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Shoppable Samples Are the New Beauty Testers

Indie beauty companies hope samples will be gateway drugs

As anyone with a Birchbox subscription knows, beauty samples are the gateway drug into exotic full-size cosmetics purchases. But what about the dozens of quirky, independently-owned cosmetics companies that only sell online only and most likely won’t ever see the inside of a subscription box or a Sephora? How do they market their products on small budgets, without the backing and resources of a corporate owner?


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In fact, in the world of independent cosmetics, most companies proactively offer samples of as many of their products as possible, selling them to consumers for very low prices. Samples of all of the independent brands mentioned in this story are plentiful and cheap, and you can procure a healthy array of colors by the fistful for less than $10.

"I think it's especially important for online-only shops like ours to offer sample sizes, because you can't always convey through a computer screen what a product will really be like in person," says Caitlin Johnstone, founder of the Portland-based vegan brand Shiro Cosmetics.

Customers get to try out an array of products and colors from an enticing but untested new brand without investing much money. And for the companies, allowing customers to try before they buy – even if the cost is making up hundreds of samples – often results in full-size sales.

"Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."

A photo posted by Blackbird Cosmetics (@blackbirdcosmetics) on

Sophie Broadbent, the owner and founder of Australian brand Femme Fatale Cosmetics (they also have a U.S.-based site) understands the importance of try-before-you-buy in the online-based, no-returns landscape of independent beauty companies. "A lot of people can be hesitant about or unfamiliar with handmade cosmetics," she says. "I honestly feel consumers can be wary of — and rightly so — of new companies whom are mixing pigments out of their home."

There are as many indie beauty companies as there are cute ways to name them — hey there, Hello Waffle — but what they have in common is that they’re mostly online-only - usually through their own sites, sometimes through Etsy, and sometimes through both. Their best advertising and marketing weapon, then, is their product.

Here’s an idea what a makeup obsessive focused on independent brands has to choose from in sample land: mineral brand Meow Cosmetics offers $1 samples from all over the site. Geek Chic sells sample eyeshadows for $1.25. My Beauty Addiction sells packs of three lipstick samples for $4, and Hello Waffle provides their powder face products in sample, "halfling," and full sizes.

Fyrinnae, an online-only, vegan brand, touts that their $4 eyeshadow mini "will last anywhere from 20 to 30+ applications." Their Pixie Epoxy (an adhesive for glittery shadows) comes in a full size ($9) and a trial size ($4.50).

The list goes on: Impulse Cosmetics, Virus Insanity, Darling Girl, Blackbird, Rituel de Fille, Life’s Entropy, Fyraennae, Corvus.

If you’ve never heard of any of these companies, it won’t cost you much to try a handful of items before making up your mind. And that’s the point.

Special font for a special collection. #corvuscosmetics #indiemakeup #indiemakeupandmore #Heathers

A photo posted by Corvus Cosmetics (@corvuscosmetics) on

Shiro Cosmetics is unique in that it offers many products in three sizes – for loose eyeshadow, a full-size jar is $6.50, a mini-jar is $3.75, and a sample bag is just $1. Lip glosses go for $9, and a sample size is sold in a clamshell for $2.

Purchasing makeup has always been a crapshoot, but the explosion of sample culture – from subscription boxes, to the aforementioned indie brands, to multi-brand beauty websites that sell product samples – shows that it doesn’t always have to be.

(An aside — interestingly, K-beauty brands routinely offer samples of their products, usually in packs of five, 10, or 20).

Johnstone of Shiro sees sample-slinging as a necessity for an online cosmetics business. And it seems to be working. New customers often buy more than 20 samples at once, she says, but regular customers tend to buy mini (Shiro’s version of medium) or full-size products.

Rituel de Fille, a small, high-end natural brand that touts its highly pigmented products, is an experience designed for the beauty obsessive. Its outer packaging is a black box covered in writing, and the Ash and Ember Eye Soots come in an octagonal jar.

But that Eye Soot costs $38, and you won’t find their products in a Sephora or nestled in a subscription box. New York City shops like Catbird and Credo Beauty carry a few of Rituel’s products, but there’s still no way for the consumer to test them.

