AT THE COUNTER
TO SEE HOW ORIGINS MARKETS ITS CONCEPT AND PRODUCTS IN STORES, WWD SENT OUT UNDERCOVER REPORTERS TO CASE THE SCENE. INEVITABLY, THE BRAND’S LOW-KEY APPROACH WAS A WELCOME SURPRISE.
Byline: HOLLY HABER / JESSICA GOLDMAN / JEZZICA LINDKRANTZ / ROBERT SHAROFF / MAY ST. JOHN / RUTH GUREVITCH / ROBERT SPECTOR
I have a weakness for botanical cosmetics, which is probably why I find Origins so hard to resist. Offer me something with a delightful fragrance and earthy-sounding ingredients, and I pull out my wallet — even without a sales pitch.
So the Origins saleswoman who helped me at the Neiman Marcus NorthPark Center store had an edge from the start, even if she didn’t know it. In any case, once she spotted me eyeing products in the Origins boutique, she presented the line in a pleasant, persuasive way.
“I’m interested in cleansers and moisturizers,” I told her when she asked to help.
“Tell me about your skin,” she responded.
“It’s a little on the dry side.”
“Dry all over?”
“No, my chin isn’t dry.”
“Are you concerned about lines?” she asked.
With that she walked to a back wall of products, asking if I preferred a bar, cream or lotion cleanser. “A gel,” I said.
She came back with several bottles and jars. First she presented cleansers: Mint Wash, Cream Bar and Pure Cream. The Mint Wash smelled lovely, and she explained how the whole line was botanically based and used only fragrances from natural ingredients.
Although I liked the scent, I rejected the green gel as too drying, since I had already tried it, and told her I didn’t want the Pure Cream because you have to tissue it off. That left the Cream Bar, which had a pleasant aroma. It was $9.50, or $13.50 with its own little wooden stand.
“It lasts a long time,” she assured me, telling me she used it in the morning and switched to the Pure Cream at night.
Things started to get a little confusing, however, when she began explaining the difference between the products that bore the inscriptions “If your skin acts older than you’d like” and “If your young skin acts dry.”
Basically, she said, “If your young skin acts dry” was richer than the other one, even though the names made it sound like the opposite was true. It came down to which texture you preferred, she said, recommending “acts older than you’d like” to me.
First came the Mending Solution. (“Where do they get these names?” I thought.) She offered it to me to sniff and then spread it across my hand, explaining how it would rehydrate and soothe the skin.
Then she followed with the Time Mender, offering the cream to me and spreading it across my hand so I could feel the texture. I told her I preferred one-step processes, but she said that from personal experience she had found that her skin began to feel dry during the day if she used only the Time Mender and that the two worked best together.
Still, the two together cost $37.50, which I felt was steep for a moisturizer.
Then she suggested Starting Over, explaining it was Origins’ alpha-hydroxy acid product.
“These are the vitamins,” she said, patting the Mending Solution and Time Mender. Pointing to Starting Over, she added, “This is the antibiotic.”
Next she showed me the Eye Doctor, a cream that would “reduce puffiness” and do all sorts of wonders for the skin around my eyes. I told her I already have an eye cream.
“Well, I’ve shown you something you might be interested in in the future,” she said.
I figured I had seen enough and told her I’d try the Cream Bar. I accepted her suggestion to take the one with the wooden holder. She fetched one, and without thanking me (the only disappointing experience I had at the counter), handed it to another woman to ring up because she had spotted another customer at the counter.
Finding the Origins counter at Lord & Taylor is not hard. It’s practically the first thing you see when you go into the store through the main entrance on Fifth Avenue. The sales associate wasn’t difficult to locate, either. She was standing in front of the counter, which was lined with green and white bottles of different shapes and sizes, wearing a green smock embroidered with the company’s name.
