Buying Makeup Online Is tough, how brands can make it better

Buying Makeup Online Is tough, how brands can make it better.


My first time buying lipstick online went poorly. The lipstick I received in the mail looked nothing like the colour on my screen and was a terrible match for my skin, leeching the colour from my face. In the following years, there has been scant improvement.

The Internet has promised to revolutionize retail, but in the cosmetics industry this promise remains unfulfilled. Consumers prefer to try products before they buy them because  it can be almost impossible to tell if any given product will work for their skin while shopping online. This is unsurprising - online sales channels like Amazon are geared for selling books and hard drives, and are ill-suited to more personal products like makeup and skin-care. Cosmetic customers are practically forced to stick with brick-and-mortar stores.

For up-and-comers in the cosmetics industry, this is a dismal state of affairs. Established retailers are effectively the sole gatekeepers of the industry. Retailers can offer cosmetic brands more stability then a direct-to-consumer model, but they can take 70% of the sale. Most brands who are in major retailers still struggle to become profitable in the first few years, and those are the lucky few who can even get a retail partner.This is why smaller brands tend to rely heavily on D2C sales in the early days. 

The pandemic made things even worse for most brands where most retail channels slowed considerably or stopped altogether.Without a stable retail partner brands were forced to focus on online direct to consumer distribution. With clever advertising and a good social media presence direct website purchases are often more profitable than retail. With an online sale on a brand’s website 100% of the money goes to that brand.  Online experience is crucial to profitability.

The problem, of course, is that the online experience is still bad. How do we fix it?

How to bridge the online cosmetics gap

There are companies that specialize in facial recognition systems to help customers find cosmetics that will work for their skin.  The main solution used for makeup is virtual make up try on. These services take a users picture and using computer vision and a variety of algorithms show users what the product should look like on their face.

What’s wrong with virtual makeup?

It Doesn’t explain why

Virtual makeup shows users what a product will look like on but it doesn’t explain why consumers should buy. Unlike a store when users tryon the product, they aren’t able to drill down and read any details about the products. A red lipstick from Chanel looks the same as one from Dollar Tree. It doesn’t make it obvious why your product is the best, making the experience generic.

They don’t make it easy

Alot of consumers aren’t sure what product will suit them best even if they can see what it will look like on. In store this is solved by asking a makeup artist for help. Some sites offer the ability to book an online session with a representative, but that involves finding a time that works, placing it in your calendar and waiting. Some companies have a chat functionality,  the problem is that most smaller brands can only offer limited hours, with email responses in off hours. Also the person answering the request cannot assess or analyze the skin in a scientific way. 

Bad incentives

Virtual makeup services have a perverse incentive to alter user’s faces into something that is not achievable with makeup alone. This is done to make the customer more inclined to share the image online. Currently there are no regulations or standards when it comes to this technology. Cosmetic companies are limited in the choice of service provider, and aren’t necessarily aware that these images may not be true to life. Over the long haul unrealistic images lead to customer dissatisfaction. Over the long term it can decreases the likely hood consumers will repurchase.


Showing me rendered images what my face would look like if I was scarlet johansson, may make me want to share the image online, but won’t help build trust. Brands should show customers what’s going to make their customers look good in real life not manufactured facilities.. Over the long haul the technique of generating unrealistic images will destroy consumer trust and their willingness to re-buy products.


How to prevent these problems:


  • Focus on what will make customers look good in real life. 
  • Make sure any service provider you use tests their products 
  • Make sure your website explains why a product is right for each customer.