Is E-Commerce Due For Cosmetic Makeover?

makeup set - cosmetics iStockphoto

This column was written by Evan Schuman, the editor of StorefrontBacktalk.com, a site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and security issues. Retail Realities appears each Friday. Evan can be reached at e-mail and on Twitter.

The very nature of a sale of makeup involves subtle shades of color differences, being mapped atop the widely varying contours of a customer's face and bathed in the light of the venue where the customer most wants that makeup to be seen. That's a tall order for a Web audience, where dozens of different kinds-and qualities-of computer screens are being used, set to an infinitely greater number of varying settings in an ever-growing number of browsers.

And yet, if any segment of retail was underutilizing the magic of interactive E-Commerce, it's the glossy side of facial retailing: makeup. One vendor, selling through Drugstore.com and one unidentified pharmacy chain (not one of the four largest), is about to try and address that.

The vendor is an interactive media agency called-appropriately-Daily Makeover and it will encourage customers to upload photos of themselves and the system will then project what various makeups will look like on their skin. Kiosks offering a souped-up version of the service will be deployed in retail locations, assuming a retailer agrees to the move, said Paul Krygowski, Daily Makeover's product VP.

The need for this kind of interactive E-Commerce is significant, given that many retailers selling makeup-especially pharmaceutical chains-often have minimal mechanisms for customers to conveniently and fully try them out. Major retail chains have been trying to find creative ways to sell beauty and swimwear online for years, with relatively little success. Consider Lands' End's interactive swim suit fiasco, JCPenney's runway show with non-human virtual models or Target's effort to try and replace runway models with holograms.

The Daily Makeover approaches uses facial recognition technology to try and show consumers what their face will likely look with various makeup options.

"When a woman uploads her photo, her face is instantly traced so that all the different application techniques such as a smoky eye shadow effect can be superimposed on her face in the correct area. Daily Makeover's virtual try-on technology includes new rendering functionality, visualization technology and face-tracing capabilities and has the largest range of makeup finishes - satin, matte, metallic, shimmer, stained, dewy, sheer, and glossy - to reflect the true properties specific cosmetics create when applied," according to a statement Daily Makeover issued. The service "has incorporated an option for women to adjust the placement and coverage levels of foundations, concealors, lip colors, eye shadows, mascara, and blush. The application also includes an enhanced facial recognition component."

That's pretty sophisticated stuff, especially when factoring in how imprecise color representations have historically been on consumer monitors, with their many setting options. Will what appears on the screen truly look like what will appear on the face? The old resolutions to this dilemma-with sites suggesting to consumers specific settings that should work best for that site-seem ineffective. Even suggesting that a better color match would be found with a good color printer ("All The Hues That's Fit To Print"?) seems too pushy.

Even if the color of the face and the makeup could be mastered, there's still the challenge of lighting. Makeup that might look great in sharp office lighting but look very different in a dimly lit nightclub or a beach flooded in intense sun. The initial Daily Makeover product has no current way to address those kind of lighting differences.

Still, company officials argue that the need for something to bridge the gap was strong enough that it was worth it, even if the product was far from perfect.

Color Authenticity "is definitely an issue for the cosmetic industry" and marketers have to wrestle with the possible loss of color differentiation, Krygowski said. "Does the Web become too much of a leveling field for me? We're never going to be dead-on across the board. For the brands, you have to sort of give that up to establish any sort of relationship" with the customer.

Dave Linn, the firm's executive VP for technology, added that the technology has gotten a lot better in recent years. "Our monitors are becoming more true-to-life. Color profiles are becoming more standardized," Linn said. "But that doesn't solve the perception (issue). What is your backlighting? We don't know the light quality of the photo when it was taken."

So Linn's team made some judgments about the typical monitor and settings their consumers were likely using. "We had to draw a line in the sand: These are the monitor settings that we're going to use as a baseline," Krygowski said.

The company is also preparing a smartphone version of their application, with one for the iPhone likely first out. On a phone, though, even more compromises have to be made, given the significantly smaller screen. "Our approach is that we're not going to let you look at all of your face. (The smartphone screen is) way too small to make an impact. We'll do individual parts of the face: a pair of lips, an eye," Krygowski said.


By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com
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