An Unscientific Method

The Hypothesis

One night after having a particularly exasperating conversation with Jess about a particularly awful experience with a ‘pro’ behind a cosmetics counter, we put in motion a devious plan.  Disguised as make up ‘novices’ we planned to test just how much these pros know about not only the products they sell, but about what it means to be trusted as an authority.  Time and time again we’ve all seen it, standing by a counter and looking at something we can’t help but cringe when we hear the pro suggest a product or a color that anyone with a bit of knowledge could tell wouldn’t work.  Anything to make a sale.

It took a bit of deliberation, but we decided to tackle a basic, something that anyone might have issues with rather then some micro or obscure aspect.  We theorized that everyone uses foundation, but not everyone needs a waterproof eyeliner.  We would spend one afternoon traveling all over San Diego going from counter to counter to find the ‘right foundation’.

The Subjects

Jess and I are cousins, our moms are sisters.  We look enough alike to be sisters ourselves, we have the same Eastern European (ie Croatian) features.

I am pale, very pale, with a golden undertone.  Gold, not warm, not beige, both of which are a little grey and dull on me.  I have black hair with Deep Purple highlights cut short and angular.  My eyes are a honey brown.  My skin is normal, nothing crazy going on really, and I occasionally have issues with a bit of shine in my T zone.  I’m moderately tattooed and for this experiment we decided to use them, just to see if I was treated differently.  It would, honestly, be impossible to hide them, I have one that trails down my neck and a huge bright chest piece.  Even wearing the grey cardigan I was, you could easily tell my arms were covered as well.  I also have stretched lobes and a septum ring.

Jess is half Turkish (her father is a turkey) and even though we look the same, our coloring is slightly different, although we have the same exact eye color.  She is darker and perpetually tan, but with the same golden undertone.  Her hair is my actual natural hair color, which is a rich golden brown.  She has sort of problem and oily skin with the occasional blemish.  She has no tattoos and is very conservative looking compared to me.  She’s a biochemist (who works in a cosmetics lab), so she’s sort of straight laced.

We wore almost no makeup, although I defined my brows and wore Violetta (cause it matches my purse).  We both had on mascara.

The Experiment


The first place we headed was to a free standing MAC store in a poplar mall.  It wasn’t very busy, we walked in and were there perhaps a couple of minutes before an associate (for the purpose of this experiment, everyone will be referred to as an associate rather then whatever else they might call themselves, such as pro, consultant, or makeup artist) greeted us, they were quite busy talking about what they did the night before, and one was giving a makeover to a girl who looked 12.  We stood by the foundation, picking up and looking at bottles and powders and then glancing up to the gaggle of associates, trying to get their attention for some help.  Coming over she leaned heavily on the counter and asked if we needed some help.

I began asking about their foundation types, but she had very little to say.  I asked about the difference between their regular foundation, the Longwear, and the Mineralize.  She told me, “The finish is different.”  I asked what that meant and she sighed heavily before telling me one was natural and one was ‘shiny’ and the other just lasted a long time.

We then moved on to asking what color we should pick.  I asked what the difference between the NC and the NW was and she literally said, “It’s, you know, the colors.” Holding up two bottles of foundation, Jess observed, “One looks pink and one looks yellow.”  She got a “Yup” as a reply.  “So one is cool and one is warm?” I asked and got another “yup”.

After a minute or two of trying to pry some sort of actual sentence from the associate a different girl came over and asked if we had a ‘problem’ and the original associate walked away.  The new associate was a little more forthcoming with info, although she had no more info for us then that which we could easily read on the display.  In the end she suggested that I try an NC20, cause I’m so ‘pink’ and that Jess try an NW 30.  In reality an NW15 is a good match for me  and Jess religiously wears NW40 (which is honestly a dead match to her skintone).

Once she’d ‘sold’ us on our shades she began to suggest all these other things we’d need, including bronzer.  Because I’m so ‘washed out’ she suggested I ‘warm up’ my skin by using bronzer.  No matter what I said she was intent on making me one of the cast of Jersey Shore.

We walked out with no information on the wear, formula, or types of foundation they sold and with ridiculously wrong suggestions for matches and no offer to try swatches.


We found a Clinique counter in a local Macys.  The minute we were within a few feet of the counter the associate was ON US, stepping out from behind the counter to greet us.  As friendly and nice as she was, she couldn’t do anything without the help of this slider things she had.  She asked us a few questions and then ended up with our number and then foundation suggestions, all based on this cardboard and plastic thing she was using to enter our replies.

