Don’t Fear the Counter: A Cosmetics Department Exposé

This post has been percolating ever since I became a Lady in Black, Keeper of the Creams, Defender of the Glass Case. I won’t name names, but I used to work for one of the big, fancy department stores as the counter manager for one of my favorite cosmetics lines. Now, I had already worked at the biggest Sephoras in two major cities (San Francisco and Chicago, respectively), but this? This was an entirely different beast.

The Clients

They were the lonely. Drifting between the aisles. Coiffed hair, impeccable handbag, nails meticulously looked after. Couldn’t possibly have a job; all they did was bother the department store salespeople all day. You learned their names, their spending habits. Despite talk of summer homes and a preference for Chanel, they rarely bought. No, they just wanted to talk, to feel listened to. “Is this my color? Do you have anything more mauve-y? No, not mauve-y, pink. No, not pink, but not, like, purple, you know? Or do I mean mauve after all?” Exhausting. A Sondheim musical could have been written about these women. Ladies who lunch.

I hope she disinfected that first.

Then there were the teenagers. Poor lost souls with acne, barely able to squeak out a “No, thank you,” in response to an offer of help. Grubby hands in the testers, spraying each other with perfume and giggles. When prom season came they were shoved into our makeup chairs in droves by inattentive parents. We were gum-snappingly told, “I want to look like Beyonce in that video, you know?” We knew. Both parties knew the depths of that impossibility, but we each politely engaged in the fantasy that such a thing were possible. The social contract. “No problem.” When the makeover was done, they thanked us and scooted off. Nobody taught them the manners of the makeup counter: you waste hours of someone’s time as they strain to conceal your pimples, you must contribute to their sales goal.

Finally, the sample-grubbers. No particular social standing; the well-dressed indulged as often as the bag ladies. They were only after one thing: free. Some of them asked for recommendations and pretended to listen to our prescriptions; eyes glazing over as they waited for us to stop so they could blurt, “So can I get a sample?” Some dispensed with pretense altogether, cruising by the counter with a hasty, “Do you have any samples?” They were the worst. Samples aren’t meant to just be indiscriminate free gifts, they’re meant for you to try a particular product before you buy it. We would shove the bottom-of-the-drawer samples into their greedy hands, hoping to be rid of these scavengers. Sometimes they would turn their noses down at the choices. “No, I don’t want this.” The logic, the entitlement of some people. It was a pleasure to tell them no. You will take it and you will like it.

The Rules

The dirty not-so-secret of department store counters? Sales goals. Commission. The whole system is kind of barbaric and backward, though it has its place (coughcapitalismcough). If you’re looking for a new foundation (or anything else), salespeople can be invaluable. The good news is that they usually rep for one particular brand, so their knowledge of the range of products and ingredients are thorough. The bad news is that they usually rep for one particular brand, so they may or may not have as thorough an understanding of another brand you might like to try. More than that — they might not want to sell it to you, even if it’s the superior product. Each counter (and by extension, each salesperson) has a predetermined sales goal that’s based on the counter sales from the previous year. The system works to an extent — the sales around the holidays are always higher, and there’s always the post-holiday wasteland of returns. But what about the random day some charge-happy customer decided to have a shopping spree? Should a salesperson be penalized for not being able to duplicate that on the same day next year? Of course not. But they are.

The battlefield.

If a salesperson doesn’t make their goal, they will get chewed out by their superiors., sometimes at the top of every hour. We were frequently chased around by our department managers, admonished if we lingered for a moment, stopped to exchange pleasantries with a coworker, read the back of a product box. “Sell, sell, sell,” went the refrain, as if we didn’t know. The frequent whispered joke behind a departing back, “Oh, is that what we’re here for? I HAD NO IDEA.”

In my opinion the whole department store experience is kind of broken, which is why I mostly shop at Sephora. However, if you need a little more hand-holding, department stores are great for that, and some of the most talented artists and friendliest salespeople I know work at department stores.

How to Get What You Want

Establish what you’re going in for, first off. Is it to explore new stuff from your favorite brand? Get matched for your perfect foundation shade? Learn about the latest skincare? Or maybe you just want to replenish the stuff you’ve run out of. It’s helpful to know this before you walk in so you can more effectively communicate your objective with the salesperson. This ensures that neither of you wastes your time.

Good ways to express these to salespeople: “Thanks, but I’m just playing around for now. I’ll let you know if I have any questions.” “I just need to grab a couple of my staples real quick. Here’s what I need: […]” “Can you tell me about [product I saw in a magazine/on TV/etc.]?” “I came back from vacation with a tan and was hoping you could do a foundation match for me.”

