Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why the Fuck is this Shit so Goddamn Expensive Anyway?

I am still in the midst of unpacking from my move and working on my top secret work project, so Savannah Scorpion is back to entertain and inform you with more of the insider scoop on how to buy beauty products without throwing your fucking money away. As always, comment below or email with any questions or future topics you'd like her to address! 


This is Savannah Scorpion, returning to provide an insider's perspective about why expensive cosmetics are so expensive. This has been something discussed on the blog before, but this post is going to go much more in-depth. You'll also see some pictures of me holding tubes of lipstick in my teeth. 

So, without further ado, here is the Master List of Reasons Why Expensive Beauty Shit is So Fucking Expensive:

1. Volume.

Think about all of the places you can buy L'Oreal, Revlon, Maybelline, and CoverGirl cosmetics.  You can get these mass brands at virtually every;

  • grocery store (Family Fare, Kroger, Publix, Hy-Vee, Stop & Shop, etc)
  • drugstore (Walgreen's, CVS, Eckerd, Duane Reade, etc)
  • large "big box" retailer (Walmart, Target, Meijer, Fred Meyer)
  • Ulta Beauty store, in the mass cosmetics section
  • along with online at websites like 
These cosmetics are everywhere. And because there are everywhere, and are accessible to lots of people, cosmetics companies don't have to charge as much for them to make a profit.

Prestige cosmetics brands are not nearly as accessible.Many brands are bound by exclusivity contracts. Depending on the contract, you can only find those products at specific department stores, company stores, or beauty retailers like Sephora or Ulta. If you can only find a product at a Sephora, Macy's, Needless-Markup, or Belk, you will pay more.

2. Shelf space/packaging.

This goes along with number 1 quite nicely. If you go to a drugstore, you will see that mass cosmetics are displayed in a way that fits as much product on as small of a space as possible. The products are packaged in a way that they take up as little space as possible. This allows the company to save money when they are attempting to keep costs low by selling as much shit as possible.

On the other hand, if you visit a Sephora, or the prestige section of Ulta, or the cosmetics counters at a department store, you will see that not a whole lot of products are on display. You'll see that displays are more elaborate. And you'll see that the products are packaged in more elaborate packaging, and get wrapped in tissue paper. Shelf space that isn't devoted to product costs money, just as how any article or photograph in a newspaper or magazine that isn't an advertisement costs the publication money. If you have less products to sell, you will have to charge more in order to make a profit.

As for packaging  the best way I can demonstrate this is with my extensive lipstick collection. 

This is a Wet N Wild lipstick that I got at a Rite Aid. It was shrink-wrapped, and comes in a lightweight plastic tube. 

Now, this is a Bare Minerals Marvelous Moxie lipstick. The tube is made out of metal (it's quite hefty), and there's a special toggle at the bottom that keeps the lipstick locked in. This is a pretty handy feature, and the company spent lots of money on R&D, paying designers to design a better lipstick tube and spent more money to make this more elaborate packaging.  As a recovering art school graduate, I have nothing against designers and artists making money designing stuff. Just keep in mind that somebody has to pay for this, and that somebody is usually you, the consumer. 

3. Labor

When was the last time you saw a makeup artist from L'Oreal or CoverGirl at your local drugstore?

There's a huge labor cost associated with prestige brands, and prestige cosmetics retailers. L'Oreal, e.l.f., and Wet n' Wild don't have to pay and train cosmetics sales reps to go around to Ulta and Sephora stores to train and educate THEIR employees about their products. I might be a little biased, but I think it can be helpful to have a trained makeup artists color match your foundation, help find the best red lipstick shade for your skintone, show you how to do a smoky eye, or suggest something you wouldn't have thought about doing yourself. You will pay more for your products when you shop at a prestige counter, because you are also helping pay for our salaries. Thank you.

4. Limited Edition Products

Prestige brands love to offer limited edition products. Think MAC and Rihanna, NARS and Andy Warhol/Pierre Hardy, Lancome and Albert Elbaz, Lipstick Queen and the Museum of Sex. Having colors and products that are limited edition means that in order to turn a profit, the company will have to charge more. When supply is kept artificially low and demand is high because of the "buzz" about of these products, prices will go up.

Also, many of these "limited edition" products have special "limited edition" packaging, which is costly.

