NEW YORK — When beauty sales slow down, talk of service heats up.

The mass market beauty business is making a slow recovery, despite less than exuberant early results for new lines. According to research from ACNielsen, cosmetics sales in drug, food and discount stores for the 52-week period ended May 20 rose 4.3 percent from $2.5 billion to $2.6 billion. That’s a welcome trend versus the declines the industry had been posting for the last three years.

Many industry experts think the route to building an edge in beauty is to bring back beauty advisers. In fact, the new dermatologic skin care centers offered by Brooks-Eckerd, Duane Reade and CVS have trained professionals. Walgreens always has offered cosmeticians in its stores, and many chains are starting to add at least one clerk trained to answer some beauty questions.

That’s all good news to Jack McAuliffe, founder and publisher of the Beauty Handbook and a new offshoot called the Beauty Bulletin. McAuliffe firmly believes the only way to boost front-end sales is to offer service. “The average front end in a drugstore is 7,210 square feet, generating $2.2 million in sales per year, or $305 per square foot,” he said. “It will be a difficult challenge to generate more sales when the average consumer’s disposable income is being reduced by higher fuel costs, interest rates, etc.”

McAuliffe said a problem today is sameness in the market. “The average Main Street intersection in ‘Anytown, U.S.A,’ has a gas station, two competing chain drugstores and a huge mass merchandiser within sight of each other. Three of these retailers sell beauty products, and with the exception of private brands, all three of the retailers sell the same items,” he explained. The shopper’s choice comes down to price and service.

McAuliffe said the average mass market retailer of beauty products has to differentiate with service. “If not, it is just a battle over price,” he advised.

He used a personal story to illustrate his point. “The retail salesperson in the beauty department at my local chain drug [store] suggested I use Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Sun Block with an SPF 45. She also told me it was alcohol- and PABA-free, fast-absorbing, water- and sweat-proof. The salesperson earned my respect and confidence by her ability to deliver advice that pertained to my specific interests and by her knowledge of the product,” he said. For these reasons, he returns to that same store for most of his needs.

This story first appeared in the June 16, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

McAuliffe saw a need to supplement his Beauty Handbook, which is offered to consumers, with a vehicle to transmit information to beauty consultants. The result was Beauty Bulletin, a booklet designed to educate retail salespeople at chains. Each bulletin is customized for the chain and features hot product promotions, seasonal ideas, questions and answers and notable salespeople of the quarter. The company is currently producing the bulletins for chains such as CVS and Walgreens. Participating manufacturers include Coty, Del Labs, L’Oréal, Markwins, Neutrogena, Procter & Gamble, Physicians Formula and Revlon, as well as other major beauty companies. The selling point of the bulletin is that retailers don’t need to take time out of busy schedules to do internal communications with sales staff.

“The retail sales clerk is a critical link to creating additional take-away of brands and has been frequently overlooked,” said Jeff Rogers, senior vice president of sales at Physicians Formula. “An educated sales associate familiar with a product’s key features can make a professional recommendation to customers — which typically leads to a sale of that product.”

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