I’d actually been through this before and gotten a really great suggestion in Even Better foundation in Fair and Soft Finish in Soft Fair, however the colors are both horribly wrong.  They are too dark and far too pink.

The same thing happened again, which I suspect is because they are trained to run off of this ‘script’ and not really make suggestions themselves.  I had said that coverage and evening my skin where my main concerns and Jess wanted oil control.  I was once again suggested the Even Better, which is a great formula, and once again they swatched against my jaw.  We were inside a really poorly lit section and she didn’t have a daylight bulb next to her mirror to be able to accurately see what colors worked.    She kept saying my complexion was very rosey and that I needed a cool shade.

She suggested a really nice foundation to Jess, the Stay True formula, however again, without the use of a daylight bulb the colors she was suggesting were very inaccurate.  She suggested Stay Neutral but I really think Stay Sunny would have been much better.  The associate was very determined to match the foundation to our cheeks rather then our neck and body.

After she had matched our foundation she began suggesting all these other products and swore that after a few weeks on the Clinique skincare line we’d see drastic improvements.  Jess actually felt insulted.

We walked out feeling like the associate didn’t know much about her products nor how to accurately match foundation.


Although not a traditional counter, a lot of people trust the associates at Sephora to know what they are talking about.  We visited both a free standing store as well as one located inside a JC Pennys.  Right away I wasn’t expecting much.  There are a LOT of products and options in Sephora for an associate to be able to know every product.

The experience inside the free standing store was short lived.  After wandering around for a while a very ‘bothered’ looking associate finally asked if we needed any help and when we asked if she could help us find a foundation for our skin type and help match out complexion she told us “We don’t do that here” and walked off.  We left and I called and left a NASTY complaint with the manager as soon as we were sitting down for lunch.

At the JC Penny site, the shop was busy and there were only three associates working.  We were there about a minute before one called over to use and said she’d be right with us, and after a while, she was.  We asked her the same thing, if she could recommend a foundation that would work with our skin types and suggest a shade. She did her best to ‘remember’ what foundations did what and what coverages they were.  She did know that I was obvioulsy a warm shade and that Jess needed something oil free.  Other then that we were pretty much left on our own to swatch on our hands and read boxes.

Another associate wandered past while we were swatching to tell us that they’d just got a lot of ‘awesome’ holiday gift sets we should try out.

We walked out with TOO many options and no idea where to start.

Estee Lauder

Our final visit was with at the Estee Lauder counter inside Bloomies.  Trust me, I do not seem to fit inside a Bloomies, but the associates of the actual store were super amazing.  I stopped to look at a few things on the way to the counter and no one so much as blinked at my punk appearance among the preppy crowd.

We were at the Estee Lauder counter a few minutes before anyone came over to help.  There were a few associates working and about half a dozen or so people looking at stuff.  It seemed like the associate was able to tell who was just ‘playing’ and who might actually buy something, although she gave attention to both.  Once she came over and we talked a little bit she asked us what we were looking for and I told her I wanted a good coverage foundation that matched my skin and that lasted. There were several options, but Jess and I both ended up deciding on Double Wear based on her recommendation as well as what we’d heard from others.

She sat us down and swatched a few colors on our jaw, making sure, she told us, to match our necks.  Then she did something miraculous.  She gave us mirrors and told us to walk back to the entrance and stand in the daylight to see if the colors worked well.  I am a dead match to Linen in DW and Light works great for me in DW Light.  Jesse was a pretty close match to Shell Beige.  The associate said I was very pale, but with the golden undertone it was very easy for me to mistakenly try a cool shadow if my cheeks were at all pink.

She nailed several key problems that we’d seen just that day.  She even gave me hints about using blushes on my fair skin and even told me that with my bone structure I didn’ t have to contour just because everyone else did.  I liked her because she wasn’t just flattering me idly, she seemed sincere.  This was the only counter in which I actually purchased the suggested product.

We walked away with a lot of information about the foundations we were looking at as well as a perfectly matched shade.

The Conclusion

Not many people seemed to know much about their products and it seemed like it was pulling teeth to get them to actually help.  Many had no idea how to color match, and so I was left with little or no confidence.

While this in NO way suggests that everyone who works for MAC, for instance, has no idea what they are doing, it did sort of prove that they don’t hire actual makeup artists or professionals.   It goes a long way to show how employees are trained, though.

With two identical experiences at two different Clinique counters I’m fairly certain it’s the companies training method and not the fault of the associate.

As I mentioned, with so many products at Sephora, it is hard to expect an associate know everything, but if they don’t do consultations, why are there chairs and kits in the middle of the stores?

