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Hardly Glamorous


Hardly Glamorous

Ellen Pascal

If you read "Way Bandy, Kevin Aucoin and Me", you may remember that it has been more than 40 years since I took my first position as a salesgirl in a privately-owned make-up boutique in the city of Town of Mount Royal, Quebec, and that my last assignment ended in the spring of 2008 as Beaute Analyste for Chanel Cosmetics with an American retailer in Palo Alto, California.  

You should also know that I worked exclusively in sales during those years, but I did not work exclusively in the cosmetics industry.  The transitions into and out of the cosmetics industry were fluid.  There is high turnover in beauty advisors at the cosmetics counters in department stores.  The cosmetics business in the US was no different than in Canada.

Business majors know that high turnover in staff is symptomatic of an underlying problem.  Some background information on the department store cosmetics business...

Working as a beauty advisor at a cosmetics counter in a department store is dual employment.  The cosmetics counter is leased by the cosmetics company, the "vendor", from the department store.   Both the department store and the cosmetics company share in the expense of the beauty advisor: her hourly pay, her commission, her training, her uniform, her sales and marketing materials, her personal cosmetics, and so on.  The beauty advisor has 2 different interviews for her job: one with department store personnel and another with her cosmetics company account executive.  Their consent must be mutual.  Each employer has dress standards and sales objectives, the cosmetics company's standards and objectives are more exacting.   

Cosmetics companies may move locations within the department store.  Counter size and position within the department, along with statistical information on foot traffic of customers through the department, determine the desirability of any particular position within the department, as well as the value of its lease.  

During the late 70's in Canada, beauty advisors attended "schools" offered by the cosmetics and fragrance dynasties, essentially to immerse her in the luxury and lore of the brand, to formally dine her in famous hotels, to shower her with generous offerings of their products, and so on.  During the mid-2000's In the US, and especially with the "artistry" lines without deep pockets, not so much.  

Sound wonderful?  Here comes the unfortunate part.  

A hopelessly flawed business model reproduces the same unfortunate results with the predictability of a quartz timepiece: insufficient training, corporate orientation on the fly, gruelling physical challenges, dizzying sales objectives, mean-spirited coaching and modest compensation ensure that sales expectations will be unrealistically high and discourage the new beauty advisor from making an earnest effort.  Things go downhill rapidly for many beauty advisors.  

Let's break it down.

Poorly-trained department store managers are responsible for hiring.  Frequently the incoming beauty advisor has little or no experience.  Once on the job, new beauty advisor training will be insufficient to function confidently to the expectation of the cosmetics vendor.  Vital department store corporate orientation is sometimes skipped.  Electronically-generated work schedules can be inflexible and generate black marks on your personnel record and threaten your job if you change them.  Remaining on your feet for hours, day in, day out, is a gruelling physical challenge.  Sales objectives are uncomfortably high.  The employer's coaching is often mean-spirited.  The compensation package is modest and will not likely produce a living wage for single parents.

Beauty advisors may assume a counter manager’s position for the increased commission, without an understanding of the new responsibilities.  This is a set-up for failure.  I vividly remember daily telephone calls from my Northern California artistry line account executive inquiring into my sales tally for the day, being scolded for failing to make the goal, even being accused of having misrepresented myself during the interview.  Ouch.    

Department store cosmetics business is a lot like department store business in general, organized around the phenomenon of the impulse purchase.  It is disturbingly competitive, and, as is the case with many industries offering low-wage employment, it operates on outdated employment principles as well as unsound business practices; arguably among the least glamorous industries in North America.   

Both in Canada and the US, the department store cosmetics industry has a token gray-haired woman, but will job offer a child in stilettos in less time than it takes to clock into the company’s electronic timekeeper.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is an industry whose unofficial dress code is a tight skirt, cleavage, and too much make-up.  During the mid-2000's you could add a flat-ironed jet black bob with a chunk of neon pink, squared acrylic nails, French manicure, shoulder and instep tattoos, and vibrating tongue piercing.

Outside of the department store cosmetics industry there is an impression of an industry flourishing with artistic creativity, however, the industry functions on a militaristic principal of conformity.  And while it is enormously big business in spite of it's flaws, sadly, it promises something that it fails to deliver to many women... the secrets to genuine beauty.