How to find the best beauty deals

Real Simple

No matter where you like to shop for beauty deals—from a drugstore to a flash sale—there are plenty of bargains. Here’s how to find them.

Photo: Nigel Cox

Drugstores

Best when: You want to stock up on staples or try low-price products with high-tech ingredients.

Drugstores are still the place to get the most bang for your buck, and the world of online coupons (which can be used on sites and in stores) has made them even more enticing. Also, the products are more cutting-edge than ever before. “As the demand for advanced ingredients, like retinols and vitamin C, has grown, brands sold at drugstores have found ways to include these ingredients at a reduced cost—it’s demand driving supply,” says Ron Robinson, the founder of BeautyStat.com.

To help customers navigate this growing pool of premium products, some drugstores, like CVS, are even hiring trained consultants to offer advice.

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Drugstore Shopping Tips

Go international. Many U.S. drugstores now carry a selection of high-end products imported from other countries, such as the Finnish brand Lumene. They may cost less at drugstores here as the brands try to build consumer awareness.

Don’t be afraid of house brands. When a house-brand product is packaged very similarly to a brand-name one, it probably contains the same ingredients as its more famous twin. Think of them as generic pharmaceuticals, says Robinson—almost exactly alike, except for the price tag. Just make sure the first few ingredients are the same and in the same order.

Sometimes the best buys are right under your nose. You may have heard that the greatest values are often stocked on lower (read: less visible) shelves. However, this isn’t the case with house-brand items, says Joe Trimble, the owner of Encinal Market, in Alameda, California, and a 20-year veteran of the retail industry. That’s because drugstores make a larger profit on these items than they do on the name brands, so they want to make sure you grab them.

Be loyal. Join your drugstore’s loyalty program and increase your savings by combining store coupons with membership points. Most drugstores will credit points to your entire purchase at checkout (including full-price items), without subtracting the value of your coupons.

Speaking of coupons, make collecting them less labor-intensive. Coupons.com, RetailMeNot.com, and Red Plum.com all trawl the Web for drugstore deals and offer coupons that you can use at more than 100,000 chains and independent stores. (Some can be used in store, some only online; check the fine print.) While you’re on one of these sites, sign up for its e-mail list, which will give you access to members-only deals. For a little more effort, RecycleBank.com, a site that partners with big drugstore brands, like Kiss My Face and Pantene, doles out savings points when you make your routine more green—by doing things like pledging to reduce paper-towel usage and recycling containers. It’s a win-win: You save money and the planet.

Read blogs. To help you further parse all the offers, blogs like SundaySaver.com aggregate weekly deals that you can use in national stores like Target and Walmart. To dig deeper, check out store-specific blogs, like SimplyCVSShopping.com and IHeartRiteAid.com. Although not affiliated with the stores, they compile inside information on unadvertised deals, rebates, loyalty-program tips, and more.

Photo: Nigel Cox

Department Stores

Best when: You want in-depth information about a specific line or you’re making big-ticket purchases.

Ever wonder why you rarely see a sale at the beauty counter?

“The theory is that if people know that there could be a sale next week, they’ll be discouraged from making impulse buys now,” says Swan Sit, the director of online strategy for the Estée Lauder Companies. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t deals to be had. Department stores often offer promotions meant to buy store loyalty, such as generous gift sets and storewide rewards programs for credit-card holders. And you can’t beat department stores for one-on-one help with your questions about anything from dry skin to turquoise eyeliner.

Shopping Tips

Get friendly with your salesperson. This can land you on an e-mail or phone list, letting you in on promotions and helping you score samples. Regarding samples: Don’t be shy about asking for them. “It’s perfectly acceptable,” says Paco Underhill, the author of What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly ($16, Yahoo! Shopping). “Tell the reps, ‘I have always enjoyed your brand.’ ” He adds that you may have better luck if you stick to the midpriced lines as opposed to luxury brands.

Another sample secret? Nordstrom department stores hand them out, whether or not you’re buying something, during its weekly Sample Saturdays. The samples change every week. Find out what’s being offered on the company’s Facebook page.

Hit up store events. Whether it’s an opportunity for a mini-facial or a shopping night, when cosmetics counters bring in outside reps, participating shoppers are usually rewarded with extra deals and samples. The same applies to training nights, when employees learn new techniques by practicing on volunteers. Ask a salesperson at your favorite counter when the next one will be held. “Employees are typically already trained and working under the careful eye of a supervisor, so the risk of a makeup disaster is low,” says Sit. More often than not, you’ll go home with a bag of free full-size products.

Be in the know about GWPs. Gifts with purchase, that is. Sites like MyGiftWithPurchase.com and gwpaddict.wordpress.com post what’s being offered at department stores across the country and on the Web. Stuck with a free lipstick that doesn’t suit you? Swap it for something you want at MakeupAlley.com, where members list their unwanted products. (A note to hard-core makeup junkies: You can also swap gently used products here. Stick to items that are easily sanitized, like pencils, which can be sharpened.)

Consider getting a credit card. Many department stores haven’t implemented club cards that reward shoppers with points that can be used toward future purchases. Why not? Because, in general, department stores already issue their own credit cards, which track how much you buy and, in many cases, offer increased savings for the best customers. Just be sure to pay the bill in full each month to avoid finance charges that could negate your savings.