Now, if a salesperson at a department store spends time with you, you should be sensitive to that. Obviously you’re never obligated to purchase something you don’t want/need, but don’t waste their time if you’re not intending to buy. If you’re just going in to look at shades in real life before you buy them online (huge pet peeve of the department store salesperson), you need to communicate this to them so they will leave you to your own devices.  You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and take up a table ordering waters for hours, would you (WOULD YOU)? Then don’t do the same with a counter person.

“Sure you can try that on, but you’ll have to answer three riddles first.”

And if they spend a lot of time with you and you absolutely don’t find what you need, don’t let them bully you into a purchase. You need to thank them for their time, ask for their name or get their business card ,and (if they’ve been helpful and you like them, of course) tell them that you’ll come back to them when you need help next time. Don’t feel bad about not spending money if you both tried to find something and couldn’t. It happens. Just be sensitive to the fact that they spent time with you that could have been spent on a paying customer.

Samples

Don’t just go to a counter because you want free stuff. If you’re just trolling for free samples, sign up for Birchbox or Beauty Army or Beauty Bar’s Sample Society. For $10-15 a month, they’ll send you deluxe samples in the mail. It’s not exactly free, but it’s cheap and fun and a great way to try things you might not otherwise have picked out (I’ll be doing a comparison post on these services in the next month or so). Plus, you don’t have to look like the asshole who’s just trying to hoard free shit.

However, it’s perfectly legitimate to want to try things before you buy them. This way you can make sure a product works for you and that you don’t have an allergic reaction to it. So if you have a specific product in mind, you can express this to the salesperson. “I’m looking to get matched for a foundation and take home a couple of samples so I can figure out which one I like best,” is a good starting place. That way everyone’s expectations are on the same page, and the salesperson can show you a few different foundations without doing a long, involved application/demonstration process. They will give you their name or their card, and you should come back to that salesperson if you end up wanting to purchase one of those products. If you can’t find that salesperson on the day you come back for it, don’t sweat it. It’s just polite to purchase from them if you possibly can.

Makeovers

The idea behind this service is that you can try new products and learn tips and tricks from a makeup artist. It is not offered so that you can get your face done before a big date or a wedding because you are too lazy or unskilled. This is still an ostensibly acceptable reason to make an appointment with a counter for a makeover, but it’s expected that you will also be prepared to buy the products that you love. You should expect to buy 2-3 items minimum.

Hey, that’s me! (c) Elena Graham Photography

You can think of not purchasing after a makeover like going to a fancy restaurant and not tipping. Nobody is going to chase after you screaming about the check, but it’s a little worse than impolite. Don’t be a dickhead. If you’re not willing to drop money, ask a skilled friend to do your makeup instead.

In Conclusion

All this may sound daunting, but the gist is simple: just be a good person. Respect other people’s time. Resist the urge to treat retail employees like your personal slaves. Communicate your objectives clearly and politely, and don’t let anyone push you around. If you just follow those guidelines, you’ll have a ball at the makeup counter, walk away with some great stuff, and nobody will talk about how awful you are behind your back.

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Color Wars: Finding Your Shade

From Rose:

I would love to see a post about how to find the right shade of makeup- I swear I’ve bought eight red lipsticks that I thought would look good and when I got them home realized I looked terrible in it.

I don’t subscribe to any hard and fast rules about this, myself. Some people will tell you “Oh, you’re an autumn, only wear warm colors,” or “If silver looks best on you, you should only be looking for cool tones,” but I don’t buy that stuff. You may find that you’re drawn to one color family or another, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear whatever you want. There’s another theory that you should go with your natural lip tone, but a few shades darker (Bobbi Brown is a big proponent of this theory). That’ll rarely steer you wrong, and is a great rule of thumb for interview makeup, impress-a-guy-on-the-beach makeup, and omg-she’s-totally-born-with-it makeup, but who wants to look natural all the time? Red lipstick is a powerhouse makeup decision and a birthright. Every woman should have a go-to red lipstick in her makeup drawer that she can swipe on when she’s feeling blah or femme fatale. The one one-size-fits-all tip I’ll throw out on red lipstick? Try MAC Russian Red. I’ve yet to see it look bad on someone.

I’ll admit it: a great deal of my BtVS-watching involved silent praise of SMG’s makeup artist.

