Would you buy this lipstick if it was £2.56? The psychology behind the price of beauty products

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Demand for many beauty products increases as they get more expensive, because they are seen as more exclusive. But are they? Stylist investigates...

Words: Samantha Silver
Photography: Dennis Pedersen

Whether you claim to eschew expensive brands or are a committed devotee to luxury, if given a choice between a no-frills product – say, a supermarket face cream – and one that comes in a sleek jar, smells fabulous and has pride of place in a department store beauty hall, you’d plump for the latter, wouldn’t you? Well, of course you would. And so would I. Because when it comes to budget versus luxe, if money’s not an object, why would you ever choose cheap?

We naturally equate expense with quality. Diamonds cost thousands but they never lose their sparkle. An original Eames chair will set you back £5,000, but you couldn’t find a comfier seat. Georgian houses are extremely pricey but they’ve been standing happily for 200 years, thank you very much. The more you spend, we think, the better the product.

Many of us have grown up with the maxim, ‘Buy the best you can afford’ and while this no doubt rings true for electrical goods and bed linen, does it actually stand up when it comes to beauty products?

Blind studies are often carried out by beauty brands for new formulas because if testers have no access to packaging, pricing or brand information, how the product feels to the user becomes the only true indicator of value. “When developing Tresemmé’s Keratin Smooth range we washed half of our testers’ hair in the Tresemmé range (under £5) and half with a leading salon brand (around £15),” explains Peter Bailey, head of research and development at Unilever. The women were given no indication which side had benefited from which shampoo, and after 72 hours, were asked which section of their hair felt better: 75% chose the hair washed by the cheaper formula. But when asked which brand they’d buy based entirely on the packaging, surprise, surprise, the £15 shampoo came out top.

Hey big spender

It’s slightly depressing to admit it, but we are easily led. And not just by the glossy black casing and expensive click of a luxe powder compact. A decadent beauty hall can be a veritable wonderland for even the most cynical of shoppers; a world where formulas containing white truffles and gold flakes sit glistening atop opulently lit shelves in the middle of glossy, tiled floors. We walk in, overwhelmed by the glamour, but yet there are fairly prosaic forces at play which are making us spend big.

Firstly, floor space is expensive and people are lazy. Brands that can afford it will buy the pitch in the middle of the floor where footfall is highest. Naturally, it equates to better sales. Secondly, buying affordable luxury (and beauty products are one of the most accessible luxe products – most of us can rise to a £30 mascara, few of us could manage a £10,000 Birkin bag) is an act of empowerment we may feel all too rarely in other aspects of life. You may not own your own home, but you can proudly pull a Tom Ford lipstick from your Sophia Webster clutch. “There’s the element of, ‘If I can pay this much then I’m worth something’. It’s about a purchase making you feel good about yourself,” explains Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, who runs a MA course in consumer psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. Thirdly, it’s hard to ignore the stigma of ‘cheap’. Choosing the budget option says things about us that we may not be comfortable with. Tight? Hard-up? Lacking in standards, taste or refinement? None of the above are descriptions you’d proudly add to your CV.

And the prestige cosmetics industry has benefited – extensively – from our laziness, our need to feel good about ourselves, and let’s be honest, our snobbery. But a new transparency is seeping into the industry, based entirely on the belief that great beauty products should be available to everyone, regardless of income.

High price to pay

In a world where a certain oceanic moisturiser sells for £1,370 in Harrods, new budget ranges are refashioning the beauty landscape and sweeping beauty editors like me off our feet. Enter The Ordinary, a skincare brand costing between £3 and £13. It offers a 25-strong line up of impressive formulas including ingredients and technology that mimic serums costing 10 times as much. And here’s the thing: they really work.

Founder of The Ordinary, Brandon Truaxe explains: “The reason we price our brand like we do is because we’re targeting a more educated audience that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of brand marketing to make them buy into the product.” It’s a brand born of the digital age, targeting consumers who google before they buy: “We’re talking about a group of people who, when they walk into store to buy a product, know more about that product than the person selling it.” And he’s on to something. When we know what we’re buying, we know how much we want to pay for it. Think about it; if you were ill, and a doctor offered you a treatment costing £500 and another costing £5, you’d buy the expensive one without question. But if you knew what was wrong with you, and knew that either treatment would work, you’d pay £5. Education has freed us from the shackles of over-paying.

The Ordinary isn’t the only one leading the charge. Marcia Kilgore, the brains behind Bliss Spa and Soap & Glory launched Beauty Pie last month, a beauty buyers club – you subscribe for £10 at the start of the year to buy unlimited cut-price products. Each product you buy has a breakdown of where the money goes – so a lipstick costs £2.56 (£1.78 on product and packaging, £0.07 on warehousing, £0.28 on safety and testing and £0.43 on VAT). It makes you wonder where the rest of the £20 you might spend on a lipstick ends up. As Kilgore says, “Even the most luxurious product is about the price of a trip to Starbucks, if you buy it factory direct.”

Sickening while that may be, we can’t always buy at cost, direct from the supplier and there are undoubtedly times when spending more is ultimately worth it. For instance, the right shampoo and conditioner make a big difference to processed hair; take your hairdresser’s advice on this. Plus, it’s always worth paying more for a fragrance as high quality perfumed oils affect the longevity of scent – try Dior’s La Collection Privée or Tom Ford’s Private Blend. And, of course, nothing beats the feeling of pulling out that black, glossy powder compact from your bag, checking your face, and closing it with a very elegant click.

