Where to buy beauty products: a guide


I recently had a friend ask me where the best place to buy makeup is. The short answer, of course, is that it depends on your priorities, what you're looking for, etc. However, the short answer is decidedly non-helpful, so I thought I'd do a rundown of some of the online and brick and mortar options I've tried and how I think they stack up.

Sephora (online and brick & mortar)
Sephora is kinda the makeup gold-standard. Both in-store and online, they strive for a hip, upscale vibe and they only carry prestige brands. They carry skin and hair products and fragrance as well, but makeup seems to be their specialty.

-great selection of high end makeup brands
-generally knowledgeable sales people in the stores
-stores are generally clean and well-organized
-website is generally easy to navigate and well-organized
-amazing return policy both online and in-store
-free shipping for orders over $50 online
-3 free samples with every online order
-regular online coupon codes for free deluxe samples
-good house line
-special "Sephora only" colors and palettes from several brands
-good membership/rewards program (points don't expire, annual birthday gift)

-overall sales are rare
-no non-prestige brands
-brands not carried include Sue DeVitt, Cargo, Jane Iredale, Mally, Pop Beauty, and Essie
-increasingly stingy with samples in-store
-stores can feel overwhelmingly trendy or hip
-store stocks vary widely by location

Ulta (online and brick & mortar)
After Sephora, Ulta is probably the second most often cited online and brick & mortar beauty store. Ulta carries both prestige and drugstore brand makeup, plus a ton of hair, fragrance, skin, and bath products. Most stores also have in-store salons and many have Benefit Brow Bars. It feels a bit less upscale than Sephora and is set up more like the cosmetics/hair care section of a Target or similar store.

-carries inexpensive as well as prestige products
-large selection of hair, bath, and skin products
-good return policy both in-store and online
-free shipping for orders over $50 online
-3 free samples with every online order
-lots of sales/coupons (though many have severe brand limitations)
-lots of brand-specific in-store and online sales/offers (i.e. get a product or deluxe sample free with purchase of $X)
-rewards program
-inexpensive house line

-stores can be disorganized and messy
-brand not carried include NARS, MUFE, Dior, Sue DeVitt, Josie Maran, Mally, Jane Iredale, and TheBalm
-carry some brands in-store only, including DuWop and Fresh
-don't typically give samples in-store
-coupon/sale brand exclusions can be very frustrating

Beauty.com (online only)
Beauty.com is the prestige brand arm of online giant drugstore.com. It's an online-only market for higher-end beauty products, including skin care, makeup, hair care, fragrance, and bath items. Because it's partnered with drugstore.com, it is easy to one-stop-shop for drugstore brands/items at the same time as prestige items.

-good selection of both prestige and drugstore brands
-lots of sales/coupon codes (though again, brand restrictions may apply)
-free shipping on orders of $25 or more
-3 free samples with every purchase
-easy return policy for cosmetics (anything with the "100% Color Guarantee" symbol on the listing)
-tends to feature kits/palettes that are hard to find elsewhere
-lots of brand-specific online sales/offers
-purchases contribute to drugstore.com rewards program

-online only
-no house line
-brands not carried include MUFE, Dior, and Josie Maran
-poor return policy for non color-guaranteed items
-website can be difficult to navigate
-brand restrictions on sales/coupons can be frustrating

Beautybar.com (online only)
As beauty.com is the prestige arm of drugstore.com, beautybar.com is the prestige arm of less well-known soap.com. As is the case with the former situation, drugstore brands are available within the same online shopping trip from the soap.com sister site. Beautybar.com carries skin care, makeup, hair care, fragrance, and bath items. I am new-ish to the site, having only made one or two orders from them, but am a fan so far.

-both prestige and drugstore brands available
-lots of sales/coupons, with what seem to be fewer brand restrictions than Ulta or beauty.com
-free shipping on orders of $25 or more
-3 free samples with every order
-easy, free return policy on everything
-very clean and easy-to-use website
-purchases contribute to Familyhood Rewards program

-online only
-no house line
-weakest selection; brands not carried include MUFE, Dior, Josie Maran, Fresh, NARS, Mally, Smashbox, Cargo, Tarte, Urban Decay, and Benefit

There are, of course, other places to buy cosmetics--some people swear by department stores, others are dedicated to drugstores. Some people love brand-specific stores like MAC. I have very little personal experience with those outlets--department store makeup counters intimidate me (though I hear they are the best for scoring samples), I don't buy much drugstore makeup, and I'm not a MAC fan. Maybe someone can jump in and give their impressions of those options in the comments?

