With so many discount stores and websites, how do you know if your beauty products are genuine, or if they are safe to use? How important is it to be an authorized retailer and what does it mean? You can’t always judge by the price or packaging these days, so what is a distributor and an authorized retailer, and how can you trust what a website says? Several brands such as Environ and Dermalogica control and protect their brands by only having authorized stockists, but other brands may choose to have mass distribution channels, and their products will be found in multiple outlets.
- Licensed distributor ~ Companies such as the Lauder group have their own warehouses and distribution channels, but other companies may use a local distributor in each region. For example, Shiseido has offices in different regions and may have a US distributor and a different one for Europe. Each one is licensed and chooses what outlets to distribute to, and are responsible for where the brands are sold.
- Authorized Retailer ~ In general, these are department stores, chemists, spas, salons, and websites that buy directly from the company or from the licensed distributor that represents the company. For example, stores such as John Lewis, and Boots are authorized retailers, and have an account whereby they can order whatever products are in stock when they want.
- Authorized Merchants ~ These are outlets that sell genuine products, but only sell certain lines. An example would be Birchbox who only stock selected lines they may have sampled, a fragrance store that can only stock fragrance lines, and not make-up, or a beauty salon that would only stock skincare and not fragrance lines.
- Third party distributors (called wholesalers) ~ Many of the discounted beauty products come via this channel. These are sold as surplus job lots or discontinued stock, damaged stock, canceled orders, from liquidated businesses, and perhaps other means. Often you will not know what country the products came from, how it has been stored, or for how long. As a result, products can go off, and as they are chemical based can cause skin reactions, thus aren’t always safe. Some maybe from licensed distributors but from other regions, or where it involves FMCG, stock can pass from one party to another such as from a licensed distributor to an authorized retailer, who then sells it on to another party.
There is a difference between brands that wish to protect and limit their distribution such as Chanel, versus brands that operate on a mass distribution scale like Maybelline. Officially, Chanel cosmetics are never discounted and the only places you can get discounts would be in the duty free shops, or if a department store offered a discount usually on a cardholder day, or as a promotion such as Black Friday. Chanel has selected official retailers that you can look up, so if the site you are buying from is not on the list you should be wary. Companies that operate on a larger scale such as Maybelline do discount frequently, and thus finding items that are discontinued or on sale is much more common. Environ warns it’s customers not to by online unless it is directly from an authorized stockist in order to protect the brand and quality of their products.
It’s worth looking up to see if the company you are buying from belongs to one of these associations: Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA) and the Fragrance Foundation. In the UK, membership is important to denote that they comply with safety regulations and includes manufacturers as well as retail outlets. Some may trade under other names, so it’s best to look for the actual company name rather than the website name. Another thing to look out for is a website that says it is an authorized retailer—it maybe for a couple of brands, but not all of them and that can be misleading. For example, take a look at the Dermalogica website that tells you which sites are authorized and which ones are not. They state that products maybe unsafe, counterfeit, outdated (expired), and that they cannot be responsible for them.
Having spent time working behind several beauty counters, there is a huge difference between buying from an authorized retailer and a discounted retailer. Products do have a shelf life, and if the products are close to the end of the shelf life, department stores will replace them with fresh stock if they are not sold, and companies will generate a RGA (returned goods advice). This means cosmetic companies will uplift old stock or discontinued stock, to enable department stores to have the freshest stock available at no charge. This is one reason I only ever buy my Clarins products directly from Clarins, or from a department store or salon, as the products contain plant extracts and have a shorter shelf life. Buying them from an outlet that has obtained them from a third party can be risky, as it is likely to be a product that is out of date or with a very short shelf life.
How do these third party retailers obtain stock so cheaply? It can be from a number of ways; if a company goes bankrupt then the stock maybe sold off cheaply, foreign distributors may sell from outside the country, or one cannot discount stolen stock or fake goods. You’ll find many discount stores like Poundland will carry products with foreign labels, which have probably come from foreign distribution channels, and make-up items that are discontinued colors. They could be genuine, and bought as excess lots in an auction and that’s why they are so cheap. I’ve personally bought bars of Neutrogena soap there with Arabic labels, and they were genuine, but I didn’t need the instructions on how to use the bar of soap. That may not be the case for products that do need more detailed instructions, and if there is no translation, one is usually stickered on to comply with regulations.
Another area to look out for is when free gifts packages are broken up and the special sizes are sold individually, or special sized items that were used for promotional events that are sold. Some will state ‘not for resale’, and others will say ‘special size’, which means it cannot be sold by an authorized retailer as it has no actual selling value. Certain companies such as Clinque and Elizabeth Arden have multiple free gift with purchase offers that includes a bag and several special sizes. These old gifts often find their way to third party retailers who sell them on. I’ve also seen testers sold, and while this is frowned upon it does happen. No company ever sells testers, so assume they have been acquired illegitimately.
