AT THE COUNTER
Byline: DAWNYA PRING / RUSTY WILLIAMSON / AMY ROUTON / ROBERT SHAROFF / KATY STANLAKE
While most in the department store skin care business have turned to alpha-hydroxy acid as their chief star-making ingredient, Clarins was among the last to enter the AHA game.
Finally, in February, the company launched Bio-Ecolia, but took special pains to downplay any potential irritation due to the acid ingredients. At the same time, Clarins continues to use the claim of natural, plant-extract ingredients to lure customers into trying its other star products, like Multi-Active Night Lotion.
To investigate how Clarins salespeople are pitching the French skin care brand to today’s well-educated consumers, WWD dispatched reporters to stores across the country and in London for first-hand encounters. The results, compiled here and on page 22, are positive: High marks were given to the sellers for their knowledge and pleasant demeanor.
Occasionally I tear myself away from my Clinique Daily Eye Benefit cream and bravely invest in a new product, hoping to find that miracle cure for my premature crow’s feet.
The other day, in need of a little cheering up, I ventured to the nearest department store. I wandered around the cosmetics department of Bullock’s in West Los Angeles, then approached the red and white Clarins counter.
For at least 10 minutes, I lingered there alone, testing all the lotions, gels and creams. When the Clarins saleswoman finally approached me in her bright red blazer with lipstick to match, she apologized for not being there sooner and explained that she had been on her break. I told her I was interested in finding a new eye cream to wear under makeup.
“Well, um,” she said. “We have these three eye creams.”
I examined the sophisticated little white bottles with gold trim while she stood there in silence, resting her elbows on the counter and staring into space.
“What eye cream would you suggest for my skin type?” I asked. I felt rude, as if I were disturbing her.
“Well, what type of skin do you have?” she asked.
I told her that I thought my skin was dry. She didn’t agree with my personal diagnosis. My skin looked dehydrated but not dry, she corrected. She then began to remind me of the glories of drinking lots of water and geared me toward products for “normal” skin.
But then something happened. She saw me glance over at their new body toning products. Instantly she came alive.
“Have you ever tried any of these?” she asked, with enthusiasm. I explained that I was unfamiliar with this type of product, but that they sounded interesting. With newfound energy, she began to explain the virtues of Clarins’ different body toning products, which she claimed would “smooth out sponginess” and “contour” my body.
When she enticed me to finally pick up a large tube of an anti-cellulite treatment, she practically squealed with excitement and notified me that this was her favorite beauty aid. Her enthusiasm made me listen intently to her scientific explanation.
She dabbed a little of the clear product, called Firming Fitness Gel, on my hand, explaining that the little red and blue dots suspended in the gel were fruit acid and witch hazel extracts, which help in breaking up that “spongy” skin nobody likes. She explained that I should rub the gel on my “problem areas” when I work out, so not only would I be working on my body from the inside, but from the outside as well.
“You’ll feel the skin tighten instantly under the gel, and then you’ll really know it’s working,” she said triumphantly. Because of the saleswoman’s contagious enthusiasm, I made what for me is an unusual purchase: I bought the $40 anti-cellulite gel instead of the $20 wrinkle cream I was hoping to find.
The clinical-looking bottle made me feel as if I had made a smart purchase. Clarins claims that if used properly, the product will reduce the appearance of cellulite by about 11 percent. If that’s the case, I’ll definitely be back for more. I am, of course, still looking for my miracle, under-eye wrinkle cream.
I’m glad Texas winters are short, because my face couldn’t take it much longer. Cold, bitter winds, fresh and frisky from the West Texas prairies, and incessant blasts of dry air pumped from office and home air-conditioners annually conspire to crack, flake and dehydrate my already sensitive skin.
Unless I use a moisturizer, my face will start to resemble an ancient and fragile Roman tile mosaic, perilously close to shattering from a riotous laugh or overly weary yawn.
I decided it might be time to pick up the pieces when I got the assignment to check out Clarins skin care. I headed for Neiman Marcus at NorthPark Center here, where a scant stream of after-work shoppers sniffed the latest fragrances and pondered early spring apparel.