“Origins is a basic line,” I overheard her say to another customer. What she meant by that I didn’t really know, and neither, it seemed, did the customer, who left about 20 seconds after hearing the spiel. The sales associate, dismayed at her quick departure, scowled and turned her attention to me. “Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly. “I’m looking for a new skin care regimen,” I explained. “Can you tell me a little bit about Origins?”
“Origins is a basic line,” she repeated. “We use all kinds of natural ingredients in our products and refill the bottles they come in to help save the environment.” She paused, and added: “Origins is a basic line.”
She suggested I start with a Skin Care Pair, an alcohol-free toner and a moisturizer formulated for about five different skin types. She wasn’t about to venture a guess as to what type of skin I have, however, and asked me to diagnose it instead.
When I admitted that I wasn’t sure, she pointed me in the direction of some descriptive pamphlets strategically placed behind each toner/moisturizer combination. “I guess I have combination skin,” I said, after looking them over.
“Oh, then your skin acts confused,” she said, pointing to a bottle of Tuning Solution for $21 and Fine Tuner for $16.50. Both had the phrase “If your skin acts confused” written across the bottom. “That’s what I use and it works really well,” she said. When I asked to try some samples, she said that Origins never offers samples for skin care, only for cosmetics. Unfortunately, there weren’t any cosmetic samples either. Apparently, they’re only available when Origins is running a promotion, and she didn’t know when the next one would be. I left empty-handed.
The Origins counter at Macy’s was more difficult to locate — I had to ask directions twice before I found it. Tucked away in the back of the cosmetics department, it didn’t even resemble the Origins counter at Lord & Taylor. Where Lord & Taylor’s was sleek and streamlined, Macy’s Origins’ counter was crowded with products, and decorated with straw, ribboned baskets and Granny Smith apples. I wondered what kind of image the company was trying to portray. Am I supposed to feel that the products come from a state-of-the-art laboratory or that they’re fresh from the farm?
Three sales associates were standing behind the counter, and a third, positioned in front of it, was quick to ask if I needed help. I told her about my quest for a new regimen.
Instead of asking me what type of skin I think I have, she asked how my skin behaves. Is it oily? Dry? A combination of the two? Do I ever break out? If so, when?
After I answered her questions — and without consulting any company literature — she too suggested that I try the Tuning Solution and the Fine Tuner because, it seemed to her, that indeed my skin does act confused. Sensing she was about to make a sale, she pushed Starting Over, an alpha-hydroxy acid-based product for $22.50, and (no doubt noticing my dark under-eye circles) Eye Doctor, an eye cream for $25. “Before I spend the money, do you have any samples of these products,” I asked.
“We don’t ever have samples, but what I suggest is if you want them, buy them and save your receipts. Try them out for a week, and if you’re really not happy, return them and get your money back.”
It sounded like a great deal to me, so I bought the toner and moisturizer. If they work well, I’ll definitely be back for the eye cream.
With a history of negative cosmetics experiences, I was most excited when given the opportunity to review a department store counter. Here was a chance to repay the favor with a nasty analysis. However, much to my amazement, I was overwhelmed with good service at the Origins counter in Rich’s.
The Origins counter in the store is well organized, with products neatly displayed. Along with informative and personalized pamphlets on the products, detailed descriptions of the numerous products were posted right below them. I thought this was rather convenient, considering that I waited almost seven minutes without any sign of a salesperson. No one was showing up to help me, so I decided to temporarily desert Origins and check out Chanel’s latest offerings across the floor. When I returned to the Origins counter, I was shocked to see a sales associate surrounded by no less than three eager customers. I approached and resumed my waiting. Almost immediately, the saleswoman approached me and asked me what she could help me with. I told her I was interested in hearing about Origins’ skin care line.
With unbridled energy, she said, “I would love to tell you about our skin care system. If you can wait just a moment, let me take care of these two ladies, and I’ll be right back with you. In the meantime, feel free to use our testers and check out the brochures.”