And side note: I will wear any lip color. I am a total undiscriminating cosmetics slut and have absolutely no shame — and I think a lot of makeup-obsessed women are like this. It’s as if pretty, natural shades are our gateway drug and we start only being able to get high by upping the craziness factor on our shadows and lipsticks from time to time. So yeah, give me a Barbie pink gloss and I’ll sport it for a while. Vampy dark purple? Shit, I’ll try it. The only color family I avoid like the plague is nudes. I think it makes pretty much everyone look dead. Seriously, if you ever see me wearing it, I probably am; and depending on my state of consciousness you should either call 911 or Buffy Summers.

So unfortunately, since there are no hard and fast rules, there is no magic equation that will work for all women. What I can give you are tips for finding it on your own.

As always, you can shop at drugstores or you can shop at more high-end stores like Sephora or a beauty counter. The benefit of a drugstore is that lipstick is cheap and you can buy a couple and not feel the sting quite as badly. The benefit of shopping at the latter is that you can try them on and take them back if you change your mind.

Start with the swatch test: pick out some colors that you’re drawn to. Nine times out of ten you’ll be drawn to the colors you look best in. If you’re not, you just need more practice (and like I keep saying, that’s what makeup is all about). Swipe ’em on your hand, pay attention to the undertones and what you like about each. When you find two or three you’d like to try on, you can ask the person behind the counter to disinfect them for you, or do it yourself (Sephora has stations on each end-cap for just this purpose). You’ll need to spray a generous amount of alcohol into a tissue and wipe — really get at that sucker — then shave a little bit off the top with a Q-tip before applying. Do NOT apply without doing this — it’s unhygienic and everyone will look at you like you were raised in a barn.

All these shades were in my purse. Sad or AWESOME?

If you’re unsure about the color you like, walk around the mall with it for a while. Get comfortable. See how it wears. See how you like the formula.

Finally, if you do get it home and you change your mind after wearing it for a few days, you have a couple of options. You can blend it with colors you already have to get the perfect shade (I always have a neutral lipstick, brownish lip-liner, and a few bright colors on hand for this reason). Jean Godfrey-June, beauty editor at Lucky Magazine, says that a universal beauty truth is that “Any two random lipsticks you’ve ever bought – any – when combined, will always be flattering, no matter what your skin tone.” Go ahead and try — it’s pretty much foolproof. I know you want to find your lipstick holy grail. We all do. But sometimes life isn’t perfect, and you have to work with the universe to get what you want (pretty deep for a makeup blog, huh?).

If you still can’t stomach it, take it back. Sephora and almost any department store will exchange your product for you, even if you’ve already used it — and if you’re feeling truly hopeless, their salespeople will help you find a better shade. I’ll be honest — helping someone pick out a lipstick shade is only slightly above watching paint dry for any salesperson (seriously, there’s only so much “I want a red, but not too red. Kind of brownish, but not like a woody color, something more, I don’t know, pink? No, not pink…” one person can take), so use this option as a last resort. You should be able to figure this one out on your own.

The Tomboy’s Guide to Cosmetics

Today’s post was inspired by the text message I woke up to this morning.

She knows me well: flattery will get you everywhere.

Anna is one of my dearest friends. She’s in her second year of med school and barely has time to brush her hair, so we’re gonna make this simple. It seems that for all her intellect and talents, nobody ever taught Anna how to be “a girl” (in the colloquial sense; leaving aside the fact that there are hundreds of ways to be a girl and no one way is better than another). She texted me the other day about sunscreen.

“What’s your skin type?” I asked. “Uh. Hapa [mixed race]?” she replied. Adorable. Finally something I can teach her.

So, this is for all the Annas out there (including the original one). Oh! And get ready, because another not-so-makeup-savvy friend of mine has requested that I take her shopping for a complete makeup wardrobe, and I’m roping my fantastic photographer friend into documenting the excursion. It’s going to be like Christmas. Stores will be pillaged. Faces will be painted. Wallets will be emptied. Coming soon to a web browser near you.

Your skin is your canvas

Okay, so the biggest beauty tip I can give you is TAKE CARE OF YOUR SKIN. Your skin is your canvas. A beautiful painting on a lumpy, discolored canvas will not be nearly as beautiful as one on a smooth, even-colored one. Obviously there are ways to cheat this system, and they involve primers, foundation, and concealer (I’m happy to do a post on these if the consensus is that one is necessary). But the best thing you can do for your appearance is as simple as taking care of your skin. You need a cleanser and a moisturizer. Don’t argue with me, you do. And Anna? Soap is not a cleanser.