The Clarins counter stood polished and devoid of shoppers as I eyed it in the distance. But the smiling saleswoman behind the counter beckoned me to be the next customer.
“I don’t have much time, but I’m here to see what you’d recommend for dry and sensitive skin,” I added after saying hello. “My skin is on the verge of cracking, but moisturizers tend to cause breakouts. And shaving isn’t making matters any easier.”
“Clarins could be for you,” she said, segueing into her pitch as she picked up a bottle of Gentle Day Cream, $36.
“It’s formulated with hazelnut and licorice and is pH-balanced,” she explained and opened the bottle. It smelled good and felt good on my cheek — and fingertips, too.
“If you need more intensive help, there’s also Multiactive Day Cream for Lines and Wrinkles,” she offered.
“But will either cause breakouts?” I asked. “It’s amazing how quickly my pores get clogged by moisturizers. That’s why I tend just to tough it out until spring when the moisture returns to my face.”
“Clarins is very gentle and doesn’t cause acne,” she said. “But I understand what you’re describing. Men already have larger pores, and when you put anything on your face, it goes into those pores. A bad beauty product will not allow those pores to breathe.”
She recommended Clarins Gentle Night Cream, $46, explaining that dry central air-conditioning does the most damage at night when one is asleep or not leaving the house for a long period.
She gave my face close scrutiny while discussing the Texas weather and her love of summer.
“Have you noticed your eyelids and the skin around your eyes pulling or being very dry?” she asked.
Of course I had noticed this problem, and smiled to show her the crow’s feet around my eyes.
“Clarins makes excellent products for the eyes — a balm and a gel,” she explained. “The gel fights puffiness, and the balm is for lines.”
I’ve noticed that my face is driest immediately after I wash it. Soaps tend to strip away moisture and cause redness.
The sales associate recommended Clarin’s Gentle Cleansing Lotion, $24, followed by Tonique For Dry Skin, $20.50.
“Clarins is a botanical line and is very caressing and gentle on the skin,” she said. “It’s perfect for men, who in essence exfoliate every time they shave. I hope you’ll consider trying some products — if not now maybe in the next few days.”
Now that’s a low-pressure sales pitch, just what it would take to entice my business, should I ever decide to invest in a regime.
I set out to the Clarins counter in Macy’s at Lenox Mall, prepared to hear the usual ho-hum makeup spiel. But as I waited patiently at the counter for someone to take notice, I began wondering if I had just become transparent.
Finally, a Clarins salesperson who was coming back from a lunch break quickly noticed me and immediately made herself available. With a smile she asked, “Has anyone helped you?”
Next, she asked if there was something in particular she could help me with today. The true test was about to come. I told her that I was interested in a new skin care routine and wanted to see what Clarins had to offer.
I was surprised and relieved when the saleswoman saved the sales pitch and seemed genuinely interested in my needs as she listened carefully to my skin care dilemma.
She began by asking me some basic questions so she could get an idea of my skin type and problem areas. Before I knew it, she was relating to my dry skin problem and began telling me how to combat dry winter skin.
She started by applying Cleansing Milk. After rubbing it in on my hand, I have to say I was really getting hooked on their product line. The milk smelled so good, I became curious as to what was in it.
“All of our products are made with natural plant extracts, which gives the product a natural scent,” she said. Once she had my approval, she arranged about six or seven bottles and tubes of various sizes in front of me and began telling me about the next step.
Although the lineup of products was a bit intimidating, she assured me she would outline an easy routine that would quickly ease my self-doubts.
“I was just a soap-and-water girl myself. It took me a little while to get into a routine, but now I love it,” she said.
With dry skin constantly plaguing my pores, I was reluctant when she introduced the Toning Lotion, a $13 purchase. The saleswoman explained the lotion contained moisturizing plant extracts so mild it could be used anytime you wanted to refresh the skin.