I was impressed with Estee Lauder.  On the way home, in fact, we stopped inside a Macys to hang out near the Estee Lauder counter and although it was packed, the associates working seemed to take the same care with the people at the counter as we received inside Bloomies.

My Recommendations

  • Take a friend with you when you look for foundation.  They will tell you honestly if a color matches you because they are not trying to sell you anything.
  • If possible, apply the foundation to your whole face like you would at home.  You can spot a lot of issues early like how to feels (is it mask like) or how well it blends or covers problem spots.
  • Take a mirror with you and check your swatches in daylight.  The counters are sometimes placed in the back of store where the artificial lighting is horribly misleading.
  • Don’t assume because they have a job at a cosmetics counter that they are actual make up artists or professionals.
  • Know your own skin type!  If you have oily skin don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise!
  • Know your skin tone.  There are a lot of ways to determine this, but figure it out.
  • Always match your foundation to you neck and body and NOT your face.  It’ll look like you’re wearing a mask if you do.

46 Responses to “An Unscientific Method”

  1. Extremely interesting! And I ❤ Estee Lauder counters, the ladies at mine are very professional as well.
    The big drama is that we are passionate about makeup while for those people, it's a damn sales job, which is hard, and of course not all of them are as passionate as we are so they just try and remember the bit of information they're given. Too bad, really.

    (Oh and us ladies with Croatian features, pale but golden/olive and with surface pinkness – in my case I also have some cool undertones- we're a nightmare for those sales associates, we have to figure it all by ourselves, I guess)

    • Yes! Balkans ladies unite! I went to a Clinique counter as a teenager and told the woman about my skin while she fiddled with her little abacus thing. After a few minutes, she looked up at me and said, eyes full of distress, “Honey, I think you broke the board.” Of course, I’ve had cosmetology students tell me to my face that I must be confused because those colors can’t exist at the same time in one complexion. I usually ask them to tell me what I really am… and they never have an answer.

  2. How timely, I’ve been looking at foundations for a bit, now. I recently went to MAC and the associate matched me to NC42. Personally I’m a little wary as it made me look a little grey?/dusty? But I didn’t know whether I should stick to it or try something else. We only tried one shade though, which I thought was weird. I thought some trial and error should have been involved.

    Last year I tried bare minerals, and bought the colour they recommended me (I believe it was Golden Medium). When I used it in my own time, it was too light?golden? for me. Urgh.

    As for your tip to match me to my neck and body, I’m not so sure about that. My neck is close to my face, but my body (I’m assuming chest area here) is at least 2 shades lighter than my face. I’m tanned where exposed (face and arms mostly) but the rest of me is pale.

    I think foundation is the hardest to shop for, which is why it’s been taking me forever 😦

    • By body I mean the part of you that shows. If your face is lighter then your body, ie your arms and neck, etc etc, that you almost need a darker shade to match yourself.

      But yes, you need to try more then one shade!

  3. That’s widely different from what I experienced here at Estee Lauder in Norway. We tried getting a friend matched, and she got matched horribly wrong, with an oily foundation for her breakout-prone combination skin. I swear, the color didn’t match her cheeks OR her neck. Ridiculous, really, and then she practically forced my friend to buy it (she was REALLY pushy on how it was “close enough”) and then she tried pushing even more products onto her, even though she said she was on a tight budget when she was asked.

    However, I had a very pleasant experience with another Estee Lauder-desk another place in town, so … Maybe the other girl was new or something? She really got on my nerves, though. She summed up why I hate going to that kind of stores in general.

    Then again, when I tried getting matched at a local makeup store (I wanted a liquid) I got a comment on how “it probably won’t cover your tattoos, though”. I hadn’t mentioned anything about covering my tattoos, nor had I any interest in it. I’ve only succeeded in getting myself matched one place, and that is the Meow forums. Really disappointing though.

    Thanks, as always, for a nice and informative post! It’s some pretty important tips you’re sharing here. 🙂

  4. Croatian features? I’m from Croatia 🙂

    Anyway, I never trust anyone who works at any counter cause here in Croatia 90% of them don’t know anything about recommending the right products. It goes even so far that sometimes they are trying to convince me that the product I was looking for doesn’t exist, and I know it does since I’ve been using it for months! 😀

    And don’t even get me started on wrong recommendations when it comes to foundation shades. That’s just beyond fail. 😀

    Luckily for me, I know how to choose my foundation but it took me some time before I learned not to lean on to their suggestions. :/

