Turning department stores into factory floors where cosmetics can be immediately whipped up to suit to any individual’s specifications sounds like an awfully promising proposition and, enabled by technology, Lancôme is testing whether it can deliver on that promise by producing made-to-measure makeup at the counter.
Under the auspices of the L’Oréal Technology Incubator, the L’Oréal-owned beauty brand piloted a Le Teint Particulier custom-blended foundation program starting in November at Nordstrom stores in Seattle and Torrance, Calif., that is rolling out to nine more locations this year before proliferating further next year. The program responds to gaps in complexion shade selections particularly affecting women of color — a frustrating issue intensified by growing diversity — and consumer demand for customization fueled by the power of smartphones.
“We have a lot of insight about consumers’ struggles when it comes to foundation, but you never really understand or feel that until you see consumers try it. We have had situations where consumers with very dark skin that have real struggles with foundations try Le Teint Particulier, and we have seen incredible reactions from them to the point of tears,” said Guive Balooch, global vice president of the L’Oréal Technology Incubator. “That really made us feel that we have something special. When someone reacts that way, you really understand that there is a deep consumer need for this type of innovation.”
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Le Teint Particulier builds upon technology created by Sayuki Custom Cosmetics, a Laguna Hills, Calif.-based company L’Oréal acquired in 2014. The technology turns three scans of a customer (usually of the cheek, forehead and jawline) taken on a colorimeter, an instrument assessing skin color, into a recipe for how much red, yellow, black and white pigment is required to make a foundation that matches the customer’s skin tone. The precise amounts of pigments are poured into a bottle over three to four minutes in a microwave-size machine prior to be shaken for two minutes or so in a smaller machine. The entire process takes 30 to 45 minutes.
Balooch recounted how L’Oréal put considerable work into tweaking the algorithm that drives Le Teint Particulier to result in spot-on formulations. “The L’Oréal added value is to make sure that, beyond the chemistry, the link between the measurement and the product is as close as possible to what a consumer would consider a match to their skin,” he said. “Obviously, the consumer doesn’t see that, but there is a lot of science behind that. We have know-how at L’Oreal around skin tones around the world and how that translates into the chemistry of the products. We really brought in the research and development teams to help us solve that problem.”
After its prepared on-site, Le Teint Particulier’s personalized foundation is handed to the customer couched in black inside a substantial white box, and inscribed with the name of the customer and a complexion identification number for repeat purchases at Nordstrom. The foundation costs $80, compared with around $69 for Lancôme’s other foundation options. “It’s a little bit more, and we didn’t want to make the price difference so exaggerated. Because we have really tested it and provided the consumer with something by far superior to what they could get elsewhere, people are willing to pay for that,” said Balooch.
At Nordstrom counters, a Lancôme beauty advisor is appointed a Le Teint Particulier specialist. Although all beauty advisors experience the Le Teint Particulier process, the specialist receives a four-day training on the product. In addition to scanning faces, he or she queries customers about moisture and coverage, which can be dialed up or down to customers’ likings in the Le Teint Particulier formula. Color can also be fine-tuned should customers want to go darker in summer or lighter in the winter, for example. “Everyone wants something that is theirs and only theirs,” said Smith. “Customization is here to stay.”
Of course, cosmetics customization isn’t completely novel. Prescriptives, now available online, pioneered the concept by having salespeople mix foundation and powder inside stores. “Prescriptives was great and a leader when they launched, but it depended on the eye of the person that helped you. You couldn’t go to another counter and replenish the product,” said Smith. “This is the first time it’s done through technology that figures out your shade.” Outside of department stores, start-ups such as Melange and MatchCo, which has a physical location in Santa Monica, are bringing foundation personalization to cell phones with apps. Apps intrigue Balooch, but he is concerned about the veracity of the technology.
“The reason we started at this level [in the stores] was because we wanted to make sure of the accuracy of the system, and that everyone was getting the right foundation. If people try that [app] approach, and it is crude in terms of how you measure skin tone, people will get the wrong colors, and there won’t be a purchase,” said Balooch. “In the future, could we eventually do this at home? Potentially, yes.”
So far, Larry Smith, director of education on the West Coast for Lancôme, estimated about 400 people have replenished their bespoke Le Teint Particulier foundation. He detailed it’s been popular with customers of Asian, Hispanic and African descent. “A lot of clients have had to use two to three different shades before, and this allows them to use one shade,” said Smith. Balooch elaborated, “We have had many amazing feedback from people saying they finally found the right foundation, and there is the aspect of the personalization of having your name on it that’s a beautiful experience. You feel very special.”
Foundation is the initial step for the technology behind Le Teint Particulier. “Color cosmetics in general provides a nice field for customization. What we don’t want to do is create any gimmicky technologies. If we feel an offerings today brings a lot to the costumer and there are no holes to be filed, then we won’t do customization around that. We are still assessing the areas that this will give the most value to,” said Balooch. “This is the beginning. We want to make sure we do this well and then, after, we will think about expanding.”