One of the most impressive products was next: Multi-Active Day Cream, $28. After years of drenching various lotions on my face with only some degree of satisfaction, I can honestly say I’ve now found a product I can live with.
The saleswoman explained the many advantages of daily usage, adding, “It’s especially great to use in cold weather to protect your face from moisture loss and wind damage when so many people go snow skiing.”
She must have been reading my mind, because my skiing trip was scheduled for the next week.
Although it was a little pricy for a moisturizer, I could feel the results when she rubbed some in on my hand. A nice healthy glow began to replace the small white scales that had made their unwelcome appearance at the beginning of winter.
The saleswoman then told me that Clarins would keep me on file, so in case anyone wanted to make a purchase for me, they would know which products I used and when I purchased them last.
I left feeling very good about Clarins because not only did they carry a great line, the saleswoman gave me personal attention. As I left with my Cleansing Milk and Toning Lotion, the only two products I could afford right then, she invited me to come get a Clarins makeover that would be taking place the next month. She also gave me some samples of the other products I liked.
Unfortunately, when I walked across the mall to Neiman Marcus, the Clarins counter did not impress me. First, I waited about 10 minutes before anyone even noticed me. When the person down the counter looked up, she acted as if it were a chore to walk over and greet me.
Matters got even worse once she discovered I was interested in Clarins instead of the line she wanted to sell. “I’m sorry, Clarins skin care specialist is off today,” she said. “Is there a particular product you wanted to purchase?”
Seeing that I didn’t have a specific request, she told me she really didn’t know that much about the Clarins line and someone would be back tomorrow.
After looking at a few colors of eye shadows, my curiosity sparked again. I thought I would try my luck at one more question. “Could you give me a price listing?” I inquired. “I’m sorry, I really don’t know, unless you would like me to look up a particular item,” she said.
After struggling back and forth, I did manage to get some prices of key items. Although I was disappointed with my Clarins experience at Neiman Marcus, I was still very happy with my previous Clarins purchases from Macy’s.
“Mary, how about a makeover?” I said tactlessly to a friend over the phone. Choosing to ignore any boorish undercurrents, she agreed that after a long winter, a little self-improvement was in order. So, off we went to the Clarins counter at Marshall Field’s State Street store.
The Clarins area is located against the back wall of the department and underneath a stairway landing. It looks better than it sounds. The back wall and the overhang from the landing give the space an intimate, boutique-like feel.
From behind the counter, the saleswoman — who had a flawless complexion — greeted us immediately and asked how she could be of assistance. Mary said she had seen an advertisement for Clarins in a magazine and wanted to check the line out.
The saleswoman sprang into action and asked what kind of skin Mary had. When the response was “dry,” she brought out four products: Cleansing Milk with Alpine Herbs, Toning Lotion, Multi Active Day Cream and Multi Active Night Lotion.
“These are the basics,” she began. “You should use them every day.”
Sheexplained that the first two are the foundation of a good treatment regimen and that the cleansing milk cleans without drying the skin, while the toning lotion both moisturizes and softens the skin.
When asked the difference between the day cream and the night lotion, she said that it had to do with the way they interacted with light. “One works better in the daytime,” she said.
At this point, she took a hard look at Mary and asked if she had a problem with “breaking out.” Mary said “sometimes,” and the saleswoman explained that lack of moisture can cause irritation, which can lead to eruptions. “The day and night cream will help that,” she added.
She also asked if Mary needed something for dark circles and puffiness around the eyes. Mary said, “Yes, a long rest.” But if there were a product that could do the job, bring it out.
The saleswoman then produced a tube of Eye Contour Gel and applied some to the area around Mary’s eyes. “You will be able to see the results from this almost instantly,” she said.
Overall, she did a convincing job. She did not try to force a sale, but she did suggest a multitude of products with a total retail price of about $150. At one point, she was called away to deal with another customer, but she soon returned and spent upwards of 15 minutes explaining the Clarins way of life. She also offered herself as an example and said that her own terrific complexion was a result of the products.