5. They offer colors that aren't in huge demand.

One of the biggest offenders of this is Urban Decay. Their 24-7 GlideOn Eyeliner Pencils are a favorite among editors and beauty bloggers. And they're 19 dollars a pencil.


One of the reasons is that they have so many colors. Some colors, like Zero, Perversion, and Rockstar are very popular, but others are not. I mean, there's not a whole lot of demand for neon pink eyeliner. So while the black, brown, and navy shades sell a lot, some of the other shades aren't as popular. So, to cover the cost of making shades that aren't  going to sell as well, ALL of their shades are expensive.

I'm a huge fan of lipstick colors that are not found in nature.
And guess what?
There's not a whole lot of demand for blue/black/lavender/deep purple lipstick, so mass cosmetics companies aren't willing to invest in producing shades that aren't going to be big sellers. Companies that DO offer black lipstick, blue lipgloss, and other colors-not-found-in-nature shades, like Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, Illamasqua, Make Up Forever, Kryolan, and so on are catering to a niche market, and because the market is smaller, they can charge more.

5. Testers and Samples and Gratis, Oh My!

In my first post, I mentioned taking advantage of of the testers in cosmetics retailers, and asking for samples. Being able to sample things is great, especially if you plan on dropping some significant cash for your cosmetics and skincare. It's very costly for a company to set aside products as testers and manufacture mini samples of products, as well as provide full-size products as gratis to cosmetics sales reps, sales associates, management, and PR samples of products for beauty bloggers. When you drop 22 to 48 dollars for a lipstick, you're subsidizing all of the swag that a prestige cosmetics retailer is handing out.

6. Because the company is French.

So, evidently French drugstores are the shit. I have never traveled to France, but I'll take Gwyneth Paltrow's word on it. Certain skincare lines that are sold at French (and evidently some Canadian) drugstores like Vichy and La Roche-Posay have come to America.

And they aren't sold in American drugstores. They're sold in the prestige skincare sections of Sephora and Ulta. And they cost more in the States than they do in France. Because they're French! And Americans will spend loads of money on shit if everything on the bottle is written in French.

7. And finally, their products are formulated differently.

I'll confess that as someone who contributes to a blog called Cheap as Fuck, most of the cosmetics I own are Expensive as Shit.


Now, there are some differences in the quality of certain prestige cosmetics. If we go back to my Wet N Wild/Bare Minerals comparison, there are some formula differences. the Wet and Wild lipstick is not scented (if anything, it smells like wax), while the BareMinerals lipstick has a light scent. Both lippies look pretty bright in the tube, but the Wet N Wild one goes on more sheer, whereas the BareMinerals is much more opaque.

However, "expensive" DOES NOT MEAN "better pigments" or even "better formula quality". Examine shit on a case-by-case basis. Mass cosmetics are stepping up their pigment game. Remember that Pat Freaking McGrath is doing product development for CoverGirl. Remember that my coworkers at the salon I work at, who charge upwards of 90 bucks for a facial, recommend Cetaphil and Cerave. Remember that if you drop the cash for "organic" or "botanical" or products without parabens, you may have to replace them more frequently, because products that don't have preservatives will expire more quickly.

Also, remember that pigments are not everything. If a product is too pigmented, and doesn't  have enough binders to keep it together, it will smear everywhere and won't last long (coughUrbanDecaycoughcough).

I'll leave y'all with a true story about the skincare/color brand Vbeaute. When Vbeaute launched, it was only available at Bergdorf Goodman. And if you went to Bergdorf's, you'd have to drop 145 dollars for a single product.

Until Vbeaute's founder, Julie Mackelowe decided to change the marketing strategy for the company. Vbeaute left Bergdorf's, and is now being sold online, and at select Walgreen's and Duane Reade stores in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami.

And guess what? Prices dropped substantially.
Because the company was no longer bound by an exclusivity agreement with Bergdorf's, and could now sell their products more places (volume, increased shelf space), and lowered their labor costs. And their formula didn't change one bit.

I'm not saying that you should never spend money on prestige makeup or skincare. What I am saying is that there are a wide variety of contributing factors that make expensive cosmetics expensive--many of which have nothing to do with differences in formula. Do research, ask questions, request samples, and most importantly, don't believe the hype.


