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I'm honestly unsure whether people will be nodding along in agreement with this post or feel incensed, but I'm throwing it out there: I don't like counter service when shopping for beauty products, and here's why....

It's 2021

The first reason I don't like this is because it feels so dated. There's a reason why the likes of Debenhams and House of Fraser were unfortunately early casualties of the COVID economic crisis. I don't want to go and buy beauty products in a low-ceilinged, dingy, fluorescent-lit underground dungeon. Even when I went into Macy's on 5th Avenue in New York, it just felt like my worst nightmare. The beauty industry is so dynamic that it just seems bizarre to me that this relic from the 80s and 90s still exists. I can see to an extent why this might be necessary in a store like Boots, where people are coming in for anything from having their photos done to buying vitamins and those wanting to shop for an Estee Lauder foundation would never get any service, let alone a decent service: if it's a Boots employee, they're going to be dragged into showing someone where the paracetamol is at some point! However, if you're looking to be a destination for beauty, I just don't think this is going to do it.


I'm going to talk now about some of my experiences with counter staff, and I have to preface this by saying that I know there are amazing, knowledgeable people on counters who truly have the best intentions. Please do not be offended if you're on counter and you do a fantastic job: I'm not taking that away from you, I'm just talking about personal experiences I've had. I'm quite savvy and do a lot of research when making purchases, but not everyone is. We didn't have access to all of that information back in the day, and additionally some beauty shoppers who are used to this model may not necessarily question if every salesperson has their best interests at heart. One of my big issues is their vested interest in their specific brand. So many times whilst shopping at beauty counters, the staff member I'm talking to doesn't have the honesty to say 'hey, we don't really have what you're describing / something suitable for your skin, but [insert other brand] over there might be to help'. Instead, so many salespeople are hellbent on forcing unsuitable products onto potential customers. I've walked away with totally incorrect foundation shades so many times that I now will just ask for a sample of the suitable-looking shades to try at home in my own light. I get it: it's their incentive, but it just lacks integrity to me, and I'm much more likely to return to members of staff I can trust.

Counterintuitively, I often find that the product knowledge some members of staff have to be lacking. For me, the supposed benefit of counter service should be having an expert on the brand's offering at your disposal, however I've often approached staff to see if they stock a new launch I've seen on Instagram and they've never even heard of it. Ok, a specific date on when they'll have it in won't always be available but I feel like staff should be engaged with their own brand's social media pages and new launches.

And the main reason I don't appreciate the service is the hard sell. I remember when I was at university, I went shopping with my mum at the Trafford Centre when I was home for the weekend and was just having a little browse but before I knew it I'd bought a £50 product (an anti-ageing serum when I was about 19!) just so I'd be left alone. Not unlike some sort of coerced confession to murder by an innocent person who's been worn down and is prepared to give the detective whatever they want. Ok, I'm being a bit facetious, but I honestly think sometimes you just give in to these tactic because it feels less uncomfortable than somehow extracting yourself from the situation. I'm sure my age played a role too - I'd be far firmer these days. When my mum found out what I'd done (as someone who was paying my rent at the time...) she took me straight back to the counter to return it, which I did whilst looking at the floor throughout. I'm not the only one. I was chatting to a friend and she said that when she was a teenager suffering with acne and her mum just wanted to find something to help her so took her to a well-known old-school counter. They walked away with over £100 worth of skincare (because every step was essential) that didn't work and that they could ill afford. I just think some of the pressure selling tactics used in these environments prey on people's insecurities and almost bully them into buying hopes and dreams. Ok, I understand how capitalism works, but I don't think this is how you create repeat customers!

Please can I just shop in peace?

By and large, I personally like staff in shops to be seen and not heard! I'm honestly being joky, but to me: I like to know someone is there if I need them, a smile and 'hello' as I approach is very welcome, but if I'm browsing, I'm browsing and if I need help: I can ask for it. I don't want someone buzzing around me, putting me under pressure. I honestly don't think these tactics work; I usually end up walking away because it's just too much. I do have to distinguish this from staff who just chat to me casually about beauty stuff in general, though, because that's obviously totally appreciated! For me, it's the difference between having a genuine little chat with a taxi driver and the Uber driver who asks you really forced, generic questions with zero engagement because they think they need to do that to get a good rating (I'll give you 5 stars to stop). I just feel like a calm, friendly atmosphere is my personal preference and this slightly overbearing approach that a lot of the big American beauty brands take doesn't necessarily translate well to a British audience.