When Mary finally said she needed time to think about it, she gave us samples of the cleansing milk, toning lotion, day cream and night lotion. Her manner throughout was friendly and eager to help.
Probably the ultimate accolade, however, was that later, over lunch, Mary confessed that she was sold. “I believed her. She seemed to know what she was talking about. If these samples work out, they’ve got a new customer.”
As workmen repaired Oxford Street in front of Selfridges, I wondered if the Clarins counter inside could do the same for my skin.
My cab dropped me in a side street next to the department store because of the roadwork. I had to weave my way through the appetizing smells of the food halls to the fragrant cosmetics department, where I had no problem finding the Clarins counter.
Three assistants were huddled together in deep discussion. I thought it would take ages until I was noticed, but I was pleasantly surprised: One of the assistants turned to me almost immediately.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said brightly. “We were just comparing stomachs. Can I help you?” Although initially taken aback at this rather unusual greeting, it put me at ease. The assistant was a human being and not one of those painted robots you so often come across at cosmetics counters.
I explained to her that as spring was on the way, it was time for a new skin care program and a deep-down cleanse. The assistant nodded and joined me on the shop floor in front of the counter.
This action appealed to me and made me feel more relaxed. It meant she didn’t have to peer round a display to show me the products and could talk to me face-to-face.
“How would you describe your skin?” she asked. I told her it was both dry and oily. “If you get the typical oily T-zone, you need these products,” she said, choosing the Cleansing Milk with gentiane for combination and oily skin at $22 (14 pounds) and the green Toning Lotion for combination and oily skin at $21 (13.50 pounds).
Then, using her hands to pat and smooth her face she showed me how to apply the cleanser and toner — but without actually using either product, which I found peculiar.
“You use your fingertips like suction pads to apply the cleanser to dislodge the impurities in the skin, but you must wipe off any excess cleanser, to remove dirt, makeup and sebum before applying the toner with a cotton pad,” she said. “Always pat the toner dry after use.”
I’d never heard of doing this, and the assistant kept emphasizing the point throughout the whole of my visit. She told me if the toner wasn’t dried with a tissue or something similar, it would dry forcibly and would pull the natural moisturizers out of my skin.
She also warned me against using water on my face. “Water also dries forcibly and draws out your skin’s natural moisture. Especially London water, because of all the chemicals,” she explained.
I was getting slightly concerned about my skin shriveling up like a prune if I didn’t do things properly. I inquired about moisturizers.
“Each morning, you use the Multi-Active Day Cream, which costs 24 pounds [$38] for a 50-ml. jar,” the assistant said, rubbing the cream onto the back of my hand as she told me about the various sunscreens and anti-free-radical agents it contained.
In the same way, she showed me the Multi-Active Night Cream for combination skin and explained it was important not to use a day cream at night and vice-versa, because the skin needs different treatments at different times.
The assistant was natural in her attitude and refreshingly unpatronizing when describing the products, although I wondered why she had shown me the moisturizers and not the cleanser and toner.
Looking at the customer sales card the assistant filled in, I noticed she had marked the Gentle Exfoliating Refiner and Purifying Mask and was reminded of my “deep-down cleansing” request. I asked her about it.
“Most people with slightly oily skin believe if they use an exfoliator often, it’ll clear their skin up,” she said. “In fact, exfoliating actually encourages the skin to produce more natural oils.
“If you have combination skin, you should exfoliate only once a week. If you have drier skin, you can exfoliate more often,” she explained, without pressuring me to buy the product.
So, although I’d requested a deep-down cleansing program, which I thought would entail vigorous buffing and rubbing, the assistant seemed to have ascertained my skin needed to be treated gently rather than rigorously.
Her description of the products and methods to be used made me realize that not only had I been too tough on my skin, but I hadn’t understood its needs.
For the first time, I’d succumbed to a sales pitch. But even though I’d bought something, I’d never felt forced. Happily sauntering outside, I noticed the workers were still repairing Oxford Street — but without the t.l.c. I’d been advised to use for my skin.