December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

With only a few flaws in its online makeup, Clinique is still fun and easy to shop

For those of us who love department store cosmetics, but can’t stand crowds or aggressive salespeople, there used to be but two choices: Brave the cosmetic counter frenzy or venture into the world with a bare face.

Not anymore. Clicking onto Clinique.com allows you to buy skin care, makeup and fragrance products online, eliminating the common hassles of traditional shopping. There’s just one catch-you can’t touch, smell, taste or, in some cases, see the products.

New York City-based Clinique Laboratories Inc., a division of Estee Lauder Companies Inc., goes out of its way to overcome the Internet’s sensory shortcomings via robust descriptions, color swatches and product pictures. Despite the detailing of texture, aroma, color and benefits, it’s still hard to replicate that in-store experience where one whiff of perfume can make or break the sale. Reading about fragrance ingredients just doesn’t conjure up a complete olfactory picture.

Analysts say that Clinique’s Web site strategy is focused on replenishment purchases-tried-and-true products the consumer already uses such as a favorite foundation or lipstick shade. “The touchability of an object is always a difficult space to work in,” says Michael Sun, an analyst at Mainspring Communications, an e-commerce consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. “When consumers go into a store, that’s where Clinique will be making its play,” he says, referring to new Clinique product launches.

Nonetheless, Clinique.com doesn’t let any opportunity for impulse buying slip by. Whenever a shopper returns to the home page, a flashing product catches her eye. The product changes frequently-it may be a liquid lipstick with sunscreen on one visit and an anti-aging serum the next time a shopper clicks by.

Guilt-free glamour

Clinique.com allows shoppers to browse according to their interest, listing such categories as “what’s new” and “what’s right for you.” That sounds easy enough, but navigating can become confusing from that point on. There’s considerable duplication of categories-some of the 13 categories on the home page are listed twice and in no apparent order. Still Clinique.com’s graphic design is simple and appealing with its familiar trademark green banner prominently displayed like a sign promising skin-care safety.

A consultation service is available to registered shoppers, providing customized product information after shoppers answer questions about their eye and hair color, skin tone and skin type. After registering, appropriate products are selected and displayed. I enjoyed this feature because it allowed me to linger as long as I liked, reading descriptions and examining pictures, without feeling any obligation that often occurs when a makeup artist assists me in a store.

For Clinique customers who know exactly what they want, the site allows searches by the product name and type.

A quirky feature of the site is its British accent. Clinique.com uses “colour” rather than “color” and “favourable” instead of “favorable”-perhaps an appeal to Anglophiles. Despite repeated requests, Clinique’s e-commerce managers wouldn’t talk directly to me about my critique of their site. But according to a Clinique customer service representative, the British spelling pays homage to the company’s international flavor. Clinique means “clinic” in French, and the site was designed with an “international feel” in mind. Still, for a New York-based company, the British spelling seems a bit of a stretch.

No stockpiling allowed

When Clinique.com visitors finish their browsing and get down to buying, there are some boundaries. Online shoppers can replenish, but can’t stockpile.

Buying restrictions limit a consumer to no more than four of any one beauty product and total purchases are restricted to $500-a restraint that aims to prevent either companies or consumers from trying to resell Clinique merchandise.

These buying limitations apply both to online and offline consumers. However, online customers are at disadvantage with another policy: no bonuses. When in-store shoppers spend $16.50 or more at Clinique counters, they receive bags filled with trial-sized products. No such goodies are given to online patrons. I felt disappointed after spending $35-twice the required amount to get the bonus bag.

Clinique.com service representatives say that the company’s gift-with-purchase policy is limited to offline counters because the strategy aims to bring customers into the store for exposure to Clinique products.

From an operational perspective, shopping at Clinique.com shopping is just like its logo-safe and neat. The ordering process is simple: type in the quantity of the product desired, click on the item to store it in a virtual shopping cart and submit the order. A thank-you page pops up with an order number, and then Clinique sends the shopper two e-mails: one confirming that it has received an order and another once the merchandise has been shipped to the customer.

Policies on shipping, handling, sales tax, exchange, returns and online security are prominently displayed on one page. Shipping and handling charges start at $5 for an order of $25 or less and progress to $10 for any order more than $100. Though these fees aren’t outrageous, it seems strange that shipping and handling charges are based on the amount of purchase, rather than weight of an order. I ordered a lipstick and eyeliner that couldn’t have nudged the scales by much, but still was charged $6 instead of $5, which seemed like an unfair penalty for spending more than $25, rather than less.

After placing my order with standard shipping (which promises delivery in three to seven days from the date of purchase), two e-mails were sent to me confirming the order and shipment date. The package arrived within five days, intact and with the correct billing information.

Upon closer examination, the color of the makeup was impressively close to the “colour” displayed online, even though Clinique.com warns shoppers that shades may vary according to the quality of their computer monitor. The lipstick texture was a bit dryer than I had expected, and the cake eyeliner needed to be dampened before I could use it-something that wasn’t mentioned on the Web site-otherwise products were true to their online description and of high quality.

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