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Counter intelligence: A woman visits the cosmetics department of 3 stores and walks away with a fresh look

If you've passed a cosmetics counter in a mall store within the last decade, you've probably seen someone getting a free makeover. And if you have any human curiosity, you've probably wondered what would happen if you got in the chair.

Well, we wondered that too. And with the help of model Rebecca Buckholz, we found out.

On a recent Monday morning, Ms. Buckholz and a reporter went to three makeup counters at stores in Franklin Park Mall. Posing as friends, the two explained to cosmetics sales representatives at Dillard's, Marshall Field's, and Merle Norman that Ms. Buckholz wanted a new look.

We wanted to approximate the experience of an average person, so we went incognito. We did not tell the saleswomen that their handiwork would end up in the pages of The Blade, and we took all photographs outside the mall. Because we did not reveal our professional affiliation, we will not use the saleswomen's names.

  • Makeover 1: Estee Lauder counter, Dillard's

    The sales rep was friendly and low-key, taking most of her cues from Rebecca. She began by applying cleanser and toner to Rebecca's face, then a powder foundation at Rebecca's request. While she explained what she was doing as she did it, Rebecca could not see the results until the end of the session.

    Rebecca said she wanted to use more color in her makeup, confessing she normally used mostly neutrals and browns. But when it came time to choose shades for eye shadow and lipstick, the sales rep asked Rebecca to choose the colors. When Rebecca chose neutrals and browns, the sales rep used those, rather than suggesting different colors, as Rebecca had indicated she wanted to try. (In all fairness, the same thing happened at the other two stops.)

    The eye shadow remained in the browns/neutrals palette, with a standard application of dark powder in the crease of the socket, lighter powder under the brow, and eyeliner applied painstakingly to the lash line.

    The result: A well-applied, conventional face in about 20 minutes.

    Rebecca's favorite: The lipstick's look and feel. “I can't believe she put the lipstick on so well with a Q-tip!”

  • Makeover 2: Merle Norman

    The most educational makeover we had started with the sales rep handing Rebecca a two-sided cloth (gold on one side, silver on the other) to determine her skin tones. She then gave Rebecca a cotton pad soaked with cleanser. That's when we realized this makeover would involve lots of participation.

    The saleswoman asked Rebecca several questions about her personal style and which facial features she liked, and described which color tones would complement Rebecca's skin. She took plenty of time to answer questions and explain the theory behind what she was doing.

    Along with the three shades of eye shadow, liner, and mascara, the saleswoman handed Rebecca an eyelash curler (explaining how to use it) and brought out clear mascara to brush on the brows, giving them more definition and a sleeker appearance.

    Throughout the process, the saleswoman made careful notes on products used and their prices - a good cheat sheet for Rebecca to take home.

    The result: A somewhat more made-up, but still conventional look in about 30 minutes.

    Rebecca's favorites: The clear mascara on the eyebrows, the curled lashes, the fact that she learned how to put on the makeup.

  • Makeover 3: Clinique counter, Marshall Field's

    This makeover was the only one that cost anything. The saleswoman at the Clinique counter told us Clinique makeovers are “free with a product purchase” - i.e., not free. But Rebecca already planned to buy some Clinique products before we hit the store, so we decided to go through with it.

    The saleswoman began by applying a cream foundation that dried to a powder. The result looked luminous and perfect. Rebecca couldn't stop staring at her reflection.

    As with the other sales reps, the woman took most of her color cues from Rebecca. She used a more restrained hand with the eye makeup than the Merle Norman rep had, and kept a record of products used for the store's files.

    The result: Again, a balanced, attractive, and more subtle look. Rebecca liked this face best.

    Rebecca's favorite: The flawless look of her skin after the foundation was applied.

    By the time the third makeover came to a close, we had learned that all mall makeovers are not created equal. Based on our experiences, we advise you to ask a few questions before you plop your derriere into the chair:

    How involved will you be in the process? Are you expected or required to buy the products? Will the sales rep explain what she or he is doing? Will he or she teach you? Will you get a cheat sheet to take home?

    In the final analysis, Rebecca had one criticism of all three:

    “None of them put a cloak over my shirt, and I got some makeup on my shirt. Just a little bit, but still. That's one touch nobody had.”

    Overall, Rebecca did learn a few things in the three-hour trip (including which public bathrooms are the best in which to wash a face).

    “Communication is the whole point,” she said, noting that every sales rep went by the colors she usually used rather than by Rebecca's request for new color. “Make sure to tell them what you want. If it's a new look, make sure it's not in the same colors. Be precise to get what you want.”

    “I learned that there is a difference in the makeup, what they do. And it's good to go around and see who has what. It's not bad to mix and match your collection, you don't have to be loyal to one company.”

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