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Counter Intelligence: Pro Tips for Getting the Best Results When Shopping for Beauty Products

Feel as if the makeup you buy is never quite what it’s cracked up to be? Let beauty expert Hillary Quinn help you navigate the counter with savvy and insider secrets.

“I’m looking for a foundation that will give me the appearance of pore-less, flawless skin,” I hear myself saying to a twentysomething beauty advisor at Sephora recently.

Truth? Uttering those words makes me feel vulnerable. It also makes me feel like a fraud. As a former women’s magazine editor who spent years in the epicenter of beauty (let’s just say I had an entire closet in my apartment devoted to the free products I regularly took home), I know too much about this stuff. At a very deep level, I understand how little it costs to make a $27 lipstick. How good cosmetics—including foundation—are not miracle workers, but merely hardworking art supplies. And even more importantly, how the youthful, pore-less sales associate staring back at me with her perfectly cut-creased eyes has one job to do, and that is to sell me a bottle of very expensive foundation.

I should know better than to put myself in the hands of someone 30 years younger, someone with an agenda that is unquestionably different from my own. (Me: banish wrinkles. Her: move product.) But I’m feeling a little desperate lately, and so I find myself slipping into the role of hapless customer, madly trying to pick and choose the nuggets of good advice among the hype, the spiel, and the fancy cosmeceutical words that she believes are new to my wise old ears.

Faster than you can say hyaluronic acid, we’re off: She’s complimenting the extraordinary youthfulness of my mature skin; I’m bragging that I’m 56; she’s telling me that what she wears on her face is AH-MAZING; and before you know it, I’m handing over a credit card with a renewed, if misguided, sense of hopefulness that the product will do the same for me.

Read More: From Blending to Baking, 5 Skin-Perfecting Strategies for Women Our Age

The Intimidation Factor

Here’s the thing, though: If I—a bonafide beauty vet—am feeling vulnerable to the experience, I can only imagine how everyone else must feel at the counter. At best, you’re excited and optimistic; at worst, you’re intimidated and guilted into buying something because you took up so much of the beeyatch’s precious time. I once stopped (or was possibly accosted) at a makeup counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC, where I was on the hunt for a blusher. The beauty advisor soon found out that I had an event to attend that evening and offered to do my makeup. This makeover included endless product recommendations—and I was floored when, halfway through our session, she flat out asked me if I was planning to buy anything. Um, the blusher? This did not sit well with her, and I was actually admonished for the time suck.

Okay, that’s an extreme example of bad beauty behavior, to be sure. But those innocent little exchanges are the reason so many women fear the counter, and here’s how it often goes down.

Beauty Advisor: Can I help you find a color today?

You (feeling put on the spot): No thanks. Just looking.

Beauty Advisor: We have some wonderful new plumping glosses that just came in.

You (interest piqued, but trying to deflect): Really? Well, I usually just stick to my usual Pretty-In-Pink lipstick.

Beauty Advisor: Come sit down. Let me show you how amazing this is—it will literally give you the look of injectables without a needle.

You (thoroughly on the leash now and sitting): Wow. Sure … 

And so begins the journey down the rabbit hole. You’re offered a lip liner to go with that gloss—possibly a lip treatment—and she even offers to touch up your makeup. Then, one of three things happens: You buy nothing and feel bad (or may even incur a snarky comment from your beauty advisor); you buy the gloss and wave off the additions; or you buy the whole kit and caboodle and curse yourself when the Amex bill shows up. 

Fortunately, there are plenty—and I do mean plenty—of highly trained, moral, kind, helpful sales associates out there, who are as much about getting you gorgeous as they are about earning their keep. But how to find them? Whom do you trust? What are the red flags? And, dammit, do you HAVE to buy a product?

Chill. I’ve got you covered. A couple of truly in-the-know beauty advisors—one in her late 20s (we’ll call her “MACkenzie”), and one in her 50s (we’ll call her “DIORa”)—agreed to spill some secrets under the condition of anonymity. With their help, I’ve put together a roadmap of sorts, advice that will help you navigate the mixed signals at the beauty counter.

How to Shop for Beauty Products and Tell If Your Beauty Advisor is Legit

With so many lotions and potions available, a little guidance is needed. Image: Daniel Salgado/Unsplash

RED FLAG: “I absolutely love this foundation. It’s my favorite, and I’m wearing it right now.”

Sounds like a solid testimonial, right? But what if it’s coming out of the mouth of someone who has yet to experience the frustration of a frown line, the challenge of hiding visible pores, or the dry skin of menopause? According to Diora, “It shouldn’t matter what the salesperson wears, thinks, or personally does—jumping straight to the product rather than focusing on the customer is always wrong.”

GREEN LIGHT: “Tell me what you don’t like about your current foundation.”

The journey should always begin with a tactic Diora likes to call “investigating the customer.” What is it about what you’re wearing now that doesn’t work for you? What are your goals? What frustrates you? How much time do you spend on makeup each morning? “Every cosmetic brand has their own process, but always look for advisors who ask questions that get you to talk about yourself and your needs. That’s the best way to begin learning about and educating a client.” 

Mackenzie agrees: “If you aren’t being asked broad, open-ended questions, I would run! Yes-and-no questions or non-lifestyle questions are a signal of a new beauty advisor … or a lazy one.”

Read More: Switch to Clean Beauty Products and Ditch the Lead and Mercury

RED FLAG: “This makeup will give you that pore-less, flawless skin.”

