The Scary Truth About Some So-Called Beauty Bargains
If you’ve ever bought a beauty product online, I think you’ll want to read this.
A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a beauty industry friend I will call Cara. This friend has had myriad marketing and PR roles at MAJOR cosmetic companies over the years, but last year she decided she wanted to try her hand at being the boss, so she partnered with a well-respected makeup artist and created a new cosmetics brand. Their first product was a runaway hit. (I never wrote about the product here at MediumBlonde because it’s suited to women under 30. Trust me, I tried it and Cara and I laughed until we cried because I looked that ridiculous.) But teens and 20-somethings went gaga for this item, it was impossible to keep in stock, and several bigtime retailers picked it up and began selling it.
All was going incredibly well—a true success story—until mid-August. Suddenly the brand’s sales were down 50 percent. Overnight. And their customer service inbox was flooded with complaints about how the product was faulty, irritated the skin, smelled funky, etc.
It took Cara and her team about a week to figure out what was going on: counterfeiting. A company in China had stolen their product idea (as well as all of their brand graphics, imagery and videos) and created a knockoff on the cheap. This shady company had also taken out ads on Google, Facebook and Instagram, directing people to their copycat site, where they were selling their product at half the price of Cara’s, while claiming it was the same item.
What was even more disheartening for Cara is that, after spending more than $80,000 on lawyer’s fees, she learned there was little recourse. (Yes, her product is copyrighted, but this criminal Chinese company is on the other side of the planet and therefore difficult to prosecute.) Google did agree to stop accepting ads from brand imposters (alas, the Chinese were not the only ones in on the counterfeiting action. Cara discovered at least two other companies in Russia and Mexico who’d also created phony products and websites.) But Facebook, Instagram, and even Amazon shrugged and said there was nothing they could do.
And this is why this story should matter to you. According to Cara, Facebook, Instagram and Amazon do not screen the buyers of their ads—or vet sellers. So, if you see one of your favorite beauty products available on Amazon for considerably less than you typically pay for it, buyer beware.
At another recent lunch, Jen, an editor in New York, told me she has a friend who recently bought a pricey skin serum on Amazon because it was being sold at a steep discount. Within a week of using it, she knew something was off: The product smelled differently and was not imparting the same effect on her skin. She is now convinced she bought a fake.
This is not to say that every item on Amazon is fake. Of course not. But you should be aware that phony beauty product creation is becoming a real problem, especially for small, up-and-coming brands like Cara’s who don’t have the money to spend on lawyer’s fees to chase down these criminals. They are getting ripped off, there is very little regulation to stop this from happening—and consumers are buying phony products that have not been properly tested. Unlike a fake Louis Vuitton bag, which is bad for LVMH's business, a counterfeit eyeliner or skin serum is bad for both the beauty brand and for you, as fake formulas may be harmful to your health. Cara’s product is intended for use around the eyes, and her customers were claiming the counterfeits were causing redness, burning, stinging. Scary.
So, how can you be sure you’re getting a legit product? Buying from a reputable seller is smart: Sephora, Ulta, BlueMercury, SpaceNK, Nordstrom, Saks—or the beauty brand’s own website, assuming you’ve checked and re-checked that you are on a valid website. One telltale sign of a counterfeit is a steep product price cut. Brands may offer value sets and gifts with purchase (especially as we're on the cusp of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals), but beauty products themselves rarely go on major sale. I’d say any discount over 25 percent (especially on an unfamiliar site) is suspect.
If you think you’ve bought a fake beauty product recently, please tell us where and what happened in the Comments below.
Note: I did not include the name of Cara’s brand in this post because she has not yet looped in all the retailers carrying her product. She is still trying to determine her best course of action, and she worries retailers will drop her line if they know counterfeiting is behind her sales decline.