By Rhea Cartwright
’ll never forget my first shop-floor makeover, aged 13, with my Dad and in the gone-but-never-forgotten Allders department store in Croydon.
Your inaugural trip to a beauty counter is a rite of passage. Unlike 13-year-olds of today, who blend and bake better than some professional makeup artists, I neither possessed nor knew of such skills, but loved makeup all the same. After 15 minutes of tittivating, when handed the mirror my skin appeared flat and powdery in a way that a 13-year-old’s face would look had its natural and enviable glow been mattified with heavy foundation. Even to the undiscerning eye, it wasn’t the best job.
And yet, I somehow still loved the performance of it, the way she could reel off shade names without even turning the product upside-down to look. Little did I know that I would begin my own beauty career in Space NK several years later. My methodology, while unorthodox made sense – if I wanted to push the boundaries of the beauty industry, I’d need to understand every facet of it, and the shop floor was where the magic happened.
Working in beauty retail, you’re encouraged to get customers to sit down, predominantly to sell more products, but the rather uncomfortable metal stools aren’t merely a means to colour-match a foundation. Those chairs masquerade as therapists’ couches, for though they’re not lying down, still clients shed layers of themselves and disclose personal secrets you can tell they’ve not told a soul before. With an exhale, their stiff shoulders soften just at the cusp before they open up to a stranger.
While some people balk at the idea of waxing lyrical with hairdressers, nail technicians or beauty-counter staff, for the majority, it’s a rare opportunity to be listened to by someone whose judgment truly doesn’t matter. I learned the strength but also the fragility of women who would share stories about their children, cancer survival, divorces and love.
One such client of mine was a lady in her mid-50s. A cool-toned brunette with hair sitting just below her shoulders, she was the kind of woman that you could tell bought everything in John Lewis due to sheer practicality. She told me she wanted to get herself some “nice bits” because she knew her husband wouldn’t muster much enthusiasm for a Christmas present. “He bought me a new toilet last year.” It wasn’t said in jest or sarcasm but in deflated disappointment, as you can imagine.
‘It’s deeply intimate, describing our self-assigned flaws to a stranger who we’re turning to for advice’
With most beauty halls located on the ground floor of department stores, you’re olfactorily awakened as waves of amalgamated perfumes hit you immediately upon entering the store. You're greeted by counter staff with name badges and broad smiles, who wave fragrance testers and pots of delectable creams to try.
Some are there purely as a means to an end. A basic pay rate boosted by a healthy commission structure and staff discount is attractive, and everyone has bills to pay. They’ll invite you to sit down, but would prefer it if you didn’t, as they’re due to go on lunch. They could remove your entire face of foundation to colour-match you accurately, but would rather just remove a tiny square on your jaw to speed up the process.
Their poor service will mar your beauty buying experience in the way that any bad service would, as you head home with products that don’t meet your expectations, but which you felt intimidated into buying nonetheless.
But I hope experiences of that nature make up the minority, and instead, you are met today and in the coming weeks, with beauty retail staff fuelled with passion and aspirations of becoming professional makeup artists or celebrity facialists. Those whose obsession with beauty runs so deep that they can overlook the absurd shift patterns, stock-takes spent endlessly counting single eyeshadows, and helping customers look for “a full-coverage, matte but still glowy sheer foundation” – AKA the impossible.
When perusing beauty counters we often navigate towards the member of staff we relate to the most – perhaps it’s their style or skin tone – in the hope that they’ll just understand. In an industry that thrives on our inability to achieve the ever-moving beauty-standard goalposts, we often lead with our concerns rather than our contentments. It’s deeply intimate, describing our self-assigned flaws to a stranger who we’re turning to for advice.
As an ex-shop floor beauty employee, my muscle memory can almost feel the aching feet and calves that will inevitably follow an eight hour day spent vertically, after a year of horizontally withering on the sofa. I can envisage the unimaginable sensory overload and fatigue that will come from having endless conversations and nano-interactions with customers and colleagues. Akin to September’s first day back at school after seemingly eternal summer holidays, I can also imagine the nervous excitement of seeing said peers and patrons, choosing which black outfit to wear and wondering if your work crush will also be in.
As a consumer, I have waited impatiently for this day, yearning to touch, test and try, with makeup swatch stains on the back of my hands and wrists so saturated by perfume sprays that I cannot decipher which is which. I have been longing to take a seat, to grimace in a mirror under harsh overhead lighting and be seduced by a gift with purchase to catalyse my spend.
And now, as a beauty editor having spent my career in beauty retail and services, I am jubilant about beauty’s return although I don't doubt that there will be a shared apprehension between shoppers and staff, tentatively venturing to Liberty, Selfridges, Space NK et al. It may have been categorised as non-essential but the individuals behind it are anything but. A workforce, which is overwhelmingly female, can once again join the beauty front line and I can only hope they can continue to do so.
If beauty is a religion, the department store is its house of worship – and we can’t wait to get back there and confess.
By Rhea Cartwright