  1. Yeah I wish I listened to the don't fall for the hype shit. I won't lie the worst purchase I've ever made was the nars andy warhol/debbie Harry palette...I paid like $70 for four eyeshadows and two blushes that are so glitter packed their unfuckingwearable. Totally my fault but I blame the hype and the tie ins :p

    1. I heard that one was bad! It sucks when things are going to sell out quickly and you have to decide before you have a chance to look at reviews/swatches online.

  2. The colour selection and quality is usually what drives me to more expensive cosmetics. I love wild colours, but there are certain brands that do them well, and certain ones that don't. In my quest for non-patchy/chalky bright purples, matte yellows, and acid greens, I've yet to find a drugstore brand that can do them to my satisfaction (not sheer and patchy). I get driven to online retailers and brands like UD because they make products that work. If I can get 3 shades of UD purple that work, I'd rather spend $60 there (UD is always more in Canada. Boo) than $60 on 10-15 Revlon purples that don't work. Also, if there's colours that are unique, I'm willing to spend more for them. I have only ever bought a single, full-size MAC pigment, and it's because I couldn't find a close enough dupe anywhere.

    1. That makes total sense, and I think is even more of an important issue in Canada where the selection is more limited. Bright colored eyeshadows are really hard to get right in drugstore versions, I agree. Even high end ones are dicey, though. I don't know if Pop Beauty is available in Canada, but I just saw these swatches, and was pretty blown away:

    2. Ohhh I hadn't seen these. They seem pretty awesome! I believe the Targets here carry the brand. I've gotten a couple products from them through Ipsy (though no shadows yet). Going to have to check them out. Thanks!

  3. Yay! Comments!

    Ashley, I totally agree. While I'm kicking myself that I didn't get the lipgloss in Holly Woodlawn, I noticed that all of the highlighter/blush/shadow colors in the Warhol collection were very sparkly. And sparkly is not always a good thing, because sparkles/shimmer can highlight uneven skin/acne scars/fine lines/etc.

    There is still a quality gap when it comes to powder eyeshadows, but I've found that mass eyeliner pencils/crayons/gel pot liners and shadows are just as good, if not better, than prestige ones. I sympathize about the wild colors thing. I damn near crawled out of my skin when I heard NYC was doing a limited edition black lipstick.

    If y'all have any questions or suggestions about a future post, let me know!

    1. I love the posts you've contributed so far! As someone who's worked at counters and larger cosmetic stores, I'd be interested to hear about how you choose to approach and interact with customers. Going to actual makeup counters is always daunting for me because my experiences with them have been less than stellar. I'd boil it down to the way I dress. I have more of an "Alternative" style going on, and it's usually next to impossible for me to get decent service at a makeup counter, even when I ask. If I absolutely HAVE to go to one, I make the effort to dress nicer (read: more expensive-looking) and I find it gets me better service, which is kind of annoying. What can I do as a customer to get the most out of Counter sales reps? Are there certain things I should be asking? Not asking? Doing? Not doing?

    2. I'm glad you're enjoying the posts so far!

      When I was training, our manager lead us through some interactions, and we had to role-play as different types of customers. We also got a talk about recognizing body language. We were taught to mimic what the customer was doing. If a customer was wandering around, it was fine to approach them, but if someone was not making eye contact, or was clearly on a mission, we were told to keep our distance.

      Now, corporate policy at any cosmetics retailer is that you always greet customers. However, a lot of sales reps can be very snobby. This is a very stuck-up, cliquey industry, and I witnessed prestige sales reps straight up ignore customers who clearly needed help, ESPECIALLY if they were male, or weren't white.

      If you are not getting good service at a specific retailer or counter, don't shop there. Tell your friends, and tell the store management. A lot of stores have customer surveys-and District Managers pay a shitton of attention to negative responses.

      You might have better luck at more "alternative" cosmetic brands such as MAC, Urban Decay, Inglot, Manic Panic, or even Sephora stores. I've found that these brands cater to a more avant-garde audience (hell, call Urban Decay's customer service hotline, and you'll hear the recording say "your call may be monitored for quality control purposes, but enough with that legal mumbo-jumbo").

      If a sales rep wont talk to you, that's their problem. I'm sure their managers would love to hear about how they missed out on a sale.


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