  5. I’ve had a couple of friends that worked at MAC. One was going to cosmetology school and said she couldn’t even get hired at MAC until she had been at school for a year. I made the assumption before that because of that, it was like that at every MAC and everyone knew what they were doing. For a long time, I wore studio fix NC25 because my friend suggested it to me. I hated the feel of it (super cakey and drying), but stuck with it because it was the closest match I could find and drugstore foundations all seemed pink. When she quit to become a freelance MUA, I went to get a replacement foundation and got suggested everything from NW25, NC30 to NC40. Every associate seemed determined to make me look like I was wearing 10 lbs of fake bake. Infact, all the associates at MAC look like they’re wearing 10 lbs of fake bake. I have a perpetual slight tan, but NC40? No wai. I never go to MAC anymore unless I know exactly what I’m looking for, or I wind up with a lot of failboat suggestions on how I can look “natural” while wearing a buttload of makeup.

    Every time I go to Sephora, they want me to get BM foundation. Doesn’t matter if I want a matte or dewy finish. BM is the suggestion. BM is what my step grandma used to call going #2. Appropriate, since that’s what I think of that foundation. It always makes me break out. The associates there never seem to know what they’re carrying; which is fine I guess, since like you said, there’s too much to know it all. Still, it’s funny to me when I ask something like where the Too Faced stuff is, and I get a blank stare. Don’t all Sephoras carry Too Faced? I had three associates once tell me that they didn’t carry rhinestones, only to find them right on the sales counter. I had another associate try to match MUFE concealer on me by placing it right on my cheek where I had blush. Once, I asked if there were any red lipsticks that didn’t have carmine. The associate asked me what that was. I said it was a dye made out of bugs. She said, “Ew, gross. Huh, huh well I don’t know if we have one or not. Maybe Urban Decay since they’re cruelty free! But let me know if you find one, since I’d like to use that one. I’ll tell the other associates what carmine is, huh, huh. Next week is ‘Red Lipstick Week’!”

    Best experience buying foundation and concealer? The MUFE counter at the Bay (I guess it would be the Canadian equivalent of Macy’s). Super helpful guys, one spent ages with me and he was so nice that I wound up buying all of his suggestions. And they work for me. I also like the MUFE counter at the Bay, because it’s the furthest from all the fragrance counters 🙂

    • All you technically need to be hired at MAC is retail and sales experience. They ask you if you’re comfortable applying makeup and then some ask you to do a face for them. But you can bring a friend, so of COURSE you’re going to have practiced and know what shades she wears.

  6. Thank you for posting this. I’ve never really asked many questions at counters but I always tought those people must know everything about the make up, to get a job like that. Said to hear thats not the way it is..

  7. Great post! I have an odd gold shade to my skin and I always seem to heed the wrong advice when it comes to dreaded foundation shopping. I’ve stuck with bare minerals for a little over a year now and it does all right, though I’m certain there are better, more accurate options out there for my skin tone.
    Definitely one of my favorite posts from your blog, Grey =D

  8. P.S. I think it’s super awesome (especially at Estée Lauder) that despite the crappy service you got at some places, you didn’t seem to get treated differently based on your appearance. I have lip piercings and some tattoos, so that part made me happy.

  9. This was a great read and very informative. Thanks for so much for doing the research.

  10. As a professional makeup artist with an extensive retail background (though I no longer work retail and haven’t for a few years) I feel like I have to remind you that at this time of year, many of the associates you ran into are quite possibly new hires for the holiday season.

    This does excuse them somewhat from having a high level of product knowledge (it’s basically impossible to train during this time of year, typically associates are given a manual to read at home and are expected to learn as they work the sales floor. Those that stay on after February are then sent to more formal training courses.)

    It does NOT, however, excuse the horrendous service that you received. I’m not shocked in the least to hear your MAC account; I’ve consistently gotten a similar level of service at the store I frequent(even though the freestanding stores are supposed to hire at a higher level). MAC is such the “in thing” that I really feel as if they know people will continue to shop there regardless of negative experiences, so they don’t concern themselves. I’ve actually spoken to the corporate customer service before about rude service & have never had an issue resolved.

    As far as the Sephora associate telling you that they don’t do foundation matching, that’s absurd! I’m glad you called the manager; I’m interested to hear what her response was.

    One last thing; you mention in your post that you should “know your own skin type” and not let any one convince you otherwise. While I think that’s great advice theoretically, it’s much easier said than done. I don’t know how many people I’ve seen in my career that have had completely incorrect ideas of what their skin type is.

