But when Nuance, Salma Hayek's new beauty line, arrived this month, it launched exclusively at CVS (CVS), the drug store chain, near aisles lined with shampoo, toothpaste and paper towels.
Beauty is undergoing a makeover at some of the nation's biggest retailers, as pharmacy chains and department stores go after the business in new and unconventional ways that challenge longtime marketing methods.
In addition to the Salma Hayek line, Sears (SHLD) entered the cosmetics business this spring with the roll out of beauty departments in about 100 stores.
Meanwhile, Macy's (M) is going beyond cosmetics counters with new Impulse Beauty departments that sell offbeat, niche brands in an "open-sell" shopping environment that take their cues from stores like Sephora.
These retailers are courting a business that has rebounded quickly from the recession despite the country's economic malaise. Indeed, beauty sales at retail stores are surpassing pre-recession levels, industry statistics reveal.
Makeup sales at department stores from January through June were up nearly 4% compared to the first half of 2008, according to market research firm the NPD Group.
At drugstores, lipstick and mascara sales are up 7.7% and 6.98%, respectively, from this time a year ago, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI Group.
Although consumer confidence overall remains low, "beauty sales are on fire," Karen Grant, vice president and senior global industry analyst for NPD, tells DailyFinance.
It's as though women are indulging their beauty fantasies by stocking up on cosmetics, a highly emotional, feel-good purchase, even when money is still tight for many, she says.
"It's like an escape from reality."
Drugstores Go Glam
In recent years, the big drugstore chains have been encroaching on the prestige cosmetics business -- dominated by department stores -- with fancier displays and higher-end brands.
These include Duane Reade's (WAG) Look Boutique beauty departments, which are staffed with makeup advisers and offer services like eyebrow shaping, and CVS's Beauty 360 sections, where you can treat yourself to a facial or makeup application, and pick up aspirational cosmetics brands such as Vincent Longo and Paula Dorf.
They've also been showcasing clinical-looking skincare displays with dermatologist-backed lines like La Roche-Posay.
The beauty makeover under way at drugstore chains mirrors the mass-meets-class trend that has redefined fashion over the past decade.
Partnerships between discount chains and upscale designers on exclusive fashion lines -- from Target (TGT) and Missoni to H&M and Karl Lagerfeld – have brought high style to a mass audience like never before.
Now, as the lines start to blur between prestige and mass market beauty retailers, is it just a matter of time before Lancôme lipstick and Clinique eyeliner turn up on drugstore shelves?
"We're heading closer to that reality," Grant says. "You're seeing higher-end makeup brands sold in the TV channel, on the Internet."
But broadening distribution is a "delicate game" for upscale makeup suppliers, who don't want to risk diluting their high-end brand equity or alienating their department store partners by selling to mass market retailers, be they drugstore chains or discounters like Walmart (WMT), she says.
Nuance, for one, breaks ground for a drug store, Cheryl Mahoney, vice president of beauty for CVS, pharmacy, tells DailyFinance.
The line marks the first time an "A-list celebrity" has worked with a mass retailer on an exclusive beauty line, she says.
What's more, "the products are different from anything in the mass market, and are department- and specialty-store quality for much less," she says, noting that the line is made from high-quality ingredients that have been sourced from around the world.
CVS shared Hayek's populist vision to offer a beauty collection "that every woman can afford," Mahoney says. Indeed, Nuance products, which include color cosmetics, body care, skin care and hair care, are priced from $2.99 to $19.99.
It also reflects the Mexican actress's interest in beautifying a multi-ethnic audience, with products for all skin tones.
Although 35 million consumers a week (80% of them are women) already traipse through its 7,200 stores, CVS wants more, and it's banking on beauty to be a draw.
Overall, "beauty is a core priority for us because it appeals to our core customer" in the 34- to 55-year age range, Mahoney says.
