Mail-Order Beauty : New Techniques Make Catalogues an Alternative to the Cosmetics Counter

RIGHT ABOUT NOW, just before the holiday shopping rush, the catalogue bombardment begins. But this year, catalogues will be filled with more than traditional gift items. Some of them will be offering makeup.

According to Maxwell Sroge, a Chicago-based consultant to the direct-mail industry, mail-order sales in America amount to $50 billion a year, and the industry is still growing. “People don’t have time to shop,” Sroge explains. Consumers have been buying clothing, fragrance and skin-care products via mail order; why not cosmetics?

The problem has been convincing consumers that they’ll like the colors when the makeup arrives. “The color/ texture area of cosmetics is tough to satisfy by mail,” Sroge admits. He points out that skin-care products are easier to sell because their advantages can be explained. Color isn’t as specific, he says.

“Women sometimes feel that they’re totally on their own when shopping for color cosmetics by mail, and that gets reinforced if there’s an untrained operator just taking orders at the other end,” says Susan Reid, direct-marketing manager for Guerlain.


To solve the problem, firms that offer prestige-priced products are using trained beauty consultants who can answer questions. “When a client realizes that the voice at the other end can offer real information, her confidence increases, " Reid explains.

Cosmetics manufacturer Gale Hayman was one of the first to offer a full line of prestige-priced cosmetics and fashion accessories by mail. By designing her Gale Hayman Beverly Hills collection to coordinate with eye color, and by maintaining a staff of telephone consultants, Hayman is able to offer consumers the guidance necessary to choose the right colors, she says.

“I spend a lot of time training the beauty consultants. They have to know what they’re talking about,” Hayman says. Time spent with the consultants has apparently paid off; Hayman reports a 50% reorder rate.

“Most (department store shoppers) don’t try on colors anyway,” points out Joanne Fradkin, owner of Pigments, a Beverly Hills makeup salon that has a significant mail-order business. “They buy products because they look good in the case. That’s not that different from looking at catalogue pictures.”


Once scented ads were introduced, the inherent problem in buying fragrances by mail was eliminated. The newest form of that technology is encapsulated color, a method of sampling cosmetics that Estee Lauder has used.

The convenience of shopping by mail should not be minimized. As one West Los Angeles woman explains, “I do my shopping in bed with my pile of catalogues. How nice to think about buying cosmetics that way, too.”