The Business of Beauty

Drugstore Skincare: Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Cheaper

SkincareOn a recent pop by my local CVS – ostensibly to fetch new heads for my Philips Sonicare DiamondClean, the Maserati of electric toothbrushes – I decided to take a quick lap through the skincare aisle to see if there was anything I simply had to have. (Always a bad idea, by the way; despite cabinets bursting with some of the world’s best anti-aging brews, this lifelong beauty junkie can always be tempted.)

At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. For dozens of beloved brand-name items – Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream, Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair, Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer – there was a CVS knockoff parked right next to it, gussied-up in near-identical packaging. It was staggering how many there were, and, from the boxes and bottle shapes to the verbiage, just how closely they mimicked the real deal. And of course every product sat atop a shelf sticker pointing out the savings to be had by springing for the fakey-fake rather than the genuine item.

Filling my iPhone with so many images I’m surprised I wasn’t tossed out by store security, my inner dialogue alternated between confusion and despair. “Wait, doesn’t CVS want to sell the Regenerist? Aren’t they proud to have it? Why are they shooting themselves in the foot with these imposters? This is so depressing. When did it become SOP to copy instead of create?”

As the world’s foremost Beauty Nerd, I realize I’m probably alone in my outrage. After all, your Average Josie might be thrilled to have cheaper alternatives to the pricey miracle crèmes she covets. If she can obtain similar results for less money, why not go for it?

The Knockoffs Are Getting Better Every Day

Still, that’s a big if, right? The efficacy of retailer-created product?

Maybe not, says Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of Beautystat.com. Pestered for his opinion about drugstore skincare knockoffs, Robinson points me in the direction of an Allure magazine article he was interviewed for a while back. The piece, entitled “Beauty’s Big Secret,” explored the world of what the writer called “generics,” i.e., the cosmetics equivalent of Wegmans-brand paper towels or Stop & Shop canned yams.

According to Robinson, retailer-employed R&D types are getting better and better at sussing-out the brand-name formulas they need to replicate. And while he doesn’t suggest that some of these mad scientists possibly worked for the L’Oréals and the P&Gs of the world at some point, it isn’t much of stretch to think that’s the case.

Robinson’s advice for anyone who’s curious as to whether a generic will perform as well as its brand-name counterpart: Buy it and try it. Most stores have such liberal return policies these days, the monetary risk of shelling out for a crummy product is pretty much nil.

That’s the good news: For the most part, consumers aren’t being ripped-off by the knockoffs. Unless of course they’re literally fooled by the lookalike packaging. But if that’s the case, they can bring it right back for a refund.

If only the brands got off as easy. With the rising tide of drugstore copycat merch, the entire spirit of retailer/manufacturer partnership, — that quaint notion of “We’re in this together!” — goes right out the window. In this new world order, the mega-million dollar print and TV campaigns deployed to support major skincare launches can also become a bit of a crapshoot. Sure, they can help sell a hot product. But they can just as easily build awareness for the fake plopped right next to it.

Tarnishing Their Own Rep in the Process

The less obvious loser in the knockoff equation, however, is the store itself. (FYI, although CVS appears to be wildly, ridiculously aggressive on the knockoff front, I did also spy a handful of cosmetic copycats at my neighborhood Walgreens and Dollar General.) By pitting themselves against the best and brightest in beauty, and imitating products as close as legally possible, the retailer tarnishes its own brand.

Ultimately, what are they offering besides a lower price? Believe me, if a woman is already in the head-space of plunking down $34 for Regenerist Micro-Sculpting because she’s seen the television spots and read the reviews, she’s probably going to want the real McCoy. Beauty products aren’t paper towels and canned yams. We’re buying into the promise, the experience and the status conferred every bit as much as the results we expect to get.

I’ve railed about copycatting in this column before – specifically the lawsuits that have sprung up around Moroccanoil ripoffs — so clearly it’s a bee in my bonnet. But somehow this storewide imitation game feels worse. It’s an assault on brand after brand, product after product.

Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t CVS (or Walgreens, or Dollar General) take all that hard work and pour it into a great new line with a distinct look and point of view? House it in its own special area and give it a spotlight, rather than sneak it in onto the shelf next to a product that probably drew the customer into the store in the first place.

I thought about all this when I finally pried myself away from the skincare aisle and made my way over to CVS’s massive oral care area. There I was confronted with all manner of electric toothbrush heads, including – of course – the CVS equivalent of the heads I use on my Philips Sonicare DiamondClean.

Should I go for the 3-pack of CVS Sonic Professional Replacement Brush Heads for $26.99 or the 2-pack of DiamondClean for $29.59? I’m no math whiz, but even I could figure out that the CVS numbers were way cheaper. And at the end of the day, a toothbrush head is a toothbrush head.

Guess which pack I bought?

The Philips.

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