The contents of a woman's makeup bag can say as much about her as the shoes in her closet. A shiny black Chanel eye shadow palette has the same sleek appeal as a sexy pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos, and the gilded exterior of a YSL Touche Éclat concealer pen oozes the same sense of luxury as a pair of satin Louboutins.
These days, though, such luxe touches are increasingly commingled with products that proudly telegraph "value" and "I don't need to pay more." The same "high-low" impulse that has women comfortably mixing J. Crew with those Jimmy Choos is working its way into their makeup routines, replacing some department-store buys with products found at drugstores.
By incorporating high-end innovations into low-cost product lines, drugstore brands are becoming the H&M of the cosmetics world for everyday makeup.
Maybelline has its $15 version of the vibrating mascara wand popularized last year by brands such as Lancôme at twice the cost. Revlon makes a foundation that adapts to skin color once it glides onto the face, taking the guesswork out of finding the perfect shade. (It's much like Smashbox Cosmetics' O-gloss and O-glow, which go on clear but change color according to your skin tone.) L'Oréal Color Juice sheer lip glosses have a package, consistency and smell that are similar to Lancôme's Juicy Tube glosses -- but cost half as much.
And most drugstore brands have added mineral-based powders and foundations to their lines, creating an affordable alternative to the mineral products once exclusive to stores such as Sephora. That has made it easy for shoppers to trade down.
"Makeup is easy to downsize, because there is far less brand loyalty," says Wendy Lewis, president of the New York-based Global Aesthetics Consultancy.
Women are more likely to spend money on high-end skin-care brands that make age-reversing serums and eye creams, she adds, but when it comes to cosmetics such as lip gloss and eye shadow, they are stepping back from the department-store counter and into the bright lights of the drugstore.
"There was a time when you wouldn't be caught dead buying in a drugstore," Lewis says. "That stigma is gone. There is a reverse chic of buying 'masstige' brands" -- which offer luxurious touches or cutting-edge features at mass-market prices.
Indeed, the drugstore cosmetic market has been shining, despite declining sales in the beauty industry as a whole. Total makeup sales dipped 2 percent nationwide in 2008 compared with 2007, according to a joint study by market research firms NPD Group and Information Resources. But the same study found that while department-store sales of cosmetics dropped 4 percent, the food, drug and mass-merchandiser channel (excluding Wal-Mart) saw a 1 percent increase.
A study by Chicago-based research firm Mintel International found that eye makeup accounts for 40 percent of color cosmetic sales through the channel that includes drugstores. That's up 31 percent from 2003 to $1 billion in sales in 2008.
Drugstores have gone after customers by setting aside more space for value cosmetics and finding new ways to lure shoppers. CVS, for example, has created Beauty 360, an area in select stores that sells niche and prestige cosmetics from lines such as Laura Geller and Cargo. Consultants offer advice, as well as mini-manicures and hand massages.
But for the most part, drugstore shopping still involves confronting a dizzying array of sealed products. To make sense of it all, makeup artist Craig Beaglehole and I set up a drugstore product challenge at a West Hollywood CVS store, piling dozens of tubes, palettes and small bottles into our baskets. We tried out the low-price brands in the store and tested them for a week. One mascara sent my lashes spiking in several directions. And a few eye shadows didn't "move" or glide across the eyelid, creating smudgy streaks instead.
But to our surprise, there were many definite keepers. Beaglehole's top picks -- products he says he'd use on clients -- were Maybelline Lash Stiletto and L'Oréal Extra Collagen mascaras.
"When I find a great mascara, I don't care about the price point," he says. "As long as it doesn't budge and it really works."
He also plans to add the L'Oréal Color Juice lip glosses to his makeup kit to give clients (his include Toni Collette, Elle Macpherson and Lori Loughlin) a super shiny pout for the red carpet.