6 Secrets to Buying Beauty Products With Zero Regrets

Want to stock up on all your beauty essentials, find formulas that work for you, and save time and cash? Well, obviously.

Photo: Asia Pietrzyk

Unlike shoes, cars, and furniture, beauty products rarely go on sale. In fact, for years, the only way to get a beauty deal was to storm a department store during gift-with-purchase week and score yours before they ran out. But the beauty landscape has changed. Thanks to the proliferation of boutiques and online stores, competition for your beauty buck is fierce, forcing retailers to find creative ways to lure you into their stores. The result: specials, samples, and a slew of free services that all translate into savings, as well as a more enjoyable and efficient shopping experience. Use these strategies to take full advantage of the new beauty benefits.

Try before you buy.

Nearly anywhere you go to buy lipstick or dry shampoo, you can (and should) expect permission to test-run a product before you buy it. “In an effort to keep pace with boutiques and department stores, many drugstores now also have tester units and floating sales staff to help consumers make shade selections,” says Sara Skirboll, a shopping expert for RetailMeNot. “And if there isn’t a tester, a salesperson may be allowed to open one. A polite ask usually goes a long way.” Walgreens has more than 3,000 beauty consultants nationwide, who are “trained to assist with color matching, application, and more,” says Lauren Brindley, group vice president of beauty and personal care for Walgreens.

Ask for a sample to go.

When it comes to skin care, you may need to try a product for a while to gauge whether it works for you. So ask for a sample. “At Nordstrom, we stock small vials and jars so we can easily provide a sample of almost anything,” says Mary Nell Maddox, Nordstrom’s national beauty director. Dillard’s also offers samples of foundation and fragrance, two items customers like to live with a bit before investing in. At Sephora, “there’s no limit on samples or a purchase required,” says Jeffrey English, a Sephora beauty director based in Los Angeles. Shopping online? Nordstrom and Bluemercury provide free samples with every purchase, letting you choose from a select offering at checkout.

Cash in on free expertise.

Heading to a party and want an eye look? Most stores now offer free (or redeemable-with-purchase) makeup lessons, skin-care services, and more. A few examples: At Nordstrom, Lancôme gives a “No Filter Needed” tutorial on correcting and concealing; Saks Fifth Avenue offers 15-minute On-the-Go Facials; and Sephora has group classes on a wide range of topics, like false-lash application, brow shaping, and makeup tricks to address the visible effects of cancer treatment. Call your local store or check the website for a full list of offerings. Note: If a service or class is free, you are under no obligation to purchase anything, nor is a tip expected.

Disappointed in a product? Take it back.

In the past, if a product was opened, it couldn’t be returned, meaning you were stuck with that too-greasy eye cream or foundation that turned orange on your skin. Well, no longer. Most beauty retailers now have very generous return policies, allowing customers to bring back gently used products (as in, you tried an item a few times; you didn’t use up half the bottle) within a window of time. For some the window is 30 days, for some it’s 60 days, and for some it’s even 90 days—so ask before you buy. It’s worth hanging on to your receipts, since they may help you get cash back instead of store credit. Lastly, spend a few minutes talking to a salesperson about what you didn’t like about the product so they can potentially lead you toward a better fit.

Join the club.

Most retailers—department stores, drugstores, and specialty beauty stores—now offer loyalty membership programs with lots of nice perks, including cash back (usually in the form of points that can be applied to future purchases), exclusive coupons, early access to sales and promotions, and invitations to members-only activities. A few of the many programs available: Sephora’s Beauty Insider, Ulta's Ultamate Rewards, Nordstrom’s Nordy Club, Saks Fifth Avenue’s SaksFirst Beauty, and Walgreens’s Beauty Enthusiast rewards program. Most membership benefits are easily managed and monitored in an online account, so you have access to your profile whether you’re shopping in the store or online. In most cases, the more you spend, the higher you ascend in membership status—and the more benefits you earn. To get the most from these beauty bucks, consider devoting your spending to one or two favorite retailers.

Restock in your PJs.

Shop online if you know exactly what you want to buy. Many retailers, such as Nordstrom and Bluemercury, now offer free shipping and free returns. Not entirely sure what you want? Plenty of beauty sites and apps have tools to help you make your pick without leaving your couch. Target's Beauty Studio, for example, partnered with Perfect Corp’s YouCam to enable website visitors to virtually try on hundreds of makeup items, including lip colors, cheek colors, and false eyelashes. Many sites also have online beauty concierges to help guide your selections. Just like in-store salespeople, these concierges are trained on product lines and are available to answer questions and make recommendations at no charge.

The best times to buy:

April, November, and January. That’s when stores offer discounts of 25 to 30 percent on average, says Skirboll. “Thursdays and Fridays are the days with the best beauty deals,” she adds. “Retailers want to stoke weekend shopping sprees.”

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