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Is This the End of Beauty Testers?

Shoppers like to try out beauty products before they buy them. Is it possible to do that safely now?
Glossier's London pop-up shop | Source: Courtesy
  • M.C. Nanda

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NEW YORK, United States — Korie Allen is ready to go back to Sephora. While in quarantine, Allen, a 21-year-old hostess living in Cincinnati, bought a range of products, including foundation, during the chain's annual sale. But foundation is a risky purchase online.

“I just want to try it on my hands and see if it’s something I’d be interested in spending my money on,” she said.

Allen may get her wish in a few weeks, as state lockdowns are lifted and stores reopen. But the experience of trying on foundation and other cosmetics may never be the same. Before Covid-19, try-on lipstick and foundation in dozens of shades formed the core of the beauty retail experience at indie boutiques and global chains alike. Now, testers are proving to be one of the industry’s biggest headaches.

Testers act as a draw to get shoppers in the door, and a way to educate them once they’re in there. Consumers are more likely to buy an unfamiliar product if they can touch and smell it first. But communal mascara spools, cotton rounds and makeup brushes may be obsolete. As beauty retailers begin to reopen around the world, they’re still figuring out how to modify testers for the age of social distancing.

“The issue with testers is that they’re disgusting,” said Jessica Richards, founder of independent beauty store Shen Beauty. Richards is still finding a game plan for how the retailer will approach them, but it will be difficult. “The beauty industry doesn’t allow for social distancing.”

The issue with testers is that they're disgusting.

With little official guidance on testers, every retailer will come up with their own systems. The stakes are high, and striking the right balance will be tricky. When stores first reopen, some shoppers will have the virus on their minds and find testers repulsive; others will have been waiting weeks to give themselves an in-store makeover.

“You’re going to have one shot to prove to people when they come back to you that you’re clean enough and that they can trust you,” said Alec Ginsberg, pharmacist and co-general manager of C.O. Bigelow apothecary in New York.

C.O. Bigelow has removed testers, but customers can ask staff for samples (the store also has a pharmacy, which has allowed it to remain open during the lockdown). For the on-request samples, employees wear gloves and masks, and wipe down products before and after each use. C.O. Bigelow President Ian Ginsberg said makeup sales are down significantly, and customers are only purchasing products that are “necessary to get by on Zoom.”

In China, where Sephora and other beauty stores have been open for several weeks, testers have made a limited return. At Sephora, tools used to apply makeup samples are individually wrapped, and testers are sanitised every two hours. The LVMH-owned chain declined to comment.

Dermalogica, which offers a range of skincare products along with facial treatments, has issued safety protocols to retailers and skin therapists, said Chief Executive Aurelian Lis. Testers should only be applied to the hands, and will be wiped down before and after use.

Retailers can also increase their use of individual samples sent to customers’ homes or included with in-store purchases, analysts say. These items could be wrapped into customer loyalty programmes or bundled into kits for sale.

“There’s going to be an increased benefit to being a loyalty shopper,” said retail analyst Dana Telsey of Telsey Advisory Group.

But individually wrapped samples have their own drawbacks, including wasteful packaging. And some consumers may be just as wary of their samples as they were of testers.

There's going to be an increased benefit to being a loyalty shopper.

“It’s not like it’s going to magically appear in somebody’s pocket,” said Lis. “If it’s been touched by too many people you’ve got all the same problems you had before.”

Some brands and retailers see testers going digital. Virtual try-on technology has been around for a while, but may take on new importance, particularly if new waves of coronavirus infections repeatedly shut down stores.

In stores, digital tools could help customers narrow down what they’re looking for, reducing the number of items they need to test.

Virtual try-ons and consultations have also become a fixture of beauty retail during the pandemic. Many companies, including The Ordinary and Dermalogica, have offered free one-on-one consultations online, where customers can get beauty advice and product recommendations from brand experts. L’Oréal is partnering with Snapchat to release augmented reality lenses that allow users to try products virtually at home.

Still, digital tools can’t replace sensory experiences, and there are risks in relying on digital for too long.

“What we have to be careful of is that brick-and-mortar doesn’t evolve into an experience-free, distant environment,” said Lis. “We need to make brick-and-mortar a place somebody wants to go because of the human connection...and because it’s something they can’t just see online.”


Unilever, Estée Lauder and L'Oréal among makeup giants hoping to buy Charlotte Tilbury. A sale could give the British cosmetics company £1 billion ($1.25 billion), indicating that large companies have an appetite for acquisitions in the coronavirus climate.

Coty beauty sale on hold, sources say. Henkel and US buyout fund's KKR have paused bids for a portfolio of beauty brands Coty is trying to sell due to the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Beauty brands look to China for coronavirus crisis insight. Livestreaming drove a large percentage of sales in China and brands can expect similar digital-first shopping trends to persist until lockdowns are lifted.

New Avon's sign-ups have jumped 375 percent in April. The social selling beauty company's new structure comes as shoppers pivot to online channels and direct-sales companies focus on those hoping to boost their income.

The Ordinary offers virtual skincare consultations. The new feature allows customers to share pictures and videos of their skincare queries with experts and includes the option of a follow-up appointment.

Beauty means less pain for struggling retailers. Beauty sales were down 32 percent between March 22 and March 29, a better performance than the 42 percent drop in fashion sales.

Wellness is a luxury during the coronavirus crisis. Wellness brands selling immunity-boosting supplements at high price points make the correlation between privilege and health especially clear in a pandemic.

James Charles launches web series, Instant Influencer. Six contestants will compete in a series of challenges with the hope of becoming the next big name in beauty.

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