There is no right answer

This year, one of my New Year's resolutions was "Suffer more for beauty." And I'm pretty pleased with this resolution. I mean, I'm not wearing mom jeans over here, but I'm definitely the kind of girl to choose comfort over style. Hence, my shoes are all flats, my makeup is minimal, and I never, ever blow dry my hair.

But this year, I decided to take a stand against comfort. I'm 29, for god's sake, and if I don't look my best now, well, it just might be downhill from here. So I bought heels. They crunch my toes, but when I wear them at work, I get a little confidence kick. I bought makeup I've never had before - concealer, eyebrow pencil, a nice new blush. I even sprung for a curling iron. I'm spending more time in the mornings, but I'm feeling better when I walk out the door.

Encouraged by my resolution, my sister got me a Sephora gift card for my birthday. A lovely present. However, before hitting the store, I decided to peruse their website. You know, to prepare myself for the crushing tide of possibilities.

I find beauty stores extremely overwhelming. The issue is simple: how can you possibly know if this facewash or that lipstick is going to change your life? They all say they will, so which one can you trust? I usually end up going for a brand I know, or the nicest packaging, or something that smells good. But this time, I wanted to arm myself with a bit more information. A little pre-shop on the website would surely help with that.

And it did. As I scanned the hair-care products, I noticed little tags that said "Best of Sephora." Now this, I like. This I can get behind. Because it's based on data. I clicked on a "Best of" styling product, Frederic Fekkai Glossing Cream. I assumed the tag meant that this product had more reviews, and more positive ones, than all others like it. So I started reading.

"This stuff is so addicting it is my personal hair crack."

"Works wonders on my hair."

"Boy! This stuff works so well."

"This glossing cream will make your hair shine! I always get compliments when I use it."

"Up until I discovered FF, I sort of begrudgingly bought hair products, because I never saw the results I wanted and felt like I was throwing money down the drain. However, this line has totally changed all of that.
I like this product because it doesn't contain any alcohol, and really moisturizes your hair. I've colored my hair this past year and this has saved my hair and really reversed much of the dryness that was making my hair unmanageable."

That last one really stood out, because I can relate. I too have bought hair products begrudgingly. I too have seen a lack of results. I too have dry, colored hair.

Plus, many of the negative reviewers said things like, "I used too much and it didn't work." Idiots, I thought. I noticed myself selectively filtering out the negative reviews, and becoming more and more excited with each positive one.

Now of course, I don't know any of these women. But in my head, the 5-star reviewers were all hip young account executives living in Manhattan. They were all stylish and gorgeous and the only thing missing from their routines, until now, had been Frederic Fekkai Glossing Cream. This product had to be mine.


So, I arrive in Sephora and manage to find the product before a single salesperson interrupts. I look at the label, I smell it, and I'm set. Now I'm standing there, looking for something else to buy with the rest of my gift card, when a saleswoman seizes the opportunity. "Can I help you find anything?" "Oh, um, I'm all right." "I see you've got the Glossing Cream! Can I show you something else?" She starts taking me to another wall of the store. "But everybody said...," I trail off, realizing I'm talking about people I don't actually know.

She holds up another product, similar in size, called Oscar Blandi Silk Polishing Cream. She starts telling me how she likes this one better, because unlike Fekkai, it doesn't have any alcohol in it. Hang on. I remember one of the reviewers saying that Fekkai had no alcohol. Now I'm really confused. Who is right?

The woman reads the Fekkai label and pronounces one of the ingredients. "See, this has pro-py-lene gly-col." Admittedly, that sounds like alcohol to me, and the last time I read a beauty magazine, it said to steer clear. Okay, I say, and I take the Oscar Blandi product. This is when the decision becomes a bit like a battle of lightsabers.

Blandi has a cooler bottle, but Fekkai has cooler graphics. The saleswoman said Fekkai has alcohol, but some reviewer said it didn't. I flip both products over to compare ingredients. The first five are exactly the same. No help. The saleswoman said she liked Blandi better, but couldn't give me a real reason why. Fekkai is one dollar cheaper. A million voices say Fekkai. One saleswoman says Blandi. Perhaps she was on commission from Blandi. Perhaps her quota this week said "Push Blandi."

