September 1, 2007


Just Because It's 'Complimentary' Doesn't Mean It's Free

by Rebecca Yarowsky

D and I were standing at the Clarins counter in Nordstrom’s. Her friend, Susan, worked for Clarins. I liked Susan. I liked Susan because she was different from most women who sell cosmetics. She wasn’t a college sophomore. She was in her fifties. She wasn’t anorexic. She was overweight. And she didn’t wear every available item she sold on her face. She was made-up, but you could still discern her features under the stuff. She also liked to joke about things like menopause, her job and the travails of middle age. I felt right at home.

“We’re going to have a skin-care specialist in the store tomorrow,” she said. “She’ll be giving facials. You girls want to sign up?”

D looked at me, “Yeah. Sign us up.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m not sure yet. I have to think about it.” I was weighing the pros and cons. It wasn’t the facial itself that made me nervous. It was the fact that, after the facial, I’d have to walk out of Nordstrom’s completely as-is. Without any make-up at all. I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was considering the public. I wasn’t sure they could handle that situation.

“Oh, come on,” said D, who rarely wears make-up and looks beautiful (despite the fact). “Look, Bec. Here’s the best part about it.” She pointed to the word “complimentary” on the flier we’d been given.

“All right,” I sighed.

“Great!” Susan put our names down for back-to-back appointments the following afternoon. “See you tomorrow, ladies!”

The next day, D and I planned our strategy before we entered the department store.

“This sort of thing is never ‘free.’ We’ll have to buy something,” D whispered, looking over her shoulder, as we loitered outside Nordstrom’s.

“Okay,” I whispered back. “Let’s make it some token item then. Something cheap.”

“Right. I’ll buy a manicure brush,” D decided.

“And I’ll get their concealer. That shouldn’t set us back much.”

I had faith in D. She had proven herself to be a Titan when it came to getting the most bang for her buck in the area of skincare and cosmetics. I'd seen her in action.

Lancome once offered a quilted pouch, filled with $50 worth of lipstick, eye shadows and creams, for free when you made a $20 purchase. After the young woman rang up D’s selections, the total came to $18.85. “I’m afraid you haven’t spent enough to qualify for our give-away,” she said, casting her glance at the shelves of moisturizers, age-defying emulsions and better-than-Botox serums.

D paused, momentarily confounded. “Let me see . . .”

“Lancome offers a terrific line of dermatologically-approved skincare products for the woman over 40,” the sales clerk suggested.

“Do you have a pencil sharpener?” asked D.

“A what?”

“A pencil sharpener. You know, for eyeliner.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Uh, sure. Yeah. We have those.”

“How much are they?”

“They’re $1.50. But...”

“Okay. I’ll take one. Just put it in the bag with my free gift and the other things,” smiled D.

As we took the escalator down to the Nordstrom's cosmetic department, I told myself that D and I were going to be fine. I just knew it.

A white folding screen had been set up in the Clarins section of the store. Behind the screen was a chair that looked like the kind of chair you sit in at the dentist’s and a rolling cart filled with a variety of lotions and creams.

“Hello, girls,” said Susan. “Who wants to go first?”

“You go, D, I’ll watch.” I hopped up on a high, cushioned stool nearby and made myself comfortable.

The “facialist” was a sweet and earnest dark-haired young woman, whose classic beauty reminded me of those movie stars from an era when classic beauty was the norm. She knew what she was doing. I could tell.

As she proceeded with the facial, she described the skin, its properties and the products she used in scientific and compelling terms.

“Bec,” called D, as she reclined in the chair, wearing a headband to keep the hair off her face, “This is SO relaxing. You’re going to love it.”

“Yes,” the young woman agreed, “it really gets rid of all that stress we build up during the course of a day. Now, when you apply this neck cream, you need to use a downward motion, going from the tip of the chin to the top of your breasts . . .”

“Really?” asked D. “I thought you were supposed to use upward strokes. To counteract gravity, the toll the years have taken, that sort of thing.”

“No, no, no. The circulation is stimulated by the motion of your hands toward the heart.”

“Wow. I’ll have to remember that. Does this method of application apply only to the neck cream?” D impressed me. She was even phonier than I’d given her credit for. I began to think that she’d missed her true calling by not going into the theater.

When the facial ended, D continued to recline. “My God, I feel wonderful! I don’t want to get up.”

“Well, you have to get up,” I said, a little peevishly. “It’s my turn.” I was now looking forward to a half-hour of bliss, even if I emerged bald-faced.

The woman slipped the headband over my bangs and began by massaging my temples. “My, you don’t have any visible pores,” she said. “You’re lucky.”

Soon I was experiencing the Nirvana that comes only when a you allow a total stranger complete tactile control over your head and neck. I felt as if I were one with the universe or, at the very least, the dentist's chair.

“You’re done!” a voice said. “Here’s a hand mirror. Take a look.”

“I don't need the mirror. . . I’m fine. I feel great. Thanks.”

“Oh, just a peek.”

I looked in the mirror. Apart from the fact that my bangs were now standing on end, I did look better. I was rosy. I was glowing.

Susan had arranged the products on the glass counter.

“How much is this?” I asked.

“The Line-Away? That’s $27.50. It virtually eliminates all your wrinkles and lasts for hours.” Susan smoothed some on my palm. My lifeline immediately disappeared.

“I’ll take some,” I said.

“You should get the neck cream, too,” advised D. “I did.”

I waited while Susan totaled my purchases. For some reason, it was taking longer than I’d expected. I looked around for D. She was peering out from behind one of the plaster Greek columns that lined the cosmetic department aisle.

“That will be $186.97. Will you be using your Nordstrom’s card or a credit card?”

“Oh. Oh no. I mean, um, my credit card,” I gave Susan, whose new merchant persona struck me as perfunctory and unfriendly, my Visa.

“I’ve put some free samples in the bag with your things.”

“Oh,” I said again.

As D and I walked away, I whispered, “I spent nearly $200.”

“Yeah,” confessed D. “So did I. Do you want to go somewhere and get lunch? My treat.”

“I think I want to walk around for a while. I’m still in shock.”

“Do you think they get you that relaxed on purpose?” D looked as if she’d just woken up.

“I don’t know. What I DO know is that I’ll never trust the word ‘complimentary’ again in my life.”

“Me either,” agreed D. “Hey, she said you didn’t have any pores. I can see a few.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Rebecca is a freelance writer, graphic designer and photographer living in Virginia. When not engaged in her professional activities, she spends her time running in the local park and protesting the Bush administration in Washington, DC. You can read more of her writings at her Newsvine column.