Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Cosmetics Contemplations: Can you fully trust a brand that only sells online?

With the rise and rise of online shopping, we could be forgiven for thinking that in just a few short years, physical shops will almost disappear to make way for the ever-expanding web hypermarket which promises to deliver anything we desire to our doors from just about anywhere in the world.

But are makeup and beauty products exempt from this tidal wave of choice online? While shopping via the world wide web does enable us all to discover products beyond our own back door, such an industry is arguably the one that has the ability to try before you buy most at its heart. Do people really have the confidence to buy a product, one that they have never tried before in real life, online? 

For lovers of large brands that already have a big presence in department stores, the answer can seem obvious. What better than to go for a wander around a few beauty counters, discreetly touch and sniff and try (and, for the more audacious, ask for a few samples), and then go home and try to find the product for less money on the internet? 

But what of brands who don't have the same physical presence? Smaller brands can find that the easiest way to start up is to go entirely online, so that they can make more money by needing to pay fewer staff and fewer overheads, rather than selling their products out of physical premises where these costs may become more of a concern. This means that the opportunity to try before you buy is not always there - and the very lack of a physical presence in a shop near them may leave buyers feeling more wary. And yet people do buy online without having tried the product, and smaller brands such as Lily Lolo and Bellapierre have indeed grown up into bigger brands by starting online.

How have they done it? And how can we as buyers know who to trust? As well as the issue of paying for a product that, for all you know, you may never receive (an ever-present peril of etailing!), there's also the notion of counterfeit products to contend with, whether through rogue traders on eBay or dodgy deals via group buying sites such as KGB Deals. One user of community forum MoneySavingExpert.com, for example, purchased a Benefit eye kit only to be told it was fake by department store staff (after hearing bad things about the company, she had gone in to have her kit checked over). "They even pointed out differences between the real deal and my fake one," she said, citing that her eye pencil had had 'Made in Germany' printed along it when it shouldn't, and that the compartment for the tweezers should be magnetic to stop them from falling out (hers wasn't).

One way in which such companies can build up trust is to do as Lily Lolo did - to sell small sample sizes on the site that potentially interested buyers could test out at a very low price before shelling out for a full-size pot. That way, people can make sure they are happy, and have a travel size on hand once they have bought the full size in the right shade. When Lily Lolo did get bigger, they started selling through another highly trusted retailer, TV shopping channel QVC, which is famed for its lenient returns policy (every purchase on QVC has a 30-day money back guarantee). 

Liz Earle is another beauty company which also now sells via QVC, but started out online and with only one physical shop (on the Isle of Wight). As well as offering Try-Me kits online, the key way in which the company was able to gain trust was simply by word of mouth and by being featured frequently in national press - the company often seems newer than it is because of the fact that they have had to build up trust slowly over a number of years.

But just because companies don't do these things, it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be trusted either. One of my favourite companies, Fyrinnae, produces mineral makeup at rock-bottom prices. You can't order samples, and they're not really known in the mainstream even though they've been around a while. So throwing caution to the wind and just ordering from them (especially when they're located in the US - across a mighty great body of water!) may have seemed foolhardy - but as a result I've discovered some brilliant products.

There are ways, though, in which you can protect yourself: does the website seem secure? Does it use trusted payment methods like WorldPay and PayPal (I know there are plenty of people out there with issues with PayPal, but I'm not one of them)? Is the seller themselves a trusted one with a good feedback rating? Do they post their own photographs of the product, or just use a generic copy of an image from elsewhere? Do they have a suspicious number of duplicate listings? It's important to check these things - not just to avoid being ripped off, but also for your own health (if a product intended for use on your face, especially around your eyes, is contaminated in any way, all you'll have bought yourself is a trip to the hospital). 

Take a good look yourself, and if you're still not sure, there are plenty of websites that try to help too, such as MakeupSavvy and SavvySkin. Ebay is even wising up to the problem and trying to protect its customers by publishing its own guide. Used products are also more likely to be genuine, and since something that's only been used once or twice is not going to be too different to a brand new product, I'd advise taking a punt on used products as well - just make sure you use a clean brush.

In short, then, you can trust a brand that sells online - whether that's its whole business or only part of it. Like anything else in life, just have fun and be careful while you're doing it.

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