A typical interaction between me and a client goes like this:
“So before I blow dry your hair, I’m going to put in (product xyz) to (smooth it/rough it up/give it more volume.) What you do is use this much, put it (from midshaft to ends/just at roots/whatever) and blowdry with a (roundbrush/flat brush/fingers.)”
I blow it out and not to toot my own horn but root-a-toot-toot, they’re happy. So they might ask “What was that product again?” and I’ll tell them. “Can I take a look at that bottle?” they ask, and I oblige. And if they give it a pretty thorough once-over and I get the vibe they’re interested but then they’re super quick to say “No thanks, that’s ok,” when I ask if they’d like me to give it to the receptionist for them to take home, I’m pretty sure I know what’s going on.
So I say “I’m not gonna get mad or anything, but are you thinking you’ll just pick it up another time at the grocery store?” If they say yes, so begins my gently-delivered spiel: you can certainly buy something that looks like the same products we have in the salon at the grocery store, but they’re likely not the real deal.
The problem with big chains, including places that seem like they’d be legit like Target or CVS, selling bootleg salon beauty products that they’re not authorized to carry is known in the beauty industry as diversion. To be clear, this is not an indictment of actual chain store hair care lines, such as Garnier and Organix, and if those work for you that’s great! Whatever does the trick. I’m talking about lines such as Matrix, Paul Mitchell, and Coppola Keratin Complex that are only sold by their companies to salons and then weirdly end up in the same place as paper towels.
What happens is that the world’s least threatening black market underlords (actually, they call it the “gray market”) will buy salon products from a legitimate distributor, then set them aside in a warehouse for years until the barcode expires so they can’t be tracked. During this time, not only does the barcode expire but so does the product inside, warping from heat or just the cruel sands of time into something that is an ineffective shadow of its former self.
When I was learning about diversion in cosmetology school my class went downstairs to the drugstore beneath us to look at what they were selling and underline the point, and there was a product on the shelf that had been discontinued years ago.
I’ll still occasionally cruise the hair aisle at drugstores and it annoys me every time, because there are some really obvious tells that the general public is just not aware of- frankly, I wasn’t until I went to beauty school and learned. I’ve seen little differences in the logos or instructions printed on the bottle, but you people are normal so you don’t have smoothing serum ingredients committed to memory.
However, something that you can easily spot is that that the bottles of salon products that are sold at chains stores pretty often have weird stickers all over them, and ALWAYS a sticker with a different barcode slapped over the original barcode printed on the bottle.
See? Shady city. I’ve also noticed that the prices are usually slightly more expensive- not a humongous amount that’s going to have people stampeding salons, but certainly enough that I don’t see any reason to buy products anywhere else. I smuggled a bottle of conditioner from my salon into the drugstore to do a little compare/contrast recon work, and the drugstore conditioner cost two dollars more.
Iffy-at-best product at a higher price? No thank you. There’s just no reason to do it aside from purely not being aware of diversion as an issue.
I can feel the skeptics within any healthy group of internet commenters wondering if this is just a way for hairdressers to convince people to only buy products in their salons. And it is true, we do make money from people purchasing products through us. But I’ve seen and played with drugstore products firsthand, and they’re just not the same as their salon-dwelling counterparts — they’re separated and oily when they’re usually smooth, or they smell different, or they’re just a different consistency.
So I can’t in good conscience — or for the sake of being the cool hairdresser who tells it like it is and doesn’t yell at you when you trim your own bangs — tell people that getting it at the drugstore is just as good. I can be a little skeptical myself, but I know from personal experience that diversion is a real thing and that you’re not getting what you pay for when you shop for salon products at the same place you pick up frozen pizza.
It’s frustrating not just because the consumer picking it up of the shelf is paying for something that’s sub-par, but it can also mess with stylists and how much you get out of our work. Occasionally we’ll go to use a product we love and know to work very well and a client will say they’ve used it before and don’t like it, but it wasn’t the real deal.
Or they’ll say their hair is driving them nuts and we’ll ask if they’re using the products we suggested and they’ll say yes and mean it, but they’re actually basically rubbing watered down vaseline on their heads and we can’t figure out what the hell is going on.
Really, part of why this is such a big annoying deal is that 8 times out of 10 the hair trouble that someone is having can be helped with product, and if the product they’re using is expired crapola, the problem isn’t getting solved. You also have the disadvantage of flying blind when you go shopping for products at the store you stop at real quick on your way home and are more likely to buy something that’s not only been tampered with, but wouldn’t even be good for your hair type if it hadn’t been.
How many bottles of goo have you bought and then used an eighth of? Take advantage of our expertise while you’re in the chair and buy something you’ll use! Today a straight-haired client looking for volume bought a product from me that’s labeled as being for curly hair, and the reason I used it on her was because I went to a class recently where they told us they were considering relabeling the product and changing the name because it’s good for a wide range of hair types. Those hole-y metal shelves at the store aren’t going to tell you that.
There are no laws specifically against diversion which is why it’s allowed to go on, but salon distributors do seem to be taking measures to prevent it lately. I was surprised but not displeased when the professional beauty supply store that I go to (which you need a state Cosmetology license to shop in) recently asked me to fill out a small questionnaire before purchasing a bunch of tubes of hair color to keep stockpiled at my parents’ house for when my mom needs a touch-up. It included having me sign a clause saying that I was not purchasing them for resale.
They also have the right to refuse sale based on preventing diversion, which seems like a step in the right direction. I can’t imagine that diversion laws are very high on America’s to-do list right now given the shit-show state of affairs we’re in, but you can keep yourself by being affected by it by only purchasing salon products in actual salons — which, lucky for many people, includes Ulta, where they regularly offer coupons. Legitimate professional products are only shipped to and authorized for sale by actual salons, so the bottom line is that as long as there are people doing hair within the same 4 walls as you, you’re good to go. If you can buy douche in the next aisle over, you are not. (Don’t buy the douche either.)
Anything you guys would like to know about diversion, or anything else? Hair-related or not, because hairdressers are therapists, you know. Tell me about your relationship with your father.