looked like Isabella Rosselini.
Defeated, I pulled out my American Express card. I wanted everything, but couldn't afford it. The next 10 minutes were sheer hell as I tried to decide which products I could live without.
Kay recommended that I get my skin in order before buying other cosmetics. The gels also were a bit of a luxury. I sat staring at the four-step process, four dinky bottles that cost $116.
"I really can't narrow it down any further--you really need them all," said Kay.
I fiddled with the bottles.
"You'd spend twice that much on an outfit," she added. "I'll throw in a lipstick."
And then the clincher: "You want to look your best for your wedding day."
I took them all. I spent $178.69. But when I returned to the office, I felt like I'd been on vacation.

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