Saving Face: Makeup Giveaway Spurs Mob Scene at Westside Pavilion

Misconceptions abound as to why the makeup is being doled out. “They done gone and messed up some poor woman’s face and now they’re giving more of it away?” says one man, incredulously, when he hears about the deal on Wednesday, the second day of the giveaway, at the Westside Pavilion Nordstrom. Others speculate that the samples are just another way to get people hooked on fancy cosmetics. Sort of like free hits of heroin. The actual reason: Back in 1998, a San Francisco lawyer noticed that department-store beauty products never go on sale. A lawsuit was born. Luxury manufacturers don’t just supply their product, they pay for the store’s makeup counters, advertising and salespeople’s salaries. In exchange, the stores sell the products at the suggested retail price. Unsold items are bought back to guarantee that stores never have to mark down the cosmetics. In this way, the price of luxury makeup stays high, and women’s faces stay young and dewy-looking.

They say that in a downturn economy, the beauty industry doesn’t suffer. But for many luxury-hungry gals on a recession budget, the settlement couldn’t have come at a better time.

On Wednesday, the Nordstrom line stretches from the scarves at Women’s Fashion Accessories to the Shoe Department. A young lady and her grandmother say they came as soon as they heard about it on TV. “I use Clinique all the time,” says the grandmother.

“You can have mine, then,” offers her granddaughter.

Another woman and her Shih Tzu, Mimi, heard about the giveaway through her sister-in-law’s friend’s mother. Mimi’s owner uses, exclusively, Dr. Murad, which is not part of the settlement, but hey, free stuff is free stuff.

At the opposite end of the mall, the free stuff is already gone at Macy’s. “It was bad,” says the store’s Shiseido saleslady, looking haughty and imperious (Shiseido “had nothing to do with any of that lawsuit stuff,” she says). “The line was out the door. I got here at 6 p.m. and people were in line until my shift was over at 9 p.m.” This afternoon everything ran out. The Chanel Coco Mademoiselle 3.4-fluid-ounce body lotion and Lancôme Fatale Mascara were first to go.

“Oh, it’s over, honey,” the Shiseido lady says to a sleepy-eyed woman who could use a little mascara. “Try Nordstrom.”

By the end of Wednesday evening, women are running — running! — to get free makeup. And not only women, but men are lining up for product as well. One man isn’t quite sure what he’s standing in line for, except that it’s free. He’ll probably try it, he says, whatever it is. Good thing this isn’t the line for the Boucheron pour Femme Eau de Toilette, then.

“It’s till supplies last,” says the Nordstrom saleslady over and over and over again, in what must surely be her own personal version of hell. “We only have enough to last the rest of the day. Actually,” she says, inspecting the diminishing tower of creams, “I’ll be surprised if it lasts the next 15 minutes.”

For one, the companies handing out the goods aren’t checking for receipts. They aren’t even checking to make sure you’re signing the correct name on the waiver that says you purchased cosmetics on the dates in question. And though it’s one-per-customer, schemes are afoot to sneak back for doubles.

Like communist Russia, there is no rhyme nor reason as to which items are up for grabs at which stores. You’ll take your Guerlain My Insolence Eau de Toilette and you’ll like it, damn it. You’ll have either Vera Wang Princess Body Polish or Lovely Sarah Jessica Parker Shower Gel, but certainly not both.

Customers here at Nordstrom are choosing from Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair and Clinique Daily Moisture Surge, a choice that savvy salesclerks have, for expediency’s sake, whittled down to “Would you like Night or Day?”

Night and day, women arrive in waves until the last of the freebies are gone. “The Inauguration, you can tape that,” says one saleslady, explaining the mobs that first emerged Tuesday morning. “But this is once in a lifetime.”

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