    For instance, probably a good 75% of the time, people that think they have oily skin don’t, but are treating it as such and actually making the problem worse. A lot of people also say they have sensitive skin, when in fact, only a very small percent of the population does. If you’ve seen a dermatologist and are confident in your doctor’s diagnosis, that’s one thing, but please realize that skin changes and even life long impressions about your skin type can be wrong; sometimes it takes a third party to notice the signs & let you know.

    When it comes down to it, you’ll find good artists & bad at every counter. For some it comes down to experience, but as a former trainer I can tell you that a lot of it can come naturally and be enhanced with education. The best way to know if an associate is trustworthy, in my opinion, is to pay attention to how well she listens to your issues. Does she ask questions to try to get to know more about you & what you need? Is she able to tell you why something works? Those things, in my experience, are reliable indicators of the level an associate is at.

    • Thanks, Jessica.

      I actually work as a consultant for a lot of the local counters, working on ‘problems’. I know in the area which counters have and have not (and do not) hired ‘holiday help’ and trust me, it was taken into consideration.

      As for knowing your skin type, I think it’s good advice. If your skin is constantly dry and you can’t seem to fix it, no miracle foundation is going to suddenly make it moisturized, so it’s best to find one that helps. In the case of oily and shiny skin, you should still get one that is oil control and oil free. Foundation is a cosmetic fix, basically, and by no means a cure. If you constantly have problems with your T zone, but just happen to have a matte face at the moment you’re swatching foundations, you should still make sure that the associate knows that and doesn’t try to sell you something that will only make things worse when your skin is ‘back to normal’. You’re only going to be wearing that foundation for a couple of months AT MOST.

    • I agree completely with Jessica, I’m a certified makeup artist at Sephora and I’m VERY shocked at the service you were given. Our store takes customer service very seriously and we definitely match people with foundations and even do full consultations. This has been said by Jessica already but it is the holidays and a lot of temporary people have been hired so I hope that in the future you will have a better experience but I am glad you left a complaint because that leaves a bad image on our company. As for your time at MAC, I’d assume you were a little unlucky and ran into some temporaries as well because I’ve never had a hard time with them.

      • Again, as I mentioned after Jessica’s comment, it was NOT ‘seasonal’ help but ‘regular’ employees. Thanks.

  11. Great post!! My only recent cosmetics counter experience was finding some new lipstick and I must say I had excellent service. I’ve dealt with this associate in the past and we went through tons of different colors before she made her recommendation. As for foundation, I have yellow undertones but lots of redness from a bad sunburn as a child. Most people want to put me in a cool pinkish shade and all it does is make me look more pink.

  12. Awesome post!

    Estee Lauder has actually been the best counter I’ve been to, too. I was going to pick up a brush set I had pre-ordered from Lancome and just happened to stop and look at foundations. The sales associate was amazing, and although I was at the counter for some time, I walked away with a ton of information. I didn’t know much about skin care at the time. She found a moisturizer, toner and face wash all suitable for my skin type (which I never would have realized was Dry if I didn’t go to the counter) and let me try each of them before buying. She didn’t have my shade of foundation in stock, but poured me three sample containers full to take home. The best part? All of it worked on my skin, nothing broke me out.

    As for MAC, I’m iffy about asking questions. The SA’s are all very friendly, but sometimes they don’t know their stuff. I haven’t had many problems there, though.

    I only go to Sephora when I know what I’m getting. I don’t know if it’s just by me, but the employees never seem the least bit educated in cosmetics at all. They always seem to make it feel like they’re doing you a huge favor by helping you, too. When I went in to try NARS foundation I was matched completely wrong. I tried two shades – I was decently tanned (it was summer) and the SA kept trying to get me to buy the lightest shade available. I took the second option, and she kept saying ‘Are you sure? This one looks much better.’ Yes, I was 100% sure.. I didn’t want to look like Casper the ghost in the middle of summer.

    It’s definitely worth knowing your skin type and tone before going to the counter. -_-

  13. Love this post. Love it.
    I’ve been having exactly the same problems as Vesna at our makeup counters… it’s nice to see that there are good ones out there (*wistful look to the horizon*)… and, as far as bad exp is concerned, that we’re not alone 🙂 .

    Eh, I know it’s their job, not their passion… but I think you should do well what you get paid to do. And working at a MAC or Clinique makeup counter doesn’t really sound like a job you must be coaxed into accepting. (My English fails me – I hope I’m being clear enough.)

    Oh, and: Croatia and Turkey? Neat 😀 !

