Saturday, 13 March 2010

Counter Culture: "Thanks, I'm just browsing"

Photo by darkensiva on

Approaching a counter in a beauty hall can be a nerve-wracking experience. Your're lured by the array of products, all lined up and waiting to be investigated. A lush spectrum of eyeshadows, all carefully laid open for swatching. Inviting lipstick testers uncapped and shining before you. Or maybe a special display of limited edition products you've only seen or read about online, right there in the flesh. The compulsion to walk up to the counter and get to grips with the oh-so-tempting displays is powerful indeed.

But in the back of your mind, a little voice is shouting "it's a trap!". You know that as soon as you step within an undefined distance of the counter, you're in danger, and as soon as you take one of those poisoned-chalice testers in hand, you're doomed.The adversary into whose lair you've wandered - Pushy Counter Sales Person - is close at hand and poised to strike.

It doesn't matter if you've only got a fiver in your pocket and have no intention whatsoever of buying that day. Once you've stepped into the domain of the PCSP the fight for your financial well-being begins, and it's an epic battle you can end only by fleeing the vicinity as fast as possible, or succumbing to wallet-death.

Whatever you have in your hand at the point of encounter is highlighted in glowing terms by the PCSP, who rears up from behind the display like a painted predator with a ready barrage of spiel. If you try to resist, alternative products will be pushed into your line of sight. If you say you just want to browse, you're held in the death-stare traction beam of the PCSP until you touch another item, and the hard-sell process begins once again. Eventually you capitulate and buy, or scurry away intimidated.

Counter staff often seem to be trained to work on the following assumptions. One; that if you've stepped within a metre of their counter, you're going to buy at least 5 products. Two; that you've never worn any makeup before. Three; that their brand is the only one you've even considered.

Whatever you say, the PCSP is trained not to listen to your actual needs, but instead to twist the situation towards the eventuality of you handing over your debit card. Even if you are embarrassed into making a purchase, it's likely you won't spend enough to placate them or their demanding sales targets.

The fact is that many of us do not live in worlds where buying 5 or more products that cost £15 or £30 is realistic, especially if we've only wandered by on a whim. That is a bloody great lot of money. To make an expensive purchase, we likely want to visit the counter, weigh up the pros and cons of the goods on offer, and more often than not go away and make a considered decision before spending our hard-earned cash. In today's compare-the-market culture, we're probably going to want to have a look at other people's reviews, see what products are available from other brands to fulfil the same purpose, and discuss it with like-minded consumers online too.

Perhaps the greatest loss is that counter staff could be a valuable part of that process. I've tried in the past to visit a counter and just chat to the staff when they approach me, discuss other things from the brand that I've enjoyed, investigate a new collection, etc., without intending to buy on that particular occasion. (An example would be going to Debenhams to take a look at the famous Alice In Wonderland Book of Shadows.) But while I'm trying to have a conversation, they're trying to pitch a sale. The result is that they become frustrated and I become scared and awkward and usually make a sharp exit without ever getting a real sense of the products I was curious about in the first place.

OK, they're there to sell makeup, and they feel I am wasting their time. But does that have to be all a counter person is for? What could have been a great opportunity for me to learn about their products, their calendar of new collections, the company's ethos etc. and gain information I could share with others, turns into an impasse with negative emotions on both sides.

I implore companies who keep their staff so hungry for comission that they turn into PCSPs: Change your outlook, and drastically. Because while we're scared to come near your counters, we're not only frustrated by the experience, we're also not confident of what to expect if we do want to purchase. Pay (and train) your staff well, whether or not they make a sale. Welcome people whether or not they want to purchase there and then, and provide an open forum for people to get to know your products. I promise: If the goods are worth having, we will choose to buy them.

Some counter staff do appreciate that they aren't going to make a sale just by pressuring people, and that approach really does transform the experience. If you're made welcome and allowed to browse, you're likely to find what you want for yourself, especially if you're enough of a product-head to visit a high-end counter. If the person you're dealing with is passionate about their product and inspires you so that you WANT to buy, then so much the better.

For the ultimate good of both brand and shopper, purchase has to be a choice the consumer makes freely. Counters are a vital part of a brand's presence - they represent the company on high streets throughout the UK, showcase its products to the consumer market, and make the sales that provide its financial lifeblood. And if the face of your counter is a scary predator who manipulates people into buying or fleeing, what does that say about your brand? 


  1. I totally agree, a lot of them are so pushy that they put you off.

    There have been many times when I've wanted to just swatch and theyve pounced on me but then I've also had the opposite happen, I've wanted help and nobody has been there.

    The Clarins ladies in John Lewis are the worst, you just have to walk BY and they start their whole spiel.

    If they were more relaxed, it would be a lot easier, the ladies on the YSL counter in John Lewis have it right, they always ask if I'm ok and leave me to swatch, I approach them asking about a certain product/colour and they help me find it in as many different guises as they can.

  2. It's good about YSL counter - Oxford St branch? I've been ignored on counter too. To be fair, I guess it's hard for them to know who appreciates what kind of approach.

  3. Yeah, that's the branch.

    I think sometimes they just need to think what it's like to be a buyer, if EVERYONE has a problem with the way they're pushy, it surely can't be the customers who are in the wrong.

    I think if they ask you once you've had a look around, that's fine but when they ask you before you've even had a look and then they start showing you a million and one things, then they need to rethink their approach.

  4. Excellent post - my feelings are exactly the same.
    Sometimes I'd like to just have a conversation about makeup/skincare when browsing - not necessarily a conversation that needs to end with a transaction...

    Once in Boots I was swatching lots of shadows and blushers on my hand, which after a while became just DIRTY. I looked around but tissues or wipes were nowhere to be found. I was standing just next to a Benefit counter and the SA immediately jumped at me, blatantly trying to hard sell their products. "I noticed you were looking at our blushers, they are amazing", she said. "Ummm, actually, I was looking for something to wipe my hand as it's covered in makeup", said I, waving my hand so she could have a look at it, "do you happen to have any?"

    She handed me over a face wipe with an expression on her face that would imply I killed her family.

  5. Well said! Thank god the sales assistants at Inglot and MAC here ask if I need help initially, and then leave me to swatch. I'm always worried when I go to a counter that I'm going to get pestered into buying something, which is actually why i shop online so much.

  6. I think i must be trained in the art of not taking must come from shopping In Camden Market!
    But if a salesperson comes over as pushy i simply put down a product and begin to walk away or tell them, "ive no intent to buy today i simply wish to check out your products for future purchase. if i need your help ill give you a shout.thanks" The ones i tend to ovoid straight away are where the sales person is very badly made up - i mean what sort of advice are you going to give me looking like that! HAHA

    Luckily the stands ive been to recently have been great - Illamasqua and Clarins, where the sales girl was more than happy to give me samples of some of the foundations i wanted to try so i could try them for a few days. brilliant.

  7. As a cosmetic scientist I have a bit of inside knowledge and I find it fun to ask the counter staff about the products. I never break my cover - I just nod in a slightly vacant way when they answer my questions. But I would say do not take even the slightest notice of anything they tell you. They are completely clueless about what the products can do. You get better information from blogs like this one.

  8. @Oloala - that is hilarious. Her "Benebubble" technique didn't work that time!

    @SilhouetteScreams are Inglot good as well? There's only one counter in London that I know of and I've never been so far.

    @Sakara that's very good about Clarins. Did you get one of the little "my mini treats" bags? That's a good promotion, that.

    @Colin that's great - do they assume you're a husband looking for gifts? Thanks for the compliment - we do hope to be of use.


Related Posts with Thumbnails