As previously mentioned, I like Philosophy’s Purity because it’s gentle and is a good multitasker: it cleanses, tones, and removes eye makeup. You can get a small bottle for $10 at Sephora/Nordstrom/Bloomingdale’s etc. if you want to try it before you commit to a larger bottle. For those of you who are new to the cosmetics game, multitasking products are going to be your best friend: wallet-friendly, simple, and no-nonsense. If you’re shopping in Walgreens or Target, look for a product that does all of these things. It’s all about checking the labels.

It’s good to have some exfoliator on hand to slough off dead skin cells 2-3 times a week. St. Ives Invigorating Apricot Scrub is a classic for a reason (and at $3, it doesn’t hurt to toss into your cart). Make sure you rub it into your skin very gently, as the grains are large. I’d recommend having both a cleanser and an exfoliator, but if you’re only going to buy one, make it the cleanser, and exfoliate in the shower with a washcloth.

Okay, next thing you need is a moisturizer. The mistake a lot of women make is thinking that because their skin is oily, they don’t need a moisturizer. WRONG. If you under-hydrate your skin, your glands will try to compensate by creating excess sebum, which means MORE OIL. Keep everything balanced by applying an oil-free moisturizer after cleansing in the morning and after cleansing right before bed (yes, you need to do both). If you’re on the dry side, you want your moisturizer to be hydrating (packages with anti-wrinkle claims will be heavier and more moisturizing).

Where should you find this moisturizer? The drugstore can be daunting — all that bright packaging, all those grandiose claims … just keep in mind what you want out of your product. Are you worried about wrinkles and fine lines? Spots? Balancing your complexion? Brightening? The package will tell you what the product is meant for (duh).

Honestly, though — and this is not me being a snob — you really should go to a department store or Sephora. The staff are trained in the products and in basic skincare knowledge, and they will be able to make sense of your babble — they decipher this stuff all day. As I mentioned, I have a post on how to deal with shopping at department store counters percolating, but here’s the gist: tell the salesperson up front that you’re new to this stuff and you need to try a few different samples to decide what you want to invest your money in. And make no mistake, moisturizer is an investment. If you find one that your skin loves, it’s absolutely worth it to shell out a few more bucks — after all, cheesy as it sounds, you’re investing in your future skin. And if you’re using it correctly, a jar or bottle should last you 3-6 months, depending on the quantity and the product.

She may have terrible taste in eyeshadow, but she knows what she’s talking about.

So make sure you impress upon the salesperson that you need to try a few different kinds before you buy. He or she will want you to buy something that day — they have a quota to fill, after all — but if you explain that you need to try a few kinds first, any good salesperson will understand and be happy to help you find something you love. If they’re not, find someone else. Sephora is especially great for this kind of thing, since “cast members” (that’s what they’re called, I kid you not) don’t take commission and aren’t shilling for any particular brand. Sephora employees get gratis (free stuff) after every training, so they’ve usually tried the products they’re recommending and know the science behind them.

3-6 samples should be plenty (don’t be greedy, it’s not cute), and you should try each sample for several days (as long as the sample lasts you) before switching to the next. Pay attention to how your skin feels immediately after putting it on as well as how it looks and feels when you wake up in the morning.

The fun stuff: Face

So you’re naturally pretty, but you want to look a bit more polished. Well, guuuuurl, you’re gonna love tinted moisturizer. Remember how I talked about multitasking products before? This is the mother of all multitaskers. Moisturizer, sunscreen, and a hint of tint to even out your complexion, all in one product. When you wear this during the day, you can skip that awesome moisturizer you bought earlier and save it for nighttime (cell turnover naturally occurs at night, which massively increases the effectiveness of whatever you put on your skin. Save the heavyweight repairing stuff for nighttime, and focus on protection during the day).

You might encounter a product called BB Cream, which purports to be all of those things plus various treatments. So far I haven’t found a BB Cream that I like — the one-size-fits-all (or -many) tends to look kind of grayish on many skin tones. I’d stick with tinted moisturizer.

Some great tinted moisturizers are Laura Mercier (cult favorite for a reason and comes in different formulas for different skin types — and by the way, it’s pronounced “MERSE-ee-ay”. Now you won’t sound stupid when you ask for it), Jouer (this what I use currently  — lightweight with the tiniest hint of illumination), Smashbox (packed with good-for-you skin ingredients like green tea and peptides). This is another product that department stores and Sephora will excel at helping you pick out, although the nice thing about tinted moisturizers is that picking out a shade is a lot easier — there isn’t as much pigment so you don’t have to worry about finding an exact match like you do with foundation. If you’re torn between shades, I always go with the lighter shade, because you can always brush on some bronzer, but it’s almost impossible to lighten a too-dark mask.

