Cents & Sensibility: Online Bargains

The competition is hotting up as major brands square up to the bargains to be had on websites, says Brenda McCormick

Brenda McCormick

Even in these times of financial strife, women aren't giving up on their beauty products. We are shopping differently, however. Prestige brands say women are still paying for their core skincare products but may be skipping the optional extras they used to buy.

Similarly, they're still paying full price for their YSL or Dior foundation but are turning to medium-priced brands such as Rimmel and L'Oreal for things such as mascara and on-trend nail polish. And any woman who has her perfect foundation and ideal moisturiser will understand why.

When it comes to those core basics, it can take years to find the ones that work for you. Most women know substitutes just won't work as well and would be a false economy. It's a matter of keeping the essentials and looking for bargains where we can.

Our shopping habits are changing in other ways too, as the gulf between euro and sterling prices refuses to come into line with exchange rates. People believe they're being over-charged and they're saving their shopping lists for trips to cheaper places.

But there does seem to be a growing awareness among companies that things need to change. Haircare brand John Frieda has reduced its prices here and Darphin, an extremely well-regarded, high-end skincare brand, is introducing prices more in keeping with the current exchange rate. So there is hope, but while we're waiting for prices to drop, where are the bargains? Both near and far, it turns out.

>The Great Wide Web

Probably one of the best-known discount beauty sites is Japan-based Strawberrynet. It doesn't offer the absolute best prices on everything but you can get great bargains.

There are regular special offers and a decent loyalty programme. However Strawberrynet disappointed many Irish fans with the news that we have to pay the