I overheard her apologize to another customer, mentioning that there were supposed to be two salesgirls at the counter. While I looked around at the now very familiar displays, a woman in her 20s took me into her confidence. Without prodding or questioning, she gave me a complete rundown on all of the Origins products that she uses (about six), how well they work and what they do. In the midst of this enthusiastic report, the pleasant but busy saleswoman swung by twice to apologize for the wait. I ended up waiting about 10 minutes for her assistance, but in the meantime noticed that four new customers had come to the counter, asked for a few specific items and purchased them immediately. It appears that the line has a strong following.
At last the sales associate stood by my side. Taking her time to explain everything, she told me about the company’s five cleansers in detail, with descriptions of how they make your skin feel and how they behave on the skin. She even pantomimed washing her face and held each cleanser up to my nose for a whiff.
I asked, “Which cleanser is best for the summer?”
“Well, none of them in particular. Our cleansers cater more to your skin type and how you like to wash your face,” she answered. “Some people like something that foams, like our cream soap. Others like something they can wipe away. It all depends on how your skin acts and what you like.”
After the cleanser lesson, she then explained and let me try out each of the follow-up steps and products. The demonstration included eye creams, toners and plant-scented potions. Then on to the Skin Care Pairs, each of which had their own leaflet printed on recycled paper.
Each time, she made sure that I understood the product’s purpose and was satisfied with her explanation before she moved on. There were also little trays that pulled right out of the display on which she would set the products in question. By the end of the talk, all of my prospective products were laid out proudly for my purchase.
Even though I knew that what she was saying was somewhat of a practiced speech, I felt as if she were tailoring it to my needs, because she took the time to listen to my questions.
As I walked away from the Origins counter, I felt informed and respected, pleased with the way I had been treated and the ample knowledge of the sales person. So much for my bad attitude.
In the midst of a brutal Midwestern winter, I noticed my friend Mary’s skin looked dry — and I told her so, realizing this was the perfect opportunity to lure her into checking out the Origins counter at Marshall Field’s.
Surprisingly, instead of telling me to get lost, she agreed. So down we went to Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue to see if it really is possible to be both beautiful and ecologically correct.
Judging from our saleswoman, it is. In general, my experience with department store cosmetics clerks over the last few years has not been great. They tend to be overworked and undertrained and totally lacking in humor. (I still remember the time a clerk refused to let me smell more than two fragrances because, she said, “it will confuse your nose.”).
Today, however, our clerk — who practically radiated good health and grooming — took a less-controlling approach. After greeting us pleasantly, she asked Mary what kind of skin she had. Dry? Sensitive? Oily? Mary said dry, especially around the eyes. The clerk nodded and brought out two Origins products — Drenching Solution and Steady Drencher. Her pitch was convincing. She said that since the body is 90 percent water, the key to avoiding dry skin isn’t adding moisture. “Your skin has plenty of natural oils, especially if you’re young,” she said. “What you need is something that helps the skin keep the moisture it already has.” The first step, she said, is Drenching Solution, which is made from natural oils like sage and rosemary and “reeducates” the skin to retain moisture. The second step is Steady Drencher, which includes extracts of cola nuts and peach kernels. I didn’t quite understand the difference between these two products. One “reeducates” the skin, whatever that means, and one nourishes. Stripped of the green rhetoric, I think we were talking about astringents and moisturizers, but I couldn’t be sure.
