No Need to Blush: What a Free Makeover Really Means

After a “free” makeover, many women feel they have to buy all the makeup. Here’s what the people behind the cosmetics counter really expect.

By: sara levine

A free makeover at a cosmetics counter may seem like a great way to try out new makeup—until you leave with a shopping bag full of products you really didn’t need.

Many women feel awkward about walking away empty-handed after taking up a makeup artist’s time. This, and an aggressive sales pitch, can make that “complimentary” makeover far from free.

We asked former employees of retail stores and cosmetic lines—including Clinique, Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy, and Estée Lauder—to provide some insight on in-store makeovers. Do the women behind the counter expect a customer to buy everything?

Our sources tell us that at most makeup counters, there’s a makeup artist and a sales associate. The makeup artist works for the cosmetics line—say, Bobbi Brown—and is paid an hourly rate; the sales associate works on commission for the store.

“The makeup artist doesn’t care about making a big sale,” says Amanda, a former business manager for several cosmetics lines who prefers that her last name not be used. “They’re just happy to put makeup on you. Still, you’d hope someone would buy at least a lip gloss or mascara.”

Carl Ray, who worked in a cosmetics store and is now the makeup artist at George at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, has a similar take: “Sometimes people would buy everything I put on them. That’s fun, and you feel good. But some would buy nothing, and that was fine too. I was not working on commission, so it didn’t matter to me.”

If a sales associate is doing your makeup, our sources say you’ll know it—because they’ll push products more forcefully. Some sales associates have no makeup background, though they are well versed on the products. Showing up at a counter for a makeover before an event can be risky: “You can go to one person who doesn’t give a hoot, and you can go to another who’s good,” says a former employee of several cosmetics lines who now owns a private makeup business.

To be sure that a makeup artist will be on hand when you visit, you can stop by a favorite cosmetic counter to sign up for its mailing list. Some companies send out notices about special events when makeup artists will be at certain stores. The flier may advertise a “complimentary makeover,” but be sure to read the fine print: There may be a three-product minimum. Says Amanda: “At Saks we were not allowed to say that, but there’s that awkward moment at the end where they ask, ‘What are you going to take home with you today?’ ”

Be honest about how much makeup you wear and the amount of time you spend on your face in the morning; makeup artists don’t mind and might provide tips on quick makeup application.

That may also prevent product returns—which are frequent after free makeovers. “They buy products, and you know it’s coming back next week,” says one former department-store makeup artist. Before purchasing products, she suggests taking a walk around the mall and outside to see how the makeup holds up. “In the moment you might love it, but it might look a little different after walking around a little. Or it might look great.”