Beauty A.D.D.: Losing Focus in the Department Store

On a Monday evening this past September, I had a bit of time to kill before a press event celebrating the launch of Dr. Fredric Brandt’s new radio show on Sirius XM. And because I’m beauty-obsessed (both personally and professionally), I decided to scoot into Macy’s Herald Square for a quick lap around the beauty department before heading uptown to pay my respects to “The Baron of Botox.”

Who knows, I thought, maybe I’ll treat myself to a little something.

But within seconds of hitting the main floor, I felt overwhelmed, my head swiveling back and forth à la Linda Blair in The Exorcist, between the Marc Jacobs handbags, the tantalizing costume jewelry, the miracle crèmes and the perfumes. Upping the A.D.D. ante? Karl Lagerfeld opining from a video monitor plunked in the middle of the aisle separating the bags from the beauty. In the endless loop, the German design god riffed on his much buzzed-about eponymous collection for Macy’s, a few items of which were also on display, mere feet from the $25 prestige mascara.

I get it – the first floor of most department stores is all about excitement. But at what point does all that hoopla tip over into my becoming so wired that I can’t simmer down long enough to whip out my credit card? And if I do somehow manage to focus, why tempt me with purses and earrings, or possibly send me to a higher floor to check out the rest of the Lagerfeld goodies?

In theory, I am the ideal department store beauty consumer. I’m in the sweet spot of the Boomer cohort, which means I’ve got some solid aging-skin concerns, and that despite the dismal economy, my household income is such that I don’t have to sweat the (more than) occasional cosmetics splurge.

So why did this admitted beauty junkie drag herself away from Kaiser Karl and, despite the numerous de-wrinklers on offer, flee – empty-handed – one of the most beloved department stores in the world?

According to shopping-behavior guru Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, I’m an anomaly. She and her team recently fielded a study in which female participants rated a number of different types of beauty departments, and, “…across the board, department stores come up at the top of the list.”

And while I might feel frenetic when confronted with all that choice, evidently other shoppers my age not only enjoy a staggering array of makeup and skincare options, they won’t have it any other way. “What we know is that older women very much demand a wider selection of products,” says Corlett. “Even if they say, ‘There’s too much to choose from, I don’t know what to buy,’ the worst thing a retailer can do is to translate that into giving them less selection.”

Another personal pet peeve of mine, excessive and excessively early holiday promotion, is not also not shared by the masses. When I tell Corlett how put off I was when I saw full-tilt Christmas decorations in a department store on October 1, she again pointed out how I am not in the norm. “As baffling as it is anecdotally,” she says, “our numbers indicate that shoppers are primed and pumped and ready to start their holiday shopping in October.”

At least Corlett sees my point about the siren call of handbags, jewels and other merchandise shamelessly vying for my beauty dollar. “The first floor always houses the most tempting things – the easiest items to just swipe your card and go,” she notes. “I don’t think retailers think in terms of share of wallet. They think about which brands should be showcased up front or toward the back. But they don’t think about it the way a shopper thinks about it, which is. ‘I have a $150. That’s half of the purchase of a new bag, or a great night crème.’ It’s like they’ve put all the most tempting products together so they can compete against each other.”

Sensing a window of opportunity, I went looking for even more support for my “cosmetics department A.D.D. theory.” I figured that if I felt more comfortable – and credit card-happy – in venues that were more beauty-specific, surely other women must be too. Right?

Yes and no, says Karen Doskow, Industry Manager, Consumer Products for Kline & Co., which recently unveiled its “Beauty Retailing United States 2010” study. Is there a drift away from department stores? Without question, she says. Are those same consumers automatically migrating to Sephora, or smaller beauty specialty retailers like Space NK or Blue Mercury? Not lock, stock and barrel. Although specialty store beauty sales are indeed up, the real growth is in what Doskow deems “alternate channels.”

Chief among those is the Internet, which has experienced annual sales growth of 26% for the past five years. Doskow is so bullish on e-commerce, in fact, that she considers “home” to be the beauty addict’s new favorite place to shop.

“People are home more, because of the economy, and they’re telecommuting,” says Doskow. “But I also think there’s a fun factor involved. We’re very savvy consumers now, and we know that we can probably find that doctor’s brand somewhere on the Internet, like Dermstore.com, which actually has hired aestheticians as customer-service people. So without even leaving our home we can go and get those products.”

Parked on the couch in one’s living room is also a way to partake in home shopping channels such as HSN and QVC, both of which are on the uptick. And then there are the infomercials – another bright spot, says Doskow, citing ProActiv’s $310 million sales in 2010, along with great numbers posted by other infomercial powerhouses such as Meaningful Beauty and Wen by Chaz Dean.

But let’s say you still want your retail fix. For whatever reasons, you’re jonesing to walk through a glass door and sniff, touch and feel. Will you head to the mall or the big-box retailer? According to Doskow, you’re highly likely to do both.

“Consumers are frugal, they’re savvy, they’re shopping across channels and they’re trading down,” she says. “With skincare, for example, a consumer today may go to her spa or her doctor’s office for a specialty treatment product, like a SkinCeuticals serum for $95. While two or three years ago, she may have also bought a cleanser and a moisturizer from the same brand, today she might go to Sephora and buy a cleanser and a moisturizer of a lesser price. Or the consumers who were shopping at Sephora for all their facial treatment needs might now go to Walgreen’s and buy Olay Regenerist.”

So what’s a department store retailer to do, now that we’re either welded to our sofas, credit card in hand, or zipping all over town cobbling together a beauty regimen that won’t break the bank?

Assuming they can’t compete on price – certainly not with the Walmarts of the world – department stores would be smart to make sure their websites are not merely serviceable, but a full-tilt beauty destination. Sink some money into that, by hiring editorial types to craft informative, enticing copy and round-the-clock aestheticians and makeup artists to advise on product selection.

To Corlett’s earlier point about choice, don’t prune inventories excessively. Instead, just make sure to have plenty of signage – and real, live salespeople – to guide customers through the ingredient and product-function maze. As long as they’re not overly aggressive (and most aren’t these days, says Corlett), cosmetics advisers continue to play an integral role – even given how beauty-literate the average department store customer is. No consumer can know everything about today’s high-tech formulas.

And for women like me, who love pricey designer handbags and great costume jewelry almost as much as miracle crèmes and makeup, I might humbly suggest moving the beauty as far away from those other impulse items as possible – if only for a trial run. Let me focus – and spend some of that money burning a hole in my pocket.

Dana Wood About Dana Wood

A beauty journalist for over 20 years, Dana Wood has served as Beauty Director for both W and Cookie magazines and has written for numerous national publications including Glamour, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and Self. She also spent several years in the Luxury Products division of L’Oreal as Assistant Vice President, Strategic Development. Her first book, Momover: The New Mom’s Guide to Getting It Back Together, was published in 2010 by Adams Media.