The clerk urged Mary to try both and also commented on their fresh scents. They do smell very light and clean. This was the cue for a Save the Planet-type infomercial, as the clerk launched into a spiel about how Origins is totally natural with no artificial additives. She also said all of the ingredients are plant-based, and the company does no animal testing, and she mentioned that most of the packaging is either biodegradable or recycled. My natural cynicism to one side, I did find something very appealing about this from a consumer standpoint. Not only do you get a younger, smoother-looking face, but you also have the satisfaction of knowing that no bunnies were blinded or trees unnecessarily sacrificed due to your vanity. I asked the clerk if Origins is mainly for younger customers, and she replied that the line’s appeal isn’t determined by age. “I have customers in their 20s, but I also have them in their 40s and 50s,” she said. When asked what the older customers buy, she produced a large jar of Pure Cream, a cleansing agent. “I sell a lot of this to women in their 50s,” she said. I asked if she used Origins personally; she did. She also gave the best kind of personal testimonial. She said she decided to sell the line after using it for a while and seeing what a difference it made. The results were undeniable — she had flawless, beautiful skin. Mary said that she needed to think about it a little bit, and the clerk accepted this cheerfully and gave her a card. She also loaded us down with brochures explaining the line. It was only later, after perusing the literature, that I realized that a lot of her pitch had come out of it. This probably explains some of the vagueness I sensed in her explanations. Granted, cosmetics brochures aren’t supposed to be scientific papers, but when Origins decides to give its customers a biology lesson, the results are a little disorienting. Here is Origins trying to explain the effect of sunlight on human health and happiness: “Light sends impulses through the optic nerve to the brain along pathways that have nothing to do with image processing. These impulses stimulate the hypothalamus…” But not, I daresay, this customer.
On a sunny Friday morning I walked down Sunset Boulevard in one of L.A.’s chicest shopping areas, Sunset Plaza. I was on my way to Origins, a high-end skin care shop with its own line of face, body and hair products — along with cosmetics, massage oils and cleansing accessories.
I entered through the large glass doors into a clean and well-put-together shop, decorated with light wood shelving and green accents. A friendly sales associate greeted me, making me feel immediately comfortable.
Since I was not very familiar with the line, I asked the associate if she could tell me a little about the products. She enthusiastically came over and told me that Origins products are all natural and have a plant extract base.
I told her I was interested in a good facial cleanser and moisturizer. She began to tell me about the different soaps, cleansers and moisturizers in the line. She had very dry skin, she told me, and prefers the plant-based bar soap over the foaming liquid soap. “I always believed bar soaps dried out your skin,” I said. “A lot of them do,” she replied, “but this one has moisturizer in it and really works well.”
When I told her I have dry skin, she suggested that I try the soap. She let me smell and sample the products she recommended, while pointing out that they contain no pore-clogging mineral oils. I asked her if she uses all of the things the company has to offer. She laughed and said, “I even got my husband to start using the products, and he really likes them as well.”
After discussing facial skin care, we moved on to the body care products. The sales associate showed me a variety of moisturizers and sunscreens that she thought would work for my dry skin. She seemed honest in suggesting products that would be best for me, regardless of whether they were inexpensive, which I appreciated because salespeople often push the more expensive items.
The store began to get a little busier. Since she was the only person working, she had to go attend to the other customers. She politely excused herself, told me to continue looking around and said to ask if I had any questions about any of the products. She also added that if I purchase a product and after a couple of weeks find that it’s not what I’m looking for, I can return it with no problems. Although I had no intention of purchasing anything when I left the house, the saleswoman really sold me on some of the products. I ended up leaving with a plant-based face soap accompanied by a wooden soap dish for $13.50, plus a small travel bag containing trial-sized versions of Managing Solution, Starting Over alpha-hydroxy acid-based lotion, and Oil Manager — all for $20.00. I left with the intent to return and to tell my friends about my shopping experience.
The Origins area at Harrods was a sea of calm amid the crush of awestruck tourists weaving their way through the store’s luxuries. I was surprised to find the counter not terribly busy, since Harrods is the only store in London to carry the line. The Origins shop occupies a 400-square-foot corner in the store’s toiletries department, which is located just off its black marbled perfumery hall and beside its men’s fragrance department.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Origins shop is that the products are displayed on open shelves, not in glass cabinets. This encourages handling them and sampling from the available testers. This, and the shop’s pale wood decor, make it a pleasant place to browse and check out the Origins line.