Photo: Nigel Cox

Flash Sales

Best when: You’re hoping for a major deal on upscale goods or services and you’re willing to do some surfing, watching, and even waiting.

Flash sales have turned impulse buys into an online phenomenon: Sites offer deeply discounted and generally high-end products in limited quantities on a first-come, first-served basis. Deals at flash-sale sites, such as Gilt, Lifebooker, Ideeli, Groupon, LivingSocial, and Amazon’s MyHabit, can get you up to 90 percent off.

These sites often buy from their sources in bulk, allowing them to sell goods at a reduced price. You’ll find sales from established brands, but you can also score serious savings from up-and-comers. And you’ll even find deals from salons, since the sites offer coupons that can be put toward haircuts and facials.

Shopping Tips

Start at the bottom. Most visitors to flash-sale sites start snatching up bargains from the top of their screens. So if you do the opposite, you’ll have a better chance of scoring a steal.

Get on the waiting list. Although flash sales go by in, well, a flash, most sites have wait lists for particularly popular items that sell out fast. Your odds of nabbing a product off a wait list are higher than you might think, says Michelle Zara Evans, a senior manager at Gilt. Because flash-sale sites work directly with companies, they can often ask for more supply when an item is in high demand.

Surf strategically. Sunday nights are low-traffic times. To entice you to shop, sites sometimes offer additional discounts then.

Synch it up. Aggregators like Yipit.com track daily deals in more than 100 cities from flash-sale sites, such as  Lifebooker and Groupon, and send them to you in one e-mail.

Photo: Nigel Cox

Specialty Stores

Best when: You’re a beauty addict who wants a one-stop shop for staples as well as new products that you might have not even heard of. (Eyelash conditioner, anyone?)

National chains, like Sephora, Ulta, C.O. Bigelow, and Space NK, showcase thousands of lotions, potions, makeup lines, and tools in enticing, easy-to-access displays. Their goal? Getting you to make impulse buys. Your gain? The opportunity for major sampling. Bonus: Some have in-store salons.

Shopping Tips

Sample away. Indulge in Sephora’s 3 Free Samples policy. With every purchase, you’re entitled to (you guessed it) three freebies. This happens automatically online, but it’s true in the stores as well. All you have to do is ask.

Scan the checkout counter for travel-size products. Specialty stores are the best place to get travel-size versions of high-end products at equally diminutive prices—an economical option if you crave a lot of variety.

If you don’t like it, return it. Let’s face it—no matter how big the bargain, you aren’t saving anything if a product sits in your drawer unused. Letting you try before you buy is one way that specialty stores help you avoid mistake purchases, but they tend to have generous return policies, too. At Sephora and Ulta, bring even opened products back within 60 days with a receipt for full credit.

Swing by the salon. Specialty stores may offer beauty treatments for less than they cost at the local salon. In Ulta salons, for example, you’ll find hair-color services starting at $55 and buy-one, get-one-free facials.

Photo: Nigel Cox

TV Sales

Best when: You want to learn all about new products and lines and love to see the faces behind the brands but you don’t want to leave your living room.

Home-shopping networks, such as HSN, QVC, and ShopNBC, need to sell only limited amounts of inventory (enough for a host to offer during one TV appearance), so they’re often willing to bet on interesting specialty companies that may be too small, new, or niche to have wide-scale drugstore or department-store distribution. But bigger names, like Lancôme and Bobbi Brown, come for the free advertising, and they often price products lower here (where robust sales translate into future appearances). An extra bit of value: “There’s a big education component to this sort of shopping,” says lifestyle expert Danny Seo, who has sold products on television. “The programming teaches customers when and how to use the products so they get the most out of them.”

Shopping Tips

Secure a low rate. If one of your favorite products is a top value (look for “Today’s Special Value” on QVC’s site or on-air programming and “Today’s Special” on HSN’s), you can lock it in at the onetime-only low rate with auto-delivery. The networks will ship the product to you as often as you want at the initial discounted price, and you can cancel anytime you want. Free shipping is sometimes included.

Check the website. Go to the clearance section for deeper discounts on leftover merchandise that didn’t sell out on air. For seriously committed bargain hunters, forums such as TVShoppingQueens.com allow you to live-stream programming from all the major shopping channels at once so you can comparison-shop and find the best deals. You can even pay an expert a nominal fee to track down the best deals for you.

Use smartphone apps to get the deal you want. Television shopping networks, such as HSN, have apps (for both iPhone and Android) with special offers that aren’t available through their regularly scheduled programming. For example, live-stream HSN on your iPhone and you might win $50 off your next purchase if you jiggle your phone when you’re prompted. (It’s called the Shop2Win feature, and it comes with the app.)

Photo: Nigel Cox

4 Fabulous Freebies

1. Stop by any Estée Lauder counter to snag a free 10-day supply of your ideal foundation. Just say you’re interested in the iMatch Shade Finder program. (Available while supplies last.)

2. Visit Elizabeth Arden counters to receive complimentary two- to three-day supplies of liquid foundations. Make sure to ask the consultant for a sample of the company’s perfect shade. (Available while supplies last.)

3. A free 20-minute facial is yours when you visit any department-store Clarins counter in the United States.

4. Through Mac’s Back to Mac program, for every batch of six used containers of most MAC products that you bring back to the store, you’ll get a free lipstick of your choice.

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