Ron flashed his perfectly manicured eyebrows at me. "So what should we do to you?" The cowboy of cosmetics was quite literally glowing with anticipation, his black holster slung around his waist, arming him with some 30 brushes hungry to graze my face. "You're the expert," I replied timidly. "My face is your canvas."
Walking into MAC—the cosmetics retailer with nearly 1,000 stores worldwide—to get a makeup consultation and application lesson made me about as comfortable as a dude trying to walk in high heels. I suddenly became a tomboy when it comes to sprucing up my face. As women congregate around the glowing amber makeup altars, my intimidation level reached new heights.
But black-clad Ron was already taking a lap around the minimalist store, returning with a full complement of cosmetics. His desired color for my eyes: red. I had granted Ron complete license, but I wasn't thrilled by his choice and realized I was about to become that "really annoying customer."
"I've always wanted to try turquoise," I confessed. "Could we do that instead?" I expected an eye roll. But Ron had no problem changing midcourse. In fact, MAC insists on nurturing its artists to be spontaneous coconspirators with its customers, and keeps them sharp with exercises in improvisation and lessons in neurolinguistics. For example, if a customer says, "I love the way my friend's lipstick looks," that's different from "I love how I feel when I wear that color."
This approach translates into sales. MAC, a division of $6.3 billion cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, got credited in the company's last annual report for being a significant reason for the parent's 13% net makeup sales increase ($274.8 million). Plumped-up sales from MAC's Small Eye Shadow, Studio Fix, Lustreglass, and Pro Longwear Lipcolour products alone contributed $70 million in revenue.
Jazzed with my new aqua color scheme in hand, Ron divided my face in half and explained he was going to show me his personal brush techniques, deemed counterintuitive by some. He painted the base-coat of eye shadow, teaching me the why, when, and how, and then had me mimic his technique above my other eye. "It can't be a one-sided performance," explains Matthew Waitesmith, who heads "artist training and development" for MAC's 10,000 employees. "An artist really needs to be a collaborator with the customer." After countless swaths of eyeliner gel, blush cream, and Lipglass (lip gloss to the rest of the world), I felt mildly confident that I could actually do this at home.
We were admiring "our" work in the mirror— specifically my peacock-looking eyes—when I began to dread the big sell. This $90 lesson wasn't just an exercise in altruism—it's to push products, right? And then it came: "Now which products would you like to get?" Ron inquired. I blurted an extended "hmm" to buy some time, but he interjected: "Don't feel any pressure. I'll write down the names of the products you like, and you can think about it." Unlike most retailers that bait their staff with commission, MAC pays its artists the highest hourly rate so they can focus their energy on bonding with each customer rather than shaking her down.
The aspiration, says Waitesmith, is to have each customer feel as though they've had an authentically artistic experience. "That hopefully means they'll return to the place that makes them feel like an artist." So in the same way you want to buy homemade olive oil at the end of a trip to Greece, the customer will want to bring home a MAC souvenir. And like any tourist taken in by her experience, I couldn't help but surrender to some $40 worth of souvenirs in the form of Aquadisiac Eye Shadow and Nymphette Lipglass.
- 2.6 | Average number of products customers actually buy when they come to buy one item
- $45 | Average amount each customer spends per visit >
- 83% | Percentage of new customers who are referrals
- 250,000 | Number of brides-to-be each year who come to MAC for their wedding makeup
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.