I start to put Blandi back on the shelf. But then I pause. The saleswoman is pretty, and she has nice hair. Suddenly I think back to all those reviewers. Who are they, anyway? I don't see a million women on the street with gorgeous hair! Maybe they just like Fekkai because it brings their hair from nasty to acceptable! Or maybe they're all pimply 13-year-olds! It's crazy how quickly I turn on this crowd. I don't know them, they are essentially fictitious, and suddenly, I can change their features to fit my case. But I can't dispute the fidelity of a salesperson, standing right there in front of me. I put Fekkai back, and walk to the register with Blandi.


There are two very human instincts at play in this story, and they just so happen to be diametrically opposed. On the one hand, our rational mind says "More people = more credible." It's like "Ask the audience" on Millionaire. With that many folks in the crowd, we trust them to reach sound consensus.

On the other hand, our emotional mind says "Real person = more credible." A connection to another human - even something as tiny as eye contact - is massively influential. Seeing is believing, and it's hard to trust someone who is really just words on a page.

In this sense, shopping is actually made more difficult by the internet. Real people do battle with virtual people all day long in our heads. And with so much conflicting information, we are encouraged to maximize. We are led to believe that there is one right choice, and a thousand wrong ones, and that if we can only find the right one, we will have won. In turn, we become so scared to make the wrong decision, that we search and search and search for objective advice. Fact. Truth. 9 out of 10 doctors. Something to let us purchase without regret.

In that moment in the store, I wished I could go back to the website and read comparable reviews on Blandi. I wished I could personally meet and shake hands with all 500+ Fekkai reviewers, see what they looked like and how similar they were to me. I wished for apples-to-apples. But in the absence of that ability, I had to make the decision on my own. What if I chose wrong? It was paralyzing.

Well, I now firmly believe that the biggest difference between these two products is brand. I truly expect that if I had purchased the Fekkai product, it would work in quite the same way. So the lesson here is, there is no right answer. Maybe on Millionaire, but not in the real world. Two things can simultaneously be good. And I can't trust salespeople any more than I can trust anonymous Sephora website reviewers. The only person I can trust, is myself.


In all my life, this was possibly the most anxiety-ridden purchase I've made. I felt confused and annoyed for the rest of the day. I went home and checked the reviews on Blandi, seeking validation that I didn't screw up. Only 21 reviews, but all were positive. In fact, many said very similar things to the Fekkai reviews. Smoothes your hair, makes it glossy, yada yada. I suddenly realized that nobody's opinion mattered now except mine. So I tried the product. And you know what - it was great. Thank god.


Renee Prisble Una said...

This is awesome! I struggle with some purchases, especially beauty care purchases, because they are selling more then whats in the bottle. There is a magic genie in there!

At 32, I have been putting my foot down on my lazy ways. I've made a small personal promise to wear basic make up to every class I teach. Last semester I started the semester strong because I know a first impression is really important, so important in fact, that I know it can outweigh many poor impressions in the future. This thought process fulled my laziness. But no more!

Sephora is NYC, Ulta is the Chicago competitor....

Anonymous said...

Great post! I enjoy how you manage to locate and articulate kernels of truth in every experience about which you write. The phrase that caught my attention was "the crushing tide of possibilities." When out shopping, I am often overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, no matter what the item. With clothing, I usually narrow my choice by shopping only in the petite department, or choosing smaller stores where I have been successful in the past. Does anyone else out there feel overwhelmed by the abundance of choice?

Hillary Schuster said...


- i, too, have been trying to push the envelope more when it comes to my appearance. this has mostly been with my clothing, though. i've been wearing WAY more dresses and skirts than ever before, which is shocking, given the coldcold winter we've had. i feel like i know fashion but rarely bother...so i've been trying. anyway, this isn't really what your post is about but thought you'd be interested since we are friends...

- next: one of the only hair care products that i've noticed to actually make my hair look better? a fredrick fekkai shampoo. again, not what your blog is about.

- i agree with nancy that the abundance of choice can be overwhelming. that exists everywhere in our current lives, not just in retail shopping (eh-hem, match.com). access to information has made so many things so much more daunting. like, say, buying insurance. you used to just go to the insurance agent down the street or to someone recommended by a friend. now you feel the need to compare ALL POSSIBLE CHOICES. when, as sara mentioned, you're rarely going to make a mistake. things aren't that different.

- i think the hierarchy of judging information is interesting, too. sara, if i had told you before, that i had loved the one fredrick fekkai product that i had tried (and currently use b/c the moms gave me a bottle in my stocking), would you have chosen that instead? since you know me and trust me? or would you have realized the girl at sephora had better hair...or that you and i have very different hair? or maybe that i might be a snob about products, so you'd trust the recommendation?