The service was equally laid back. Although I looked around at the displays for several moments, no one rushed over to give me the hard sell. In fact, I had to approach one of the consultants and ask her to run me through the products. I clearly caught her off guard, especially since she had just sliced open her thumb, which she’d wrapped in a paper towel to stanch the blood. But despite her wound, she was more than willing to help me, clutching her bleeding thumb in her other hand as she did so. She said it was best to determine what kind of skin I have, so she could advise me on what products would best suit my needs. The assistant began questioning me about my skin by reading in a monotone from the back of a pamphlet. The four questions concluded with: “Just when you think your skin is under control does it suddenly start going bonkers?” (Wording clearly adopted for the English market.) Now, this may be true, but there was something about diagnosis from the back of a leaflet that made me uncomfortable. I would have preferred a more professional approach, one that demonstrated skin care was truly her business.
Together, we determined that my skin belonged in the category which Origins labels “skin that acts confused.” The consultant suggested Origins’ “skin care pair” of the Tuning Solution and Fine Tuner. She showed me how to use both and explained the benefits of the Origins philosophy of cleansing the skin from the “inside out.” The assistant also recommended the Mint Wash, but stressed the skin care pair was the two essentials and if money was an issue, the wash was the least important. I was intrigued by a small green bottle on the next shelf up called Starting Over. When asked about it, the consultant assured me it was a must-have. The product boasts the opportunity to “see new skin each day” but doesn’t come with any directions for use. The assistant explained this is Origins’ intention, in order that the sales staff can instruct consumers on how to use the products properly. I actually found this to make a lot of sense and enjoyed the chance to ask how the products worked.
We’d been talking for about 20 minutes by now, and I liked that her personal comments didn’t begin until after we had built up some rapport — otherwise, they would have seemed just part of her sales talk. Despite her slightly clumsy start, the consultant seemed very knowledgeable about Origins and made me feel comfortable. She provided me with very good service without making me feel rushed or pressured to buy. Her whole approach was in keeping with the Origins image, and it made me feel the Origins experience was one that I would like to try.
One weekday afternoon, my confused skin and I stopped off at the Origins counter in Nordstrom’s downtown flagship store. The woman behind the counter gave me a friendly Nordstromesque greeting.
“I want to find out what Origins is all about,” I said. “Okay,” she replied, with an amiable laugh, and launched into it. “It’s a naturally based line, so we stay away from anything with alcohol or fragrance or mineral oil. A lot of plant botanics. We have a full line of skin care and specialty items, which you can use daily and then as needed.”
I told her I was particularly interested in an exfoliator or scrub.
“Yes, we have two different ones, depending on how your skin is,” she said, taking out Swept Clean and Swept Away. “We have one that has a little bit of charcoal in it for oilier skin and a gentle one that has aloe in it that’s for all skin types.”
I explained that I was unsure what category my skin fell into. Sometimes it’s oily, sometimes its dry.
“Well, it’s 2:30 now and you don’t look shiny,” she said. “It’s probably more on the normal side.”
She asked if I was interested in a daily regimen, and I told her I preferred every other day.
“We also have regular cleansers,” she said, showing me Mint Wash. “It’s a really light foaming kind of gel. We sell a pump that’s a dollar that can go on top of the bottle, so it’s very easy. You just pump and use it with water. That’s a basic everyday.”
Swept Away, she said, is to be used every other day or twice a week. After I expressed interest in this particular item, she proceeded to ask if I was interested in a moisturizer. I was.
“Then this should be perfect for you,” she said, taking out the Fine Tuner. “This is a lightweight lotion. You can use it morning or not if you want, or just after you cleanse. There’s no fragrance.”
I told her I appreciated that feature, because my wife is chemically sensitive. “Any scent that you do smell, because it’s natural, it will dissipate,” the saleswoman noted. “It won’t be like fragrance. That runs $21 and it’s for normal or combination skin. So, if you get a little shiny, this will help to keep the oil down. If you get a little dry, it will help to hydrate.”
I was sold. While she was getting the items together, she asked how I heard about the line, and I told her I had been reading about it. “I’ve included a product sheet, so you can check out what else we have,” she said in parting, handing me my shopping bag.