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Undercover Shopper: The Scene in Chicago

When Ulta and Barneys New York revamped their beauty floors, they brought a breath of fresh air to the Windy City beauty scene.

In the last few years, Chicago’s downtown beauty scene has received a major facelift. Ulta, based nearby in Bolingbrook, Ill., opened its largest store to date, an 18,000-square-foot flagship, complete with top- floor hair salon. Some months later, Barneys New York doubled its size here, unveiling a bigger, bolder store with an entire floor devoted to cosmetics.

Now that the retailers have had a chance to settle into their digs, WWD Beauty Inc decided it was a perfect time for a closer inspection. I set out to see how each is faring. The result: Let’s just say I didn’t leave empty-handed.

Barneys New York opened its 90,000-square-foot, six- story flagship in spring 2009 to high expectations. The building, with its glass front, open floor plan, dramatic staircase and 18-foot steel sculpture by Jean-Paul Philippe, is lavish, featuring a penthouse restaurant and a larger, grander shoe department. Cosmetics also expanded, occupying an entire floor. The only problem at first glance? Its lower level (also known as the basement) location.

Shopping for beauty in the lower level takes some getting used to. At its original location, cosmetics was on the first floor. Back then, it was just so easy to pick up a Kiehl’s lip balm or buy some scented soaps from Fresh as a gift.

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Now, perusing the beauty department is more of a deliberate decision. In past visits to the lower level, truth be told, I never lingered, buying only what was needed and choosing to spend longer visits (read: makeovers) at other department stores. On this trip, however, I stayed—and was glad I did.

Arriving a little before 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, I walked downstairs to find a department in which sales associates, nearly a dozen strong, outnumbered the shoppers, which, including me, totaled four. The department is sophisticated and attractive: fixtures are lined in mahogany and zebra woods, with stainless steel structures for shelving, all perched on top of a distinctive marble floor.

“Can I help you?” immediately asked a well-dressed woman wearing a flattering gray dress with patterned tights and high-heeled booties. I said I was just looking and that’s what I did, testing creams from La Mer, lipsticks from Kevyn Aucoin and nail polish from Deborah Lippmann. I chatted with a shopper undergoing a makeup application, whose two dogs laid sprawled at her feet.

“I want to tell you something,” she said happily. “When I get out of this chair, if you have any brains, you’ll sit here.”

As I waited, I walked around the various counters, arriving at one of my favorites, Bobbi Brown (who just happens to be a hometown girl). I looked through the lip glosses and asked the sales associate if she had any suggestions for replacing an old Bobbi Brown lipstick shade that had been discontinued. She quickly produced a red-brown shade from Nars, which looked close enough in the tube, but became too bright once on. Her second try was a winner, a Lipstick Queen item, the hue of which was almost identical and had the added bonus of being long-lasting.

Then I asked about Brown’s gel eyeliner, a product that has received positive editorial reviews. Without a shade of urgency or pressure, she asked if I’d like to take a seat or return a different day for an appointment. I chose the former, and she ably applied the liner, providing tips for when I was re-creating the look at home. More urgent, however, she noted accurately, was my need for concealer.

She set to work and the results were obvious. I bought Bobbi Brown’s eye cream and corrector. The sales associate, happily, didn’t push me to buy the eyeliner or lipstick, but instead wrote down the shades for me to consider.

My assessment? I received expert service with a soft sell, an ideal combination that makes me eager to return.

Overall, Barneys provides an eclectic, well-edited group of high-end products. Once I got acclimated to the lower level, it did possess some benefits—providing a more intimate, private, almost clubby environment than on a traditional first level. By the time I left later that afternoon, the space had become livelier as more shoppers filtered in.

There is nothing below grade about Ulta’s flagship on Chicago’s State Street. In fact, the bright, airy, clean four-floor space seems to soar upward. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a sales associate wearing mostly black. The ground floor boasts Ulta’s designer fragrance section, with items from Estée Lauder, Ralph Lauren and Chanel, as well as prestige cosmetics from the likes of Bare Escentuals, Benefit and Smashbox.

Despite being tempted, I stuck to my strategy of traveling upstairs to the third-floor salon (and restroom) and working my way down the store’s spiral staircase. The 5,000-square- foot salon, usually closed on Sundays, today had two customers and also housed the hair care line Davines.

The second floor below, however, represented the jackpot for hair product junkies, with a broad assortment ranging from mass brands like L’Oréal and Pantene to salon brands like Redken, Matrix and PureOlogy, as well as harder-to-find brands.

For this visit, though, I wanted to investigate dry shampoos, so I headed to a section for Oscar Blandi. While I did have to flag down a sales associate for help, she proved knowledgeable about the various options.

I also liked the wall of blow-dryers, with each style displayed plugged in and ready for use, along with rows of curling and flatirons, to pick up and hold.

I moved from there to the mezzanine level, called The Color Library, well stocked with mass brands.

As throughout the entire store, the aisles were clear, clean, well lit and easy to navigate. Sales associates seemed pleasant, approachable and knowledgeable, but could be hard to find. When I looked for assistance evaluating Olay Regenerist versus ProX moisturizers, I had to beckon a worker stationed on the first floor to come upstairs. When a sales associate arrived, she scanned the ingredients and told me Regenerist was the most popular. She urged me to try ProX, however, citing Ulta’s liberal return policy. Meanwhile, a shopper chimed in that Regenerist worked best for her.

Ulta’s shoppers reflect its broad spectrum of products. On my Sunday visit, women of various ages and ethnicities checked out products. During the week, the store draws a professional crowd and a fair amount of college students.

Upon checkout, I encountered one of my favorite Ulta features—purse-size versions of products, including L’Oréal’s Elnett hair spray (which I had to have). The mood in the store is positive and bright, especially given the amount of natural light flooding in from the street.

Overall, Ulta is a great go-to option for a variety of beauty needs. It’s a virtual beauty-based mini department store, allowing shoppers to buy a high-low mix. While I was partial to the bright, airy feeling of Ulta, Barneys, with its more curated collections, proved the perfect place to find that distinctive gift, personalized fragrance or $60 dress-to-impress Clé de Peau lipstick.



Barneys New York 15 East Oak Street

The New York transplant brings its chic sensibility to the heart of Chicago’s gold coast.

Ulta 114 South State Street

This hometown retailer offers a wide range of beauty brands covering the price and service spectrum.