Boggart, Toy Store Cowboy, and Forget Me Not METALUXE lippy samples Via @chellocholita

A photo posted by Impulse Cosmetics (@impulsecosmetics) on

Enter their Petites Couleurs Sample Set, which lets the customer choose 5 items – from the Eye Soots to the lip products to the cream blush – for $15. The set is the result of both customer demand and the need for marketing, says Katherine Ramos, one of the brand’s three co-founders. The brand started offering it at the end of last year.

"We wanted to make the buying process more comfortable," says Ramos. "It really is difficult to buy makeup off the internet."

Taking a cue from the indies, some smaller e-commerce sites that sell multiple independent cosmetic and skincare brands are also getting in on the sample-selling game – namely, Nature of Beauty, Spirit Beauty Lounge, and the Detox Market.

The fun part is that you can get samples from brands that don't make them, like RMS Beauty, Vapour Organic, and Alima. On Nature of Beauty, you might buy a sample of RMS Beauty's much-hyped "un-cover" concealer for $1 – and you probably should, since you don’t want to buy the wrong shade of a $38 product.

"The decision to have samples on the website was a proactive model to prevent returns," said Jennifer Baskin, Nature of Beauty’s owner. Originally a brick-and-mortar store, it went online-only in 2014.

Sample orders have increased in the past year, she says, and the most sampled brand "by far" is RMS Beauty.

"We don’t make profit on samples," says Baskin. "But the reason we have them is to reduce returns, and to capture new customers." She gives a casual estimate that about of half of those who purchase samples turn into new customers.

Spirit Beauty Lounge offers a customized sample service for $25. Pick six items from all over the site – like Ilia lip tints ($26 for a full tube, and so many colors to choose from!), and Kjaer Weis’s luxe highlighter (full size: $56). Detox offers something similar for $9.99

Of course, all this sampling can get out of control.

Femme Fatale Cosmetics experienced growing pains with the sheer amount of work that came with creating samples. Now, they offer sample packs available for a short period of time for their new releases.

And oddly enough, for Femme Fatale, the sample pack isn’t necessarily something that draws in new buyers. While the sample packs "usually sell out, we do notice that a majority of our buyers are return customers as well – not actually new customers," says founder/owner Sophie Broadbent.

For Femme Fatale, offering samples for all their products just became unfeasible. "The time put into samples — both packing, cleaning and picking/packing for sample orders — was so incredibly time consuming," says Broadbent.

Another vegan brand, Blackbird Cosmetics, also decided last year to cut down on samples for purchase.

"You guys are used to being able to buy something for a really really small amount of money & use it for a long time," wrote Blackbird owner Maleah Holderbaum in the indiemakeupandmore subreddit. "I really hope that this is not the value you guys place on the quality of Bb's products. I know that my products are worth more than that."

Minis upon minis upon minis.

A photo posted by Corvus Cosmetics (@corvuscosmetics) on

Nature of Beauty had to limit sample purchases to 5 per order for new customers, says Baskin. "It does take time and they do take money, which I don’t think our customers understand," she says.

And what about making it big by getting a sample of your makeup into a subscription box? That may not even feasible for small brands, says Ramos of Rituel de Fille.

"We’ve had conversations with pretty much everyone," she says, "and one thing is really difficult for us: because their subscription base is so large, their minimum asks for quantities is in the tens of thousands at least. For a small company, that’s huge. We’d have to dedicate almost all our production to that."

Still, the modern customer, inundated with choices and dealing with a mild case of online-shopping-related ADD, appears to enjoy and even prefer the option of buying cosmetics in different sizes for a variety of reasons, says Johnstone of Shiro.

"For me, a full size is what I would purchase for anything that I consider a staple of my makeup routine," she explains. "But there are a lot of situations where I'll want a color to use sometimes… For anything like that, mini jars are exactly what I want: inexpensive, but entirely functional and easy to use and to store, with enough product to use generously until I get bored of it."

Even some of the most ardent makeup consumers are thinking critically about size — beauty bloggers note with pride about "hitting pan," i.e using a powder product until the pan at the bottom is visible.

That might be a message to the big manufacturers: do we really need that much eyeshadow when trends change so quickly? It’s also one more argument for experimenting with the independent brands, where a consumer can take advantage of their flexible sizing and samples. In more ways than one, it seems like smaller is beautiful.

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