Best when: You want in-depth information about a specific line or you’re making big-ticket purchases.
Ever wonder why you rarely see a sale at the beauty counter? “The theory is that if people know that there could be a sale next week, they’ll be discouraged from making impulse buys now,” says Swan Sit, the director of online strategy for the Estée Lauder Companies. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t deals to be had. Department stores often offer promotions meant to buy store loyalty, such as generous gift sets and storewide rewards programs for credit-card holders. And you can’t beat department stores for one-on-one help with your questions about anything from dry skin to turquoise eyeliner.
Get friendly with your salesperson. This can land you on an e-mail or phone list, letting you in on promotions and helping you score samples. Regarding samples: Don’t be shy about asking for them. “It’s perfectly acceptable,” says Paco Underhill, the author of What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly ($25, amazon.com). “Tell the reps, ‘I have always enjoyed your brand.’ ” He adds that you may have better luck if you stick to the midpriced lines as opposed to luxury brands. Another sample secret? Nordstrom department stores hand them out, whether or not you’re buying something, during its weekly Sample Saturdays. The samples change every week. Find out what’s being offered on the company’s Facebook page.
Hit up store events. Whether it’s an opportunity for a mini-facial or a shopping night, when cosmetics counters bring in outside reps, participating shoppers are usually rewarded with extra deals and samples. The same applies to training nights, when employees learn new techniques by practicing on volunteers. Ask a salesperson at your favorite counter when the next one will be held. “Employees are typically already trained and working under the careful eye of a supervisor, so the risk of a makeup disaster is low,” says Sit. More often than not, you’ll go home with a bag of free full-size products.
Be in the know about GWPs. Gifts with purchase, that is. Sites like MyGiftWithPurchase.com and gwpaddict.wordpress.com post what’s being offered at department stores across the country and on the Web. Stuck with a free lipstick that doesn’t suit you? Swap it for something you want at MakeupAlley.com, where members list their unwanted products. (A note to hard-core makeup junkies: You can also swap gently used products here. Stick to items that are easily sanitized, like pencils, which can be sharpened.)
Consider getting a credit card. Many department stores haven’t implemented club cards that reward shoppers with points that can be used toward future purchases. Why not? Because, in general, department stores already issue their own credit cards, which track how much you buy and, in many cases, offer increased savings for the best customers. Just be sure to pay the bill in full each month to avoid finance charges that could negate your savings.