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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.