What’s bronzer, you ask? This stuff will give you some polish and glow without the potential for the made-up look that blush can sometimes have. Benefit Hoola is my favorite for its fine texture and natural (matte) look, but you don’t need to be too picky with bronzer- the drugstore kind will work just fine. Use a light hand and apply with a brush (fan brushes give a nice sheer coverage, but you can use pretty much any kind as long as you’re sparing) to the areas of your face that the sun would hit (forehead, nose, cheekbones, a tiny bit on the chin). You can also brush it over your collarbone and shoulders for a nice sun-kissed glow. For a natural look, use a matte powder. For more drama, you can experiment with shimmery shades. Make sure that it’s blended well before leaving the house (this goes for everything you put on your face, by the way).

Eyes

Something like this.

If you use only one eye product, make it mascara. Brown mascara is okay if you want a super super natural look, but most people look best in black. Now the deal with mascara is that it’s 30% formula and 70% wand style. I’ve found that the easiest, least clumpy wand style is a plastic wand with little nubby prickles all over it (Oh dear. Now this sounds like an entirely different type of blog).

My favorite mascara on the planet is Chanel Inimitable Intense ($30), because it has that clump-free wand and a thick formula that’s easy to build upon. Unfortunately, it’s also thirty freaking dollars, and mascara needs to be replaced every three months minimum (I’m serious about this, Anna). A similar, almost-as-good-but-more-natural drugstore version is Maybelline Define-a-Lash ($7).

It’s easiest to apply mascara in a hand-held mirror so you can really see what you’re doing. Hold it slightly low so you can look down at it while you’re applying. Make sure you get the brush right in close at the roots of your lashes and wiggle as you comb through to the ends (mouth open optional, but likely). Let it dry for a few seconds and then apply as many coats as you like until you get the drama you’re looking for. Don’t let it dry completely between coats. If it gets clumpy, you can comb through with a lash comb (I like the ones with metal prongs for more precision) or a clean mascara wand.

If you want a little more oomph, smudge a bit of liner into your lashline to make your lashes look thicker (brown, black, or gray will look the most natural). Pencil is easier and more forgiving, liquid liner is more dramatic and precise (you’ll need to practice). Again, all about blending. If you want it to look natural, don’t leave any hard lines. Blend with your finger, a short-bristled shadow brush, or a Q-tip.

This could happen to you!

Oh! And the easiest way to make your whole face look polished is to get your brows done. Use Yelp to find a good salon near you, or ask your friends with great brows (bonus: if they do their own, they might offer to do yours). It’s a simple, one-step way to frame your whole face. Trust me on this one. And be wary of doing it yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing— brows are easy to screw up, and while brow pencils and brow shadows can help disguise fuckups, they’re slightly more advanced as far as doing your own makeup goes. Don’t be a hero.

Lips

My longest-standing love affair.

Lips are really where you can let loose and get creative. It’s all about the type of look you want and the finish that feels best to you. Some people feel like gloss is too sticky (and if you’re a self-professed tomboy, this is probably you), and others feel like lipstick can be too dry. If you’re new to wearing stuff on your lips, a tinted lip balm is a nice place to start. Try a brown-based shade one or two tones darker than your lips for the most natural look. Some good ones: Burt’s Bees ($7), Tarte ($24), and the classic Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker($2 — I swear every makeup-obsessed girl either has this in her bag currently or started with it in junior high). If you want to play around with glosses or lipsticks, head into a Sephora or department store, tell them “Thanks, but I’m just checking out some shades,” when they ask if you need help, and draw all over your hand and hold it up to your face. It’s not a perfect way to find out what will look best, but you’ll get a feel for the texture, and it’s much more hygienic than putting it on your face. Bonus: Most department stores and Sephora will let you exchange any products you’re not stoked about (even if you’ve lost the receipt). Don’t abuse it, but don’t hang on to a product you paid good money for and don’t love.

In conclusion

This whole process from cleansing to finishing touches shouldn’t take you more than ten minutes once you get it down. And like I always say, makeup should be fun. There’s no need to be intimidated; it’s not rocket science. Utilize salespeople, they’re there to help you (and don’t be bullied into buying something you don’t want to buy — like I said before, a good salesperson wants to help you find something you love). Play around, make mistakes, have fun with it — it washes off. The sooner you stop thinking of makeup as something you “don’t know how to do” and start thinking of it as a fun tool you can mess around with and whip out when you feel like it, the better. Makeup is like any other skill: you won’t know how to do it until you dive in and get your hands dirty.