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Beauty Inc issue 02/11/2011

As a native Angeleno, I’ve long known the seaside mall Santa Monica Place as a shopping afterthought. A black stain on architect Frank Gehry’s otherwise illustrious career, it was a case study for a particular kind of ugly only the Eighties could produce. On top of the subpar aesthetics, its shops seemed tired. So, when it was revamped by owner Macerich at the cost of nearly $300 million and reopened last August, I cheered as a local always on the prowl for better shopping options. As a reporter covering the opening, I spent many an hour poring over the renovations and the new tenants.

This story first appeared in the February 11, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In the months following the opening, I hadn’t returned to examine whether the redone Santa Monica Place stood up to the early excitement. This assignment—to assess the cosmetics departments of the Santa Monica Place anchor department stores, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom—gave me an opportunity to discover if beauty shoppers have embraced its offerings and if the mall is delivering on its promise to be a welcoming environment for families and professionals from neighboring office buildings searching for an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants.

I’m not sure about the professionals, but I can attest from a visit on a recent Saturday that families are certainly out in full force. The halls were packed with fathers and strollers. As I walked into Bloomingdale’s, I found out where the mothers, wives and girlfriends were. The shoe department had a stellar sales rack and was swarmed. (My friend and shopping partner scored Giuseppe Zanotti heels marked down from around $1,000 to $220!) In the beauty department, customers occupied several chairs and were getting their makeup done.

Having not been to the Bloomingdale’s SoHo concept store in New York, I was impressed by its points of difference when the Santa Monica Place edition opened. The SoHo concept presents an edited merchandise selection in an urban-feeling setting. Exposed ceilings and cement floors (in the signature checkerboard pattern) convey an edgy design ethos, while the apparel is heavy on contemporary styles. The beauty department, too, feels au currant.

Maybe because I was hungry, I immediately drew comparisons between the Bloomingdale’s beauty department and contemporary restaurants. Its high ceilings, relatively soft atmospheric lighting and airiness reminded me of restaurants with open kitchens, where everything is laid bare. If it were a restaurant, it would be one where the food is the star. Here, brands are center stage. Many of the most prominent—Jo Malone, Benefit, Chanel, Dior, Bobbi Brown and Chantecaille among them—showcase their products in highly branded environments, each with unique colors and imagery.

For the exploratory beauty shopper with money to burn, Space NK at the Bloomingdale’s in Santa Monica Place is a treasure trove of indie gems. I’m someone who professionally sees a ton of beauty brands, but there were a number that I rarely stumble upon, such as the makeup brands Kjaer Weis and Lime Crime. Possibly because they know their wares are foreign to average consumers, the saleswomen at Space NK were keen on samples. One handed me a sample of skin care brand Rodial’s Glamtox Sticks, which purport to be collagen-boosting supplements that are mixed with water, and Rodial’s Glamtox Night serum. There was no pressure to buy. The sample would have to convince me to make a purchase during my next trip.

Where Bloomingdale’s was buzzy and fostered a sense of discovery, Nordstrom was familiar and comforting. I can’t count the times I’ve been to Nordstrom stores in California. It is my go-to shopping resource. I usually have no trouble unearthing wearable clothes and replenishing my basic bathroom beauty supplies. Nordstrom at Santa Monica Place doesn’t disappoint. The beauty department has spotless countertops; sleek white, steel and glass fixtures that are Nordstrom staples, and an army of black-clad salespeople ready to cater to the shopper’s every whim. Of course, it has the department store beauty brands you can count on—and many more.

After my experience at Bloomingdale’s, I expected to be underwhelmed by the selection of small brands at Nordstrom. That wasn’t the case. Le Métier de Beauté has a prominent cosmetics assortment, and in skin care, there’s a wide range of brands to choose from, including Elemis, Arcona, Kate Somerville, Caudalie and ZO Skin Health. The overall sense, however, is that Nordstrom’s smaller brands are more approachable and Bloomingdale’s are more cutting edge.

While I wasn’t offered any samples at Nordstrom, there were tiny empty containers on the counters meant for sample requests.

Of course, there is considerable brand crossover between Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, including many expensive lines. Nordstrom, though, leaves the impression that it is a store where there are more affordable items to be had. That’s because there are recurrent presentations of gift sets and smaller impulse items, and the prices are frequently displayed at the point of sale. At Bloomingdale’s, it’s difficult to find a price without asking.

Judging by my experience at Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s beauty departments in Santa Monica Place, department stores have been successful at reforming their reputation for pushy salespeople. There was one fragrance saleswoman standing in the aisle of Bloomingdale’s who wondered if I wanted to smell Marc Jacobs’ Daisy, but I never got sprayed and didn’t run into other sprayers during my visits.

As I was walking by various counters, saleswomen asked me if I needed help, but no one pestered me again when I replied I was just looking. One saleswoman at the Nordstrom RéVive counter informed me about a facial event day in the future, then was happy to let me browse undisturbed. Especially at Nordstrom, there was an attentive nonchalance to the service that made me at ease perusing the entire store without fearing salespeople would pounce on me, while being aware they were there if I needed them.

In all, I’d say Santa Monica Place was worthy of a return visit—and could conceivable get another soon. There could be worse ways to spend a Saturday than squeezing in quality shopping between soaking in the sun and taking a dip in the nearby ocean.

395 Santa Monica Place

Using its New York City SoHo concept store as a model, Bloomingdale’s has a hip, edgy vibe in sync with the surroundings.

395 Santa Monica Place

The venerable department store lives up to its reputation of impeccable service and an easy-to-shop atmosphere.

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