Reflections On Brand Beauty

Vacation is over, and everyone is looking to return to work trim and healthy, aglow with the radiance of the summer sun. Everybody wants to look their best heading into fall, naturally, or with the aid of beauty products.

And according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, retail giants are tired of losing cosmetics sales to the likes of Sephora while simultaneously losing inventory to consumers who are insistent on the "try-before-buy" experience, biting their way through consumer-resistant packaging.

And then there are the returns. Such as when that vibrating mascara wand wasn't all consumers dreamed about once they got home and thought better of putting an independently moving object anywhere near their corneas. To help solve these pesky consumer-generated problems, EZface Inc., makers of virtual mirrors, has arrived at the pilot stage with 40 kiosks in 10 Wal-Mart stores in the U.S.

Designed to be easy to use, the consumer stands in front of a screen, and an internal camera takes a picture. Shoppers scan the barcodes of the cosmetics of interest and each automatically appears where it goes on the face, all the while keeping a neat tally of the products in a sidebar. This being 2010, said subject can print, email -- or, depending on their level of bravery or innocence, Facebook-post the final image.



When it comes to how major discount retailers mirror consumer expectations when it comes to technology, here's how the brands rate right now:

1. Target

2. Wal-Mart

3. Marshall's

4. J.C. Penny/Sears

5. Kmart

This virtual world being created is all designed to get consumers to do something they do all the time when it comes to cosmetics: reach for the ideal. In this case, it's the ideal face. But there is also an ideal for brands -- something we've devoted ourselves to studying and observing as it changes over time. And these days that ideal, when it comes to retail brands, hinges on shopping experience even more so than low prices.

It remains to be seen whether the makeover in Wal-Mart's cosmetic department offers the elevated experience shoppers are looking for when it comes to their grab at personal perfection. Or if the Sephora party will continue on in its reign as a destination store, where consumers are encouraged to play with the products as long as they like.

Categories, like skincare, change over time. Like Starbuck's immersion years ago revolutionizing how the U.S. viewed coffee, the ideal image of the cosmetic-buying category currently reflected back may have a decidedly new perspective.

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