  14. I think the moral of the story is doing it yourself, I’m not sure if you are all that into Pixiwoo but they did a really fabulous video on a guide to Estee Lauder foundations and Clinique foundations

  15. Hi!

    This was a really great post. So glad about the Estee Lauder coming up trumps. I for one am a massive fan of their foundations..espesh DW Light. I’m the light colour ‘Fresco’ 01 I think it is. Perfect match, lasts absolutely all day and looks good for the whole duration too. Never any patchiness. I too have always found the ladies/men on the counter to be incredibly helpful and full of knowledge of the EL product lines. Beautiful perfumes too. My Aunty worked for them for years so we used to get lots of goodies…alas she’s now retired!

  16. I have got some very decent advise from my Australian MAC counter. Though I often find they are the hardest to catch the eye of in general compared to other places. I worked in retail for too many years and hate not being greeted in some form. If busy I would like them to at least give me a smile when I try and make eye contact and say I’ll be with you soon – just so I know I have been acknowledged and will get service soon.I hold people in customer service to a high standard after may many years, I know how tired they could be, but a quick smile is so easy and tends to soothe the customer beast.

    I was really interested in the new long wear foundation at mac and the associate and I had a good chat about my dry skin and whether that or the studio fix would be better and why. She did half my face so I could see the difference then my whole face and answered my question about her brush technique. She also threw some bronzer and little others without pushing it on me at all.

    Inglot seems to have decent associates – I need to check out their foundation matching service. They do makeup application service and even classes on how to apply fake lashes. Usually which you can redeem against products and a look book right on the counter of photographs of makeup they have done there in store. I have had an associate spend half an hour swatching different coloured lipsticks on me to find the right 5 and was lovely about it and if one looked a little wrong she would suggest why..too pink, too dark whatever.

    I feel like trying that out – I reckon I would make a good mystery shopper 🙂 You certainly do.

  17. Amazing! I’ve never been to any of those counters…. I use my meow foundation matched online! I love it, but it washes out quickly in the summer… – but for the price and everything, I don’t mind!

    I once went to “O Boticário” counter, a brazilian make-up brand, and got out of the store with an awful formula, orange color 2 tones darker than I.

    It’s hard to find a good match here, ’cause there ain’t many pale people here, so we never have many options and, when we have, it runs out quickly.

    I love your posts. You really inform your readers and go through a lot of things to do that! It amazes me!

    P.S I hope you like surprises.

    • By the way, I don’t know my skin type or tone very well. I rarely have acne (but I have it when I’m close to my period), still, my make-up always washes off of my nose, so I guess I’m oily there or something… x.x’
      I was matched at meow as a sleek siamese and I think it fits really well

  18. MAC is notorious for poor customer service to certain people especially on the weekends. Apparently during the weekend their “consulations” are free with a $50 purchase, but during the week it is free. I’ve had many problems with trying to find reliable help picking a foundation at almost every MAC I’ve been to.

    Sephora for me is hit or miss. The one I used to work at was amazing. The people were wonderful, and very helpful. There were a couple of people I wouldn’t necessarily trust getting information on skin care though.

    I try to avoid counters like the plague. I despise how pushy they all are even when you’re not even looking in the direction of their counter!!

    Thank you so much for this post. It was very insightful, and I enjoyed reading it. I think it is fantastic you and your cousin decided to do this.

  19. Another thing to consider about sales person professionalism: store location.

    I generally like Sephora, but the differences in service from one location to another are kind of insane. But of the locations I’ve gone to, the bigger/busier/more central ones tended to have much better salespeople who knew their stuff, could find everything, and made valid recommendations without being pushy. (I have not gone foundation shopping so I don’t know how it holds up with that though). Somehow the busier stores I’ve been in made me feel much more welcome than the less busy ones even though the associates had less time with customers.

    I’ve also noticed that I tend to have much much better luck with getting help from male associates than female associates. The female associates seem to just ignore me until I flag them down to ask a question. The male associates seem to always come up and ask if I need any help and actually try to help. This has been most pronounced at MAC, though it holds up pretty well at Sephora. There also seems to be a correlation between the amount of makeup an associate wears to how helpful they are. The ones who don’t look like they have ten tons of caked on powder have generally been nicer to me and more willing to help me than the ones who look like they fell into a compact face first.

    Interesting note though: I’ve actually gotten more help from the cosmetics counter people in a Walgreens than some of the over-made-up people at cosmetics counters. Which is kind of sad.

  20. This was a really interesting post!

    I haven’t been to a makeup counter in years but I will certainly pay attention should I ever return to one. I’ve had weird experiences at makeup counters though – like the associate who (unbeknown to my friend and I) was leaving her job and decided it would be fun to give a TON of free stuff to two poor college girls. Not that we minded AT ALL, ha ha. And then there was the time the woman insisted on giving me a facial and massaged my NOSTRILS so long I thought I was going to suffocate and die.