So how can you tell if a retailer has obtained the products by a third party distributor or the licensed one?
- If they are genuine they will state it on their website or in the store, but as I said, a retailer maybe authorized for certain brands only, and some online sites may operate with a mixture of the two.
- Look at the images ~ if they are blurred or look dated then it’s unlikely they are authorized to use the images. If you look at a list of authorized Chanel retailers, you will see there are very few, so if you see cut price Chanel on a website, you aren’t guaranteed it will be a genuine product.
- Check what lines are available ~ third party retailers have limited lines such as a few colors, or only part of a skincare range. If a site keeps saying they are out of stock or are waiting for the distributor, then that is a tell tale sign of a third party retailer. While items do go out of stock, if it more than a month, then that’s another sign. An authorized retailer can order an item, and if it is in stock get it the next day.
- Inflated prices ~ Authorized retailers will use the price that the company recommends. This is so there is continuity for the brand, and allows customers to always know the item they want will be the same price everywhere. When a site over inflates a price to make it look as if they are saving money, not only is it unprofessional, it is dishonest and is a marketing ploy.
Fragrance is one of the most dangerous areas where there are more counterfeit goods around, and these can cause fatal reactions. I used to work for a major fragrance house and as the manager, I would order directly from Head Office. It was a surprise to me to find out that two leading fragrance retailers weren’t authorized retailers, and were obtaining their stock from another channel, and selling the products at a cut price. As I worked in John Lewis at the time, I had to match the price, but problems arose when people bought fake goods in to get refunds or an exchange. You see, when someone brings back a product for an exchange, it goes back onto the shelf to be resold, and as an authorized retailer that authenticity cannot be guaranteed if returns are accepted without proof of purchase. A Head Office will have all the batch numbers of all products available (barcodes are the same for the products in multiple countries) and can see if a product is genuine or not, or what country it came from, and when the date it was produced.
Be very wary of products advertised on eBay, Amazon, and also beauty boxes that offer full sized products, which are a convenient way to sell off items. They are often advertised as having a high retail value, but are usually discontinued lines. Boxes from sites such as Cohorted, and Look Incredible tend to have a mixture of discontinued lines, with current budget products, and promote that all the products are full sized. Also check the footer of a website to see what their mission statement is—if they are an authorized retailer they will usually highlight that fact at the top of their site. Sites such as Fragrance Direct tends to sells end of lines (I have used the company), but also stocks items without packaging. Even though they state they sell 100% genuine products (in the small print), they are not listed as official retailers for the brands they carry. Look Fantastic is an authorized retailer for some brands, but that may not be the case for all the brands (as far as I can see), and many people have complained of receiving fake items or have been sent out of date products. For a company to send out of date products means that it will have come via a third party, as no licensed distributor would supply any items with less than a shelf life of at least two years. Groupon and similar sites also have offers from third parties, but they will refund you if the vendor has been found to be selling counterfeit goods.
There have been several websites where I have chosen not to buy from, mainly because the sites have looked unprofessional, the R.R.P. has been grossly inflated, and when they spell the name of the company incorrectly, you just know something isn’t right. It may cost more to buy directly from certain websites or stores, but you have more of a guarantee that the product is safe and genuine. Out of date products can be dangerous and hard to spot until opened and can cause reactions, and in the case of fragrances can burn the skin. The sad thing is people are tempted to buy due to the price, and forget about the safety aspect. Third party sites aren’t all bad, but they can be risky, and there’s nothing worse than buying something as a gift and that person asks if they exchange it, only to find out it was fake or had been discontinued years ago. Many of the discount stores will sell end of lines of self-selection brands such as Rimmel and Max Factor, and they are likely to be genuine as these brands have excess stock constantly as they are mass produced, and sell via multiple channels, so they will end up frequently in market stands and discounted shops.
Read reviews, and check whether a website is an authorized retailer (from the brand website or email them), which is not the same as a website saying a product is genuine, but has no box and the item comes wrapped in tissue. Don’t forget what the product looks like won’t necessarily be the same as the photo, so check the returns procedure. If they don’t offer free returns and you aren’t saving much, then consider it may not be worth the risk. These days, authorized retailers offer loyalty clubs, discount codes on your birthday, and special offers, so there are opportunities to get discounts without taking risks. There are third party retailers that sell quality and genuine products, but there are many more that sell out of date items, or ones that are counterfeit whether they are aware of this or not. The best advice is only to buy skincare from retailers who use licensed distributors, and if something looks too cheap, ask yourself if it’s worth the risk.