The other thing I've experienced is open hostility. Outright snobbery is, perhaps, a little less common these days, but I do still think it exists (have you ever walked into the 'designer' section and felt unfriendly eyes on you until you left?) Additionally, some counter staff take a strange approach: negging you to make you buy their product! I was once looking at the lipsticks on an unnamed long-established MUA brand counter and the member of staff offered help, I said I was fine for now but would let her know if I needed anything. Instead of smiling and stepping away to speak to another shopper, she looked at the lipstick in my hand and said 'that lipstick would look a lot better on you than the one you're wearing - do you want to try it?' I put down the lipstick and walked away. I hadn't gone to look at their products to be insulted and it certainly didn't make me want that lipstick. Ok, a lip colour isn't the most personal thing in the world, but it's still unkind and I can only imagine how those visiting counters with acne or other chronic skin issues would feel if backhanded comments were made to them to try and close the sale. I think every customer deserves to be treated with kindness and, when appropriate, sensitivity. 

Do we really still do beauty like this?

My other question is whether this format is still compatible with how we shop for beauty products. I honestly don't feel as though anyone really goes to a single brand for their entire skincare routine. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think more of a 'pick and mix' approach is most common these days and the majority of skincare counters I've been to are really keen to flog you an entire routine and it just feels very old-fashioned. For example, I like cream cleansers over foaming formulas, but I've been told how amazing a foaming gel is going to be for my skin instead of just being listened to on my stated preferences. If you don't offer a cleanser like that: please just say so!

I also think price comparison is a big thing these days. With dozens of retailers at our fingertips, we want to make sure we're getting the best deal possible, which isn't easy when you're at a counter in person being pushed to make a purchase there and then. There's also other information I personally like to mull over before dropping any cash, like the INCI list. And these are just things I want to read and digest in my own time rather than someone giving me a sales pitch and then expecting me to immediately make a purchase. 

The future of bricks and mortar beauty shopping

Ok, so it sounds like I hate shopping for beauty in person and I want everyone working in physical beauty retailers to be out of work. Not true! This past year has made me really think about what I like about shopping in person. Yes, if I'm looking for a foundation, I do want to see it in person, but that's out of necessity, not enjoyment. I personally really enjoy the shopping experience I get in Space NK and it made me think that it's such a shame that Sephora withdrew from the UK market way back in the day, because I think if they tried again now: that format would be really popular. Having members of staff who have a broad range of knowledge across different brands is really helpful (I get that they can't know everything, but you could specialise in skincare or haircare or makeup etc. as opposed to representing a particular company). Instead of pushing a specific brand, they have no affiliation and are happy just to tell you what's best for you. Space NK specifically just gives me joy! I love that it's an edited collection of the best products from luxury brands, I feel like the staff are helpful but not overbearing and I've never felt unwelcome or uncomfortable in there. I used to pop in all the time at lunch when I lived back home in Manchester and I just loved the experience, smelling the candles, maybe treating myself to a new Hourglass blusher...

I also have noticed Harvey Nichols and Selfridges have non-counter sections selling affordable, mid-range and more premium niche brands that you don't associate with a traditional beauty hall. Quite often, pre-pandemic I'd be walking past Selfridges and think 'I've got 10 minutes' and head in just to browse this section, because it's the only place to find certain makeup brands in person and it's one of the few places where I can go and discover something new, even being the beauty junkie I am. There are usually Selfridges staff around in this area if you need anything but it's pretty relaxed and I far prefer this experience. I think these innovations are really what will separate high street stores that will thrive in the coming years from those that aren't going to make it through the economic downturn.

I hope you enjoyed this polemic! Obviously I was being kind of tongue-in-cheek with a few of these points. I am well aware that there are many good eggs out there on beauty counters, but I'm interested in knowing: how do you feel about counter service?

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