Clearly, each store I've reviewed has its strengths and weaknesses. They are all about the same when it comes to shipping costs and samples, but beyond that, they do vary. If I were giving awards, it would be something like:

Best Selection: beauty.com
Best Prices (least exclusive sales): beautybar.com
Best Return Policy: Sephora and beautybar.com
Most Exclusive Shades/Products: Sephora
Best Rewards Program: Sephora
Most Accessible: Ulta

My where-to-buy preference depends a lot on what I am looking for. None of the four stores I mentioned carry all of the brands I like, so I typically need to shop multiple stores to get everything I am looking for. In general, I prefer to shop online, and makeup is a finicky thing to buy without trying, so return policy is also an important factor. I lost some love for beauty.com when I realized that I couldn't return some expensive face care pads that weren't covered under the color match guarantee. I also look for who is having a sale, and what that sale actually covers--the $10 or $15 off coupons Ulta regularly runs don't do me much good when all of the brands I am looking to buy are excluded from the sale, but if the brand in which I am interested happens to be available at beautybar.com, their coupon code is less likely to exclude it. Freebies also feature in my decision--Ulta and beauty.com both regularly have deals wherein you get large cosmetic bags of samples with a $50 or $100 purchase, and I find those extremely hard to resist. Finally, rewards programs play a factor--I think Sephora's is the best, but that may just be because my intro to prestige makeup was at Sephora, I've been shopping there the longest, and my rewards have built up several times.

Mostly, like the short answer says, it comes down to what is important to you. With the exception of special events like Sephora's Friends & Family sale, across-the-board prices aren't going to vary that much for most prestige branded things (drugstore brand prices will vary wildly though, and those cosmetics can often be had for pennies, so it's worth price shopping those). The perks, then, become important, as does the shopping experience, whether it is online or in-store. And a lot of that come down to preference. I will likely continue to shop all four stores, and there isn't one among them I don't recommend.


AIUI, MUFE is exclusive to Sephora.

My nearest Sephora is 40 minutes away so I don't go often. I go to Ulta the most because they carry Deva. I find their rewards program to be marginally useful as it excludes all hair artistry, prestige cosmetics and fragrance--the 3 categories I'm most likely to buy there.

I used to be a MAC fan (insofar as I buy cosmetics, which is, as you know, not a huge amount!) and still like their lipstick. I don't like shopping in MAC stores. If I want to buy MAC, I go to Nordstrom or buy it online. I've been avoiding the stores long enough that they might have had an attitude adjustment by now, but I found them actively unpleasant. At the Nordstrom counter, they at least don't ignore you or give you actively bad advice ("If you can feel this foundation on your skin, you're going to feel everything.") I've never seen MAC anywhere but department stores or dedicated counters.

My big issue with shopping in department stores is that you need to know what brand you want; it's not easy to compare products or mix and match. Sephora was probably the most helpful when I was restarting from scratch.

I get tons of samples at Ulta! Make friends with the register workers and just ask. They also do tons of gifts with purchase.
I love Sephora online, but the stores are too much; loud, crowded, too many people, too much light.

I am a huge MAC fan, and have been since the late 1990s, but I live in a town where there are no MAC stores or department stores that carry MAC. I end up visiting MAC stores whenever I travel, and I've found that they are pretty hit-or-miss in terms of atmosphere and quality. I've had some great experiences at MAC stores and counters--the San Diego MAC store was particularly great, and the MAC counter at the Nordstrom flagship in Seattle was awesome--but I've had some lousy experiences, too.

I do most of my MAC purchasing online. Aside from the occasional free two-day shipping code, there aren't really any sales, and they don't send samples. Their online customer service is great, though. The one time I had a problem with a missing item from a shipment, they took care of it promptly, no questions asked. The online store does sell out of limited-edition products way faster than it should, especially for popular collections like the Disney Villains series from 2010.

Leave a comment

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30

Follow Me on Pinterest