Exactly what I wanted, right? But hold onto your counter, folks, Diora tells me that’s naive. “Foundation is the frosting on the cake. It’s really just a light, finishing touch to give you a final polished look and glow. If you have mature skin, it’s really not going to do much … the finish will always look rough. You are never going to look perfect or pore-less.” (Let’s repeat that: YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO LOOK PERFECT OR PORE-LESS. )

“It’s a catch-22,” adds Mackenzie, who believes that many mature women come to the store with unrealistic expectations. “They walk in and see a lot of women with great skin and well done makeup, and think, ‘If she can make herself look like that, she can make me look like that, too.’”

GREEN LIGHT: “Let’s talk about your skin-care routine and daily habits.”

While Diora admits that not even high-end skincare products perform miracles, she does believe in leading a healthy lifestyle and caring for your complexion. (Diora takes—I kid you not—a full half hour to wash and prep her own face each night.) This combo of beauty plus sleep, water, good food, and exercise will make the most of that $60 bottle of anti-aging spackle. So instead of feeling frustrated that you’ve walked in to buy foundation and find yourself the target of a serum or moisturizer add-on sales pitch, try to think of it as a more comprehensive, real solution to your problem. 

“The best thing I have ever done in my career is be real with my clients,” says Mackenzie. “Selling $500 moisturizers to women double my age taught me that it’s my job to recommend products that will treat their concerns but, at the same time, to educate them on what isn’t going to work. That’s how I gain their respect.”

RED FLAG: “You will see SUCH an immediate difference in your skin.”

Um, no you won’t. But some beauty advisors feel the pressure of promises more than ever these days. According to industry studies, anti-aging product sales are down among millennial customers, not because they don’t feel they need to start early, but because in our I-want-it-now/Amazon Prime culture, anything that doesn’t offer super-fast bennies is a deal breaker.

GREEN LIGHT: “You have to use this religiously, twice a day, for eight weeks.”

A product might be truly effective, but if we’re being real here, you have to be willing to do the time. Even a prescription-strength topical—Retin A, say—will take weeks-to-months to make a significant difference in your complexion. So this isn’t a ploy to make you buy the larger size or to negate its efficacy, it’s the expert’s way of saying there are no fast fixes. A true pro will be utterly candid about the cans and can’ts and will always offer some alternative solutions. 

Mackenzie cites melasma (age/sun spots) as classic example: “You simply aren’t going to be able to lighten them with in-store products versus the strength of a prescribed skin lightener from the dermatologist. So you’re going to need a heavier foundation to cover that age spot, and your beauty advisor needs to know which one won’t settle into your lines.” Important note: Leave the actual skin diagnoses to your dermatologist. Beauty advisors may be well-schooled in aesthetic fixes and trained about the benefits of their own line, but they’re not medical experts in serious skin conditions like rosacea, say, or allergies. 

RED FLAG: “I’ll be happy to do your makeup if you’re making a purchase today.”

There it is: my Saks Fifth Avenue moment. The beauty advisor who demands you plunk down cold, harsh cash in exchange for her helpful attention is a reason to run—not walk—away from the counter. So is the one who makes you feel badly about having wasted her time after an impromptu consultation.

Read More: $400 Creams, Cheaper Concealers, Surgery? One Woman’s Quest to Fix Under-Eye Puffiness

GREEN LIGHT: “Let’s make an appointment. Here’s my card.”

The idea of booking an actual sit-down with a sales associate might sound even more guilt-inducing, but it’s actually a perfect solution. “We are never looking to make our customers uncomfortable, but we do work on commission, and time is money,” explains Diora. 

Translation: If it’s a busy day in the store and you occupy your beauty advisor for an hour without buying, you’re both losing out—she on lost income, you on her full attention. “When you come in for your makeover, let her make you a chart, and feel free to say I’m not ready to purchase anything today but would love to try some samples,” says Diora, who also urges shopping at a store with a great return policy, an element that takes the pressure off any regretful purchase. The good news is that millennials—and your beauty counter pro is probably one—truly understand the need to test, a phenomenon often referred to as the “Sephora-zation of cosmetics counters.”

How to Shop for Beauty Products and Tell If Your Beauty Advisor is Legit

So much makeup, so little time. Image: Jazmin Quaynor/Unsplash

RED FLAG: “Come over to my counter—we have the best mascara.” 

“Sometimes customers feel as though they’re just getting recommended brand-specific items because that is who the beauty advisor works for. And for the most part, this is true,” admits Mackenzie. It’s frustrating, too, because we’re fully aware that we’re surrounded by 100-plus mascaras, and unless you hop from counter to counter and listen to the pitch from multiple advisors, you’re going to be at the mercy of whoever taps you on the shoulder first.

GREEN LIGHT: “I work with all the lines.”

While cosmetic superstores like Sephora or Ulta hire universal sales associates who dabble in all the brands, the department-store culture, where each counter has its own team of sales associates—and sometimes, dedicated, visiting makeup artists—is decidedly different. Mackenzie has a solution: “Nordstrom actually offers a service for their customers called a Beauty Stylist; this is a non-biased, non-brand-assigned expert who is trained in all the lines to best give the customers an array of products to choose from.” 

Don’t be shy about asking if this kind of pro is available and moving on if they’re not. After all, beauty is about making you feel good about yourself—inside and out. “It takes a level of trust to sit down in someone’s chair, remove our makeup, and expose our imperfections,” says Mackenzie. “The last thing you want to feel is doubt that your beauty advisor is going to make you look anything less than your very best.”


Hillary Quinn has worked as an editor at various magazines in New York and is a well-known beauty and lifestyle writer. Her work has appeared in ElleCosmoBride’sGood Housekeeping, and many other publications and websites.

By Hillary Quinn


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