So, beyond the Hayek line, CVS is expanding the Beauty 360 departments, currently in 25 stores, to 10 more over the next year, has ratcheted up its social media makeup marketing efforts, and recently launched the CVS Beauty Club -- a first for the mass channel, whereby members receive rewards for their beauty purchases, personalized offers and beauty advice and tips, Mahoney says.
Sears' Brush with Beauty
Sears entrée into the beauty business is about gaining credibility -- and sales -- from female shoppers.
For years, Sears has struggled to find its softer side. Businesses that cater to women have been weak at a chain better known for its Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools than its clothing or cosmetics.
Sears is working overtime to change that perception, and help reverse sales declines, by launching hipper fashion lines such as the Kardashian Kollection from the ubiquitous reality-star sisters, which hits stores this fall.
And beauty is integral to Sears' mission to become a total fashion destination, Gary Schettino, vice president for men's apparel, intimate apparel, cosmetics and women's accessories, tells DailyFinance.
"For us not to be in the cosmetics business would be a mistake," he says. "It would be saying we're not serious about the women's business."
But that's changing. J.C. Penney now operates Sephora shops in its stores, and Sears is charging full-steam into the business after merely dabbling in it over the years.
With its new beauty departments, Sears hopes to carve a niche by offering low-priced drugstore brands, such as Maybelline, L'Oreal (LRLCY), Cover Girl (PG) and Revlon (REV), in a mall setting for shoppers who might not be able to afford the prestige makeup lines sold at Macy's, for example, Schettino says.
The retailer is raising the bar presentation wise to compete with mall retailers' stylish displays with beauty sections that are a hybrid between a department store and a discount chain.
The idea is to offer "a selling experience that you wouldn't get at Walgreens (WAG)," Schettino says.
The result is an airy, "grab and go" cosmetics, skin- and nail-care beauty department with low merchandising fixtures and makeup stations where beauty advisers are on hand to assist customers.
Sears found that some shoppers were put off by department stores "where someone has to get you the product from behind the counter," Schettino says. "Our consultant selling arrangement is much less intimidating than the beauty counters."
Sears' mass market brands are also complemented by some higher end offerings, such as Iman Cosmetics from the iconic model. The line marks Sears' bid to court favor with women of color, as African Americans and Hispanics account for a large chunk of the retailer's shopping base, Adrienne Hoyer, divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics and fragrances for Sears, tells DailyFinance.
The retailer, whose core female customer is 35 to 50, also hopes the beauty departments will entice that mom who's in the store shopping for her kids' clothes, and also appeal to the "older customer who is living longer, looking good longer, and is spending more money and more time on that [pursuit], whether its on apparel, hair or skincare," she says.
Macy's Gets Impulse-ive
Although department stores dominate the prestige makeup business, that doesn't necessarily mean they resonate with a new generation of shoppers. Macy's counts its Impulse Beauty departments among its edgier moves to turn on shoppers, in this case, younger, trendy ones. Indeed, taking bets on offbeat strategies is now a corporate imperative.
"We are encouraging a higher level of risk taking with the understanding that growth requires new and often untested approaches to the business," Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO of Macy's, told investors during the company's analyst meeting in May.
"You can see it in our Impulse beauty departments that feature interesting, niche brands," he said. These include lines like Benefit, Urban Decay and MAC.
Breaking from its cosmetic counter selling model, where the salesperson is the intermediary between the shopper and the makeup behind the glass case, the Impulse Beauty departments feature an open-sell environment that allows shoppers to freely browse, touch, test out and buy the merchandise without the assistance of a sales associate.
The 1,000-square foot departments, which Macy's started testing last year, will roll out to 100 stores this fall, Lundgren said at the annual meeting.
The Impulse format "is most reflective of specialty stores like Ulta and Sephora," where shoppers can play and experiment with makeup, and offers a shopping environment that promotes a heightened level of consumer engagement "that appeals to the younger customer," Grant says.
It's precisely that younger customer base that Macy's needs to do a better job of winning over, Lundgren said.