- i was also thinking how, you point out that the only opinion that matters is yours. but i was thinking how things are so relative. like, if you try the blandi stuff, you're going from not having previously used a product, to using a new, expensive one. but say you decide to try the FF product next time. will you be able to compare them? i mean, if the FF product is just slightly better, would you be able to tell or would you just remember the experience of going from zero to sixty with the blandi?

- okay, i guess that's enough. let me know if you want to talk beauty products. and, renee, i don't think ulta is any competitor to sephora. it's like a combination beauty supply store, cvs and random perfumier. they have random high-end brands, but the shopping experience is 100% different. sephora is so much more fun.

sara said...

Thanks for all of your thoughts! I always thought of Ulta as a beauty warehouse rather than a boutique, but I will say the Ulta that just opened next to my office should be illegal, it looks so much like Sephora. The format is nearly identical. It's changed my perception of Ulta in a big way.

That said, Sephora is still the grand master of this channel. And the makeovers constantly going on at the front are super appealing. They've gone beyond "all beauty products in one place" to actually being exciting.

Hillary and Nancy, I agree too much choice is a bad thing, but for more than just the shopper. I would also argue that too much choice commoditizes the offering. When there are 50 companies selling insurance, we think, "With that many, they must all be pretty similar." Whereas if there were 3, we'd be like "What are the differences?" I'd be a more engaged shopper with fewer choices in almost any category.

Hillary, if you told me you loved Fekkai, that would have been a major influencing factor - because I know you, and because your hair is great. However, that's shampoo and this is "glossing cream," and I tend to think brands create one-hit wonders and then just fill out their portfolios. So I don't know if I would necessarily assume a great Fekkai shampoo means a great Fekkai styling product.

But great point about impressions being relative. Right now, I am actually loving the Blandi product. My hair is so soft, it's unbelievable. But rather than feeling like I've discovered Oscar Blandi, I actually feel like I've discovered this new category of product called "glossing cream." If I try Fekkai, I don't expect to be able to tell the difference. So I won't go around recommending either brand, but I will go around recommending glossing creams. That was actually the big finding in this purchase.

Anonymous said...

When I was a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory, the overwhelming amount of choices on their menu was considered a large part of why they were successful as a restaurant. In our training, they made sure that each server knew every single item on their menu--a weeks-long process. We were led to believe that the magazine-like nature of their menu (so many pages, they even had advertisements) was what brought people back. Every time you came there, you could get something else! And it's probably true--after all, there was never NOT a wait. But I'm sure plenty of people still find it overwhelming. Do you think restaurants are different than stores in that way? More choice = better?

sara said...

Stacy, what an excellent question!

First, we should all keep in mind that the concept of choice being bad is totally counterintuitive. Choice means control and freedom for most people, and it can indeed be liberating. If you only have one choice for something, then to get a second is amazing. If you only have two choices, then a third is great. And so on. Eventually, though, you reach a breaking point where more choice is harder, not easier. But until that point, choice feels great.

And if asked, most people would say they prefer a menu of 100 items to a menu of 50, because the chances are greater that they would find exactly what they want. This also has something to do with the fact that in food, we tend to know what we like, because we've tasted it before.

However, there does become a point when choice is debilitating, and I believe that point is a combination of too many options, and too little hierarchy. You know the restaurants where the menu is one giant page, newspaper-like, with tiny print? Those menus are hard work. We have to pore over them with our finger, trying to remember where our first two entree options were while we look for a potential third choice.

What I believe Cheesecake does best is organize their extremely long menu into an easy-to-read format. The physical book is actually pretty small. Each page has only one category of food, making it a lot easier to say "I'm in the mood for pizza," then flip to that page and say "I'd like the pepperoni." Their menu has better hierarchy than most, which makes their huge array of options bearable.

I believe people come back to Cheesecake Factory because the portions are huge, the food is good and the menu has "something for everyone." But when it comes to personally choosing what I want, I'd still prefer a little less choice.

Hillary Schuster said...

one thing i hate:

at jerry's sandwich shop, they have this cool unusual menu of tons of sandwiches. it's an abundance of options all in one category. they have some sandwiches that are less adventurous and some that are more, but there are tons and it's fun to pour over all the options and pick one. BUT! at the end of the menu, they give you the ability to build your own sandwich. wtf? if you can build your own - do exactly what you want - what were all of those previous options? i find this an incredibly annoying cap on an otherwise successful concept.

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