The great foundation debate

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about mass brands in the UK not offering a good enough range of foundation shades. Unless you go to a premium brand, more often than not you’re left with between four and six shades of foundation that aren’t exactly universal. Brands are coming under scrutiny, with consumers shouting loudly that the country is made up of more than one tone of skin – especially in big cities. Those with very pale or very dark shades of skin really struggle and have to fork out over £20 for a bottle of foundation, which of course isn’t exactly fair. However, having worked in the beauty industry for a fair few years I fully understand the reasons for this… Here’s a little bit of knowledge from the other side of the fence to explain why the situation is the way it is.

For mass brands that rely on retailers such as Boots, Superdrug and Tesco to stock and sell their product, they’re confined to the space they’re given. Beauty brands like L’Oreal, Maybelline, Rimmel and Collection 2000 are given stands to showcase their products by the retailer and the space is dependent on how much money they make for that retailer. As you would imagine, every square centimeter of shelf space needs to be accounted for and be as efficient at making money as possible. Brands are given these stands on the basis that they make them ‘X’ amount of money over the year – if they don’t make this for the retailer then space is taken away from them and given to a better performing brand. This is why you may see your favourite Collection 2000 stand being reduced in size overnight, or a newish brand disappearing altogether. (More often than not it’s the Rimmel, Maybelline or L’Oreal stands that increase in size!)

Within the stand space itself the brands have to make them as efficient as possible. Whole teams are hired to work out what products to put where, what shades of eyeshadow sell best, what shades should be ‘core’ (i.e. on every single stand because they’re best sellers) and which should only be on the biggest (or flagship) stands. When it comes to stocking foundation shades there’s often only a limited space on the stand to ensure all the ranges are available; unfortunately this means that it’s normal for there only to be four or six shades on a stand at any one time. To put one eyeshadow out you have to take another off – it’s just as simple as that.

The decision making process of which shades to offer is an extensive one. Brand Managers will spend days upon days swatching, comparing to current shades, looking at sales figures and working out what the best use of space would be. Within the UK the majority of skin tones fall within the ‘medium’ four shades of foundation, so these will often be the only ones available in your local Boots. For every product there has to be a value attached – for example the top selling shades of foundation may sell 100,000 units in a month, reducing to 20,000 for the much paler or darker shades. For a brand (which is a business) it makes much more sense to put a shade on a shelf that’s going to sell five times the amount of another. When deciding which shades to stock and offer cosmetic brands really have to look at the big bucks. They’re businesses after all so they have to justify why every single product is taking up space in every single store.

Imagine if HMV dedicated a whole shelf to East 17 when only a few people a year wanted to buy their CDs, just because they felt they should offer variety… In that context it’s not very business minded.  I’m sure in an ideal world every brand would like to offer ten different shades to cater for as many skin tones as possible – however, until the retailers enable them to do so by providing more space and placing less focus on the ROI (return on investment) per centimeter of space in their shops, nothing is going to change. The difference for premium brands is that they’ve got plenty of space to fill, lots of POS to put out and lots of shiny plastic to display; they can afford to put out as many shades as they can because their space probably makes ten times the amount of cash for Boots than Rimmel does. Unfortunately, until the retailers decide to make a stand, we should stop putting pressure on Rimmel and direct that frustration at Boots, Superdrug and Tesco.

I hope that helps to put it into context. It’s not ideal and I totally agree that it’s crazy we don’t have more choice. What are your thoughts on this?



  1. Eli
    February 29, 2012 / 12:01 pm

    The problem here in Bulgaria is even worse – most girls just don't know how to choose a FDT, and think the darker the better. So many brands import only medium to dark shades, judging by what sells here. And Bulgarians are so vastly different – from fair Slavic to dark olive tan…

  2. Anonymous
    February 29, 2012 / 12:35 pm

    Totally see where you are coming from. At the end of the day all our favourite beauty brands are businesses first and foremost and they are in the business of making money. Period. Therefore, its good business sense for them to focus on the products/shades that will provide the best ROI. I think its a darn shame, but such is the world of business. Its not necessarily beautiful. Having dark skin myself, being a mua and business woman, I know the complaints and although I would like to see more choice in Boots etc, I've grown accustomed to it. In time, I hope things improve, but for now we just have to lobby the right people and hope they see our points.