Yet, with high-street formulas now so sophisticated, and us consumers becoming so educated, is the future of the beauty industry – devoid of packaging, expensive marketing and shelf space – to be found on the high street? Only time will tell.

Scroll down for the purse-friendly products rated by those in the know.

High-street bargains

Eight women at the forefront of the beauty industry explain why quality doesn't always come at a cost...

Samantha Silver, Stylist’s beauty director

False Lash Effect Mascara, £10.99, Max Factor
If there’s one beauty product it’s worth economising on, it’s mascara. I’ve tried so many, and I still come back to this one I discovered as a beauty assistant six years ago. Every time I wear it I get compliments on my lashes and people often think I’m wearing extensions. I find that expensive mascaras can overload the brush but you can hear the excess being wiped away when you pull this chunky wand from the tube. Yet it still bulks up my lashes, lengthening, separating, adding volume and never clumping. I call it clean volume. I couldn’t ask for more.

Anna-Marie Solowij, co-founder of Beautymart

Vitalising All Over Oil, £7.99, H&M Conscious
This perfectly expresses where natural beauty is now, with Ecocert credited formulas in simple yet sophisticated packaging. But it’s not just the design and principles behind the product that ensures it’s always in stock in my beauty cupboard, it is multipurpose – good for bath, body and hair. I adore the scent too – fresh, head-clearing rosemary and not at all synthetic. For the price, the look (it comes boxed) and quality are exceptional with organic jojoba, grapeseed, sunflower and rosemary essential oil. I just wish they did it in a bigger size.

Alix Walker, Stylist’s deputy editor

Pure Petroleum Jelly, £1.95, Vaseline
I've been using this as eye make-up remover for 20 years. Every night, I swipe a blob on each eye, massage it into my eyelids and eyelashes and take off most of it with cotton wool. I’ve been unfaithful to it over the years, trying potions which claimed to ‘melt’ away mascara and eye creams that vowed to prevent fine lines. But not one single thing takes eye make-up off as efficiently – ask my White Company pillowcases – or does the job a £200 eye cream promises. As the rest of my face is pulled downwards, my eyes are holding up – I don’t have a line. I’m convinced it’s down to that £2.20 pot.

Bantika Robson, colourist at Josh Wood

Botanical Shine Conditioner for dry/damaged hair, £10, Liz Earle
I’ve been using this since October and have found it perfect for weather-proofing hair. The combination of freezing temperatures and intense indoor heating has a drying effect on our hair as well as skin but the natural shea butter and Vitamin E work well at calming weather-induced frizz, restoring hair to perfect condition after exposure to the wind, rain and artificial temperatures we’re all facing. A lot of conditioners weigh my hair down but this one doesn’t. It's a high-end formula from a luxury brand at high-street prices.

Liz Hambleton, editorial director at Treatwell

Skin So Soft Original Dry Oil Spray, £5, Avon
It’s not often your horse introduces you to a beauty product. I originally purchased this product because it’s proven to protect horses from midge bites, yes really – google it. My horse suffers terribly in the summer. It also gives her coat the most amazing shine ever so I started to pop it on my hair and skin every time I applied it to her. I find it detangles like no other hair oil, doesn’t leave a greasy shine and you can use it on your body as well. A total horse/human multitasker if you ask me.

Joanna McGarry, Stylist’s beauty director-at-large

Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 Serum, £5.90, The Ordinary
Hyaluronic acid is the most effective ingredient for creating a plump, nourished, supermodel-esque complexion, such is its ability to draw moisture deep and hold it there. But most hyaluronic acid serums don't contain enough of the good stuff (it doesn’t come cheap, after all). The Ordinary proudly proclaims the dosage of its star ingredient on the label and while 2% may not seem like much, it really is. My skin absorbs every speck of it in a few seconds rendering it dewy, smooth and as bouncy as a peach. I’m on my third bottle in six months.

Ama Quashie, Manicurist

Lucas’ Papaw Ointment, £5.99
I can’t remember how long I’ve been using it, maybe six years but it’s had a constant place in my handbag and kit bag since. At first I used to ask people to bring me back a few tubes from Australia but now it’s sold in Boots so it’s much easier to get your hands on. It’s made of papaw fruit and is the perfect all-rounder whether it be for moisturising your lips or putting on an insect bite. It’s the secret weapon of the fashion industry – all the models and designers have it. I recommend it to friends all the time as it’s just so good, everyone needs to know about it.

Shannon Peter, Stylist’s beauty editor

Liquid Lip in Phony, £8.50, Topshop
I love a lipstick. I have at least 75 cluttering up my Muji drawers at home. But none get as much airtime as this. It’s impossibly creamy, with none of that chalky finish liquid lipsticks often have. It dries down to a ‘like my lips but better’ sheen and the peachy shade, like a sun-faded terracotta tile suits my olive complexion down to the ground. I lent it to my blonde sister and the pinky undertones gave a perkiness to her fair skin too. I keep one in my coat pocket, one in my desk drawer and one in each handbag. I’m dreading the day they discontinue it.