Holiday shoppers are giving new meaning to the word “selfie.”

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Consider Sherry Miller of Columbia, Miss., who, after buying Nars online at Sephora as a gift, motored to her local Target on Black Friday for Boots No7 eye cream, followed by a stop at Marshalls to purchase a salt and body scrub — all for herself.

She’s not alone. Retailers surveyed by WWD during the last two weeks said beauty self-purchasing is outpacing gift buying at the nation’s mass-market stores. That’s caused a shift in their buying patterns to reduce fragrance sets to make more space for single items and cosmetics sets shoppers are snapping up for themselves. In fact, according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, the doorbusters luring shoppers into stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday this year were often “self-gifts.”

The chilling fact is that mass-market chains are no longer viable contenders to wrest beauty holiday sales away from department or specialty doors. Department stores offer better value for premium products in concepts such as Macy’s Impulse Beauty. Sephora and Ulta have hit critical mass in store count so shoppers don’t need to rely on a drugstore or discounter. To top it off, the offer from mass fragrance companies isn’t compelling enough to be on holiday wish lists. “It feels as if everyone has thrown in the towel already and accepted it’s going to be a brutal season,” said WSL Strategic Retail’s founder Wendy Liebmann, adding that need not be the case if retailers put more innovation into stores as she’s seen at Sephora and the U.K.’s Selfridges. She also advises not offering such drastic promotions so early.

The move to self-purchase beauty is most prevalent in discount and drugstores, said retailers, who feel consumers splurge on a beauty gift at a department or specialty store, but look for value for themselves. Although early “me” purchases are common during the holidays, buyers said the trend is more pronounced this year than in the past. Hardest-hit are fragrance gift sets, as well as bath collections.

“The fragrance gift business has declined dramatically, as has the bath-set business. These kind of gift sets are impersonal and old-school,” said one top merchant, adding she has to carry them, but they are not a big part of business anymore. “Cosmetics gift sets are still strong, but I’m sure a lot of them are self-purchases. Business is changing, customers are changing and we have to change with it.”

Retailer concern over the upcoming holiday comes on the heels of challenging sales in all mass cosmetics categories. According to IRI figures for the 52 weeks ended Oct., 23, 2014 for all mass doors, only face and eye makeup are running ahead of last year and both less than 1 percent, while lip color is down 2 percent and nail care 5 percent. The fragrance picture is also bleak, with men and women’s scents down 4 percent.

Part of the new thinking at mass stores is to stick to value beauty offers, as well as special deals for loyalty card members. CVS is even helping consumers get products they might prefer to buy at department or specialty stores with the offer of a $10 gift card good for Macy’s, American Express or Apple with the purchase of $30 of earmarked items in its doors. Joan Howell of Princeton, N.J., planned to take advantage of that deal, buying shampoo, holiday wrap and paper goods at CVS and getting her daughter a new fragrance at Macy’s. Walgreens is among those with special deals for loyalty card holders, such as a buy-one-get-one 50 percent off deal on Maybelline, L’Oréal, Revlon and Almay cosmetics with its Balance Rewards card. Cardholders could also get a free fragrance including White Shoulders or Curve with the purchase of another fragrance. The chain also made a big push for No7 with end caps in beauty and a 50-percent-off deal with loyalty card for a gift set including a day-and-night cream, mascara, lip glace, cleansing and body lotion, body wash and dry skin rescue, regularly priced at $80.

On Black Friday, shoppers at the Hillsborough, N.J., Walgreens store gravitated to items to pamper themselves such as Essie nail color, a jewel-studded toothbrush and L.A. Colors Nail Design kits. Key price points were $10 and under. There were few takers of fragrances from the huge display of gift sets, which included traditional mass brands such as Ciara, Charlie and English Leather, as well as designer scents headlined by Drakkar Noir and Obsession. One exception: anything with “Frozen” characters, such as Lip Smackers, were getting snapped up as stocking stuffers.

At Kohl’s, the beauty consultant said she had many people buying the Balm Nude Dude palette. “Everyone is complaining they can’t get Urban Decay Naked Vault so they are buying alternatives. Although this is $40 and that’s $280,” she noted.

Ken Bern, founder of GBS The Beauty Store with seven locations in Florida, agreed there’s been a flurry of self-purchasing or even “one for me, one for you,” leading up to the holidays. “This is the time of year when brands come out with fun, limited-edition gift sets that are also a great value, so it’s tempting to stock up on these. It’s also the time for parties and festive events where everyone amps up their everyday beauty,” resulting in notched-up sales of lashes, cosmetics, nail color, hair treatments and styling tools.

To be fair, retailers pointed out that the gift sets are usually last-minute items picked up in a panic for those forgotten on lists. “Maybe when they get real desperate, [fragrance gift sets] will sell,” said a buyer. With a slow start to the season, including a weak Black Friday that some estimates put at down 11 percent from last year, industry experts expect Super Saturday (Dec. 20) to be the biggest shopping day. That bodes well for drug and discount stores, which are viewed as quick stops for last-minute needs. Some beauty executives noted that there is always a boom in beauty near the end of the season. In fact, NPD’s Cohen said the early self-gift-buying patterns means there’s ample gift-buying potential left in the season.

But buyers surveyed by WWD weren’t so sure the boom is going to come, especially as they compete with more outlets for holiday sales. In the same shopping center as Wal-Mart, where beauty was quiet on Black Friday, shoppers loaded up on decorations for their cars, Christmas decorations and cosmetics such as a $5 lip set and Smoky eye shadow palette at Five Below.

There was one category retailers said is doing well out of the gates for gifting — appliances. To seize on that trend, Target devoted a full-page ad to “buzz-worthy” holiday deals such as the Olay facial cleansing brush for $29.99, Conair’s Infiniti Pro Curl Secret for $99.99 and the Sarah Potempa Beachwaver Pro for $189.99. At GBS The Beauty Store, Bern singled out facial and skin-care devices, as well as hairstyling tools. “We have a very strong demand for beauty devices, especially those that target anti-aging. The Foreo Luna, which hit GBS shelves this summer, is our top-selling device. Other in-demand, high-tech products include the NuFace micro current facial toning device and Quasar red-and-blue-light treatment devices.”

At a Rite Aid in upstate New York, Judith Engle did some self-pampering: “I bought some essential oils for myself so I can deal with next week’s shopping trip.”

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