  21. OMG! I was searching for a liquid foundation, and I was using Temptalia’s Foundation Matrix. Let me just tell you that matrix is solid gold. Seriously. I’ll save that story though. I was researching foundations that would match my skin and looking at the reviews on Makeup alley. I decided to go to Macy’s and try Estee Lauder on Sunday. I thought the girl was great. She sat me down and used a color chart against my face to match my level and then a see through chart to pick tone. She said I could be neutral or warm. Then, she took 3 foundations and swatched my face and then decided on 2w1 Sand. She gave me a free 10 day supply. I thought she was knowledgeable and the match was good.

    • Oh, and I forgot to mention that when I got home and looked at the Foundation Matrix, that was the color for DW that I would wear. I went in looking for a more luminous foundation, and I left with DW because it stays on longer.

    • So I just checked out the foundation matrix. They’re lacking pale shades, sadly. Otherwise, it looks really awesome!

  22. So, with this crazy variety of experiences, do you have any recommendations of places where I can, say, order a kit of colors to try out myself?

  23. What a great read! Thank you so much for your research and your story! I have never been to a beauty counter and probably never will after this story.

    I am not one who is into department store cosmetics. And from just walking past beauty counters in my area, I get the impression that they would hire just about anyone, regardless of their cosmetic knowledge and training. I also have acquaintances who have worked at beauty counters that I would not trust to get me any cosmetic advice.

    I don’t understand what they hype is over the beauty counters, except that you can test products out. I can order samples from Meow and figure out which shade I need without the intimidation and rudeness from the “associates!”

  24. Ingenious idea, indeed! This seems like a very interesting experiment to try out, and if I knew my color, I would. However, my main issue is that I can never seem to figure out my own skin tone–I’m rubbish at doing it by myself, and every counter or store I visit seems to give me a different assessment. I think the only thing they’ve all agreed on is that I’m pale.

    In general, I’ve had good service with the SAs in my local Macy’s; there was a lot of inter-counter friendliness, and they never seemed to try to push a sale on me. In fact, they sometimes recommended the other counters depending on what I say I’m looking for. The best experience I’ve had so far, though, in terms of both accuracy and service, was at a Lancôme counter. The SA was extremely accommodating and attentive, but I have the feeling that might have been because my dad was with me at the time (he seems to be mistaken for either a biker or a mafioso quite often).

    My other issue with buying makeup is that I have a bit of a baby face, and if I’m not wearing my lanyard with my college ID, people tend to assume that I’m about 14 years old, instead of 19. It can be difficult to get consultants at counters to take me seriously–after all, what 14 year old is willing to spend a lot of money on higher quality cosmetics if mommy or daddy isn’t buying? The Sephora SAs have actually been rather good about that, though, even if they do tend to recommend colors that are too dark for me.

    Enough about that, though. That was an excellent post, and I would enjoy more in a similar vein in the future. It’s always interesting to see how people will treat you when they assume you don’t know much about the subject at hand.

  25. While this may be unscientific, it’s really fascinating! It makes me want to go visit the Estee Lauder counter and have them teach me how to contour 😛

    I’ve found that here in Tampa at the International Mall, the MAC counter in the department store has way nicer people than the MAC store itself. The people in the department store seemed to know about the current releases and the upcoming releases and were excited over the products. The people in the MAC store vary. Sometimes they’re easy to talk to, othertimes I feel like they look at me as if I’m dirt and shouldn’t waste their time.

    It really is fascinating to see how you were treated and matched at all the different locations! So glad you shared this with us 🙂

    • I haven’t had too many good experiences at MAC counters or stores. I went in a couple of weeks ago to look at lipsticks, and two girls walked in after me. The gal walked up and started to talk to us, and she didn’t seem knowledgeable at all. I just left.

  26. This was a great idea Grey. I always thank my lucky stars that I know a lot about makeup and the industry so I just show up at the counter to buy my stuff and leave. I hate how pushy they can be at those counters. My mom always brings me with her when she shops for makeup so I can be her “body guard” against the sales people lol! I’m always amazed at the things they try to sell to her and a bit irked about how un-knowledgeable they are about the products they are selling.

  27. A great read – although sadly all too familiar!

    I’ve found the sales associates at Bloomingdales to be far more friendly than other dept stores – they must really train their employees and remind them that a sale is a sale, whether the person is a “lady who lunches” or a not-so-typical looking person.