  3. timetomakeup
    February 29, 2012 / 12:44 pm

    It's really great you've decided to post from a beauty industry insider's perspective, like yourself I work for a big beauty brand and there's nothing we'd love more than to provide a spectrum of shades for customers – but unfortunately factors such as space on units and sales figures always have the final say. Fantastic post though!

  4. Emma
    February 29, 2012 / 6:04 pm

    Loved this post, it's interesting to read from the business point of view for a

  5. The Nerd...
    February 29, 2012 / 6:42 pm

    I find it really annoying to be honest. Why don't beauty companies at least put out a couple of lighter/darker shades to see how well they sell, instead of assuming that they won't sell as much as the 'nude' colours will?I hate having to fork out over £20 for foundations; it's ridiculous. I applaud companies like Lancome and Chanel for releasing darker foundations but still..£27 for foundation?Even brands like Sleek and Barry M, who originally were created for women were darker skin, don't even have those darker shades anymore. It's ridiculous and it's marginalising a a huge group of people.Sorry for the ranting – it's just so annoying!x

  6. The Rambler
    March 1, 2012 / 8:54 pm

    If there was a standard on which to judge shades without having to swatch, then there could be a most selling range of shades and a brightening or darker agent shade, discounted in price so they could mix and match and create every shade they would like without having to take up much space shelfwise.

  7. sweetest_potato
    March 4, 2012 / 5:29 pm

    Is it possible for these kind of brands to set up an online presence? I know you can get Sleek through their website. And I think you can order foundation samples so you can choose the right shade at a relatively low cost. Would this be much more of an expense for brands? I'm very pale and while I don't necessarily mind paying £20- £30 for a foundation (with some of them I think you get what you pay for) the limited selection of high street brands does put me off.

  8. London Beauty Queen
    March 4, 2012 / 5:40 pm

    The Nerd – they don't just guess what will say. It's based on sales figures of other shades/products and often a launch in another country of the product prior to the UK, so it's very well informed. They can't "just put out" darker or lighter shades for the reasons stated in the post – it's not that easy. Sweetest Potato – good idea, but unfortunately setting up an e-commerce site for brands is extremely costly. They have to have a site developed, people to manage it, a whole new pick & pack system in the warehouse, more staff… I could go on. It's probably about a million quid to set it up! Interesting points raised in the comments though, so thanks guys.

  9. fluff and fripperies
    March 6, 2012 / 12:23 pm

    Really interesting post, lady – thanks for sharing your expertise of the other side of the fence! xo

  10. Hafsa
    March 6, 2012 / 4:59 pm

    As a business student, I sussed out that reason a very long time ago, space is money however, if a brand continues to ignore their consumer demands then they'll go elsewhere and many women of colour already have to the likes of MAC, NARS and now Lancome and Chanel who have brought out foundations for darker skin. I can't help but feel that this justifying is a little difficult to understand though, I'm sure you have no problems going to Superdrug or Boots and buying a foundation to suit your skin but for me, it's been a constant struggle to do so. In business, there's demographics depending on where ones shop is and Superdrug and Boots have stores in some ethnically dense areas of London and I can tell you that the darker shades will be brought by people.

  11. britishbeautyblogger
    February 1, 2013 / 9:09 pm

    I think it's so disappointing that there is such a poor choice for different skin tones. It makes me livid. When I tried to buy a BB cream in Hong Kong, I got my own experience of exactly how it feels.. because my skin tone is quite dark (especially in summer) I had a choice of .. ONE! There was literally only one for my tone. So, I understand the frustration. It's irresponsible of manufacturers and bordering on more that they won't take into account different skin shades when our demographic in the UK is so diverse.

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