  28. This was WONDERFUL!

    I’m so pleased that you had a good experience at the Estée Lauder counter, and as I, myself, wear Double Wear (in Shell, although it’s still a bit too dark, but they don’t do one lighter and I adore the formula) and love it. I became close friends with the manager of the EL counter where I used to live, and she could always tell who was actually interested and who wanted to spray perfume on themselves and leave.

    In any other store, I’m always told how I’m “not really that pale” and they’re “sure this will work” and it never does. MAC matched me to NC15, but I’m not NC15, I’m about 5 shades lighter than NC15, but since they don’t make an NC-10, they just sold me the lightest thing they had when it wasn’t a close match at all.

    My next time with a MAC MUA though (a proper one, who visited stores for makeovers and wasn’t a sales associate) I told her, “You don’t make a foundation that’s pale enough for me.” Same thing I’ve told everyone else. Only this one, instead of arguing with me, said, “Ok then, we won’t use one.”

    Instead, she matched me to a concealer, primed my skin, buffed concealer over the parts I needed evening out, and then buffed a tinted mineralized skin finish over it, and I looked GREAT. It matched my skin and just looked like I had even, great skin. I could’ve hugged her for actually knowing what to do when someone doesn’t fit within NC15-40 (or whatever the top number is).

    All associates will be trained to link-sell, but you should do that by asking questions to see if the customer has problems or areas they want to address, you should never assume they want anything. I, too, am tired of everyone assuming I want bronzer. Assuming you guys needed new skincare routines and insulting your skin off-handedly was very tactless.

    I wish more sales associates had the ability to say, “I’m sorry, we don’t make a foundation shade that will be a good match for you” and maybe try offering a different type of product – concealer, for instance, or even just sending you somewhere else. When I worked in retail, if I someone came in looking for something I knew we didn’t really have, I’d send them to a neighbouring store and they always appreciated the fact that I actually cared about helping them get what they needed, and they always came back for different things.

  29. I find that around here most department store counters have people that are helpful, know at least adequately and often have professionals or at least trained people. The problem is as you said, their agenda in selling you something and it makes you uncomfortable when they push you to by something. On the other hand other stores, especially the cheaper stores don’t always have people who know their stuff but they do approach nearly everyone. Department store often ignore people who don’t look like they’ll buy anything such as younger customers.

  30. Hi!

    Wow, this was interesting! Actually my worst experience at a makeup counter was at MAC and my best was, by far, in Estee Lauder. A lot of people think it’s grandmothers brand but I honestly like it! But I could’t find a match for my skin in EL. I can only find a match so far in mineral foundation, which is what I use and love.

    So your cousin is a biochemist! It must be fun to shop with her for cosmetics.


  31. Grey, this piece is amazing. It completely backs up my experiences as a consumer, blogger and makeup artist. In fact, my mother, who isn’t “into” cosmetics but does use them, laments over the lack of knowledge and, dare I say Interest, that Clinique sales associates uniformly demomstrate. While not a fan of Lauder color products, you’ve given me hope for the line. And as for MAC, where I worked and was (thoroughly!) trained, sadly that’s always a hit or miss experience.

    Thanks for this!

  32. Interesting post, Grey.

    The only higher end brand thing i own is a lipstick from Mac. When I bought I walked into to the store, the women working there said hello to me right away. then again, i was the only one there. I told her I was looking for a red Lipstick and she suggested some she thought would look good on my skin tone, She cleaned and let me try a couple. And suggested some lip liners but didn’t push it.

  33. Thanks so much for the post! I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the cosmetics counters and stay away from them. I’ve developed a complete disgust of the foundations available in drug stores so I’m contemplating making a Meow purchase. I’ve already got my recommendations from them so I’m excited to try out a few samples. I’m interested to hang out a few counters and see how they match me up now, just to see what they’d suggest for me.

  34. Awesome post – what a good, informative read!

    I wish I could say I’m surprised by what you encountered, excepting Estee Lauder.

    Sephora…they’re on my do not shop list, that’s how many bad experiences I’ve had with them. Not to mention the BE recommendation I got there was Fairly Light; trust me, I’m so not. Fairly Light makes me look like I have jaundice.

    I used to love MAC, but more or less gave up a couple years ago; their “professional makeup artist employees” enjoy painting my face like a clown, counters and freestanding stores alike. For cripe sakes, they couldn’t even get my mascara decent (who actually likes the clumpy look?).

    I’ve never bothered with Clinique because I’m convinced that they overcharge for many products. Their dark spot reducer commercials with the computer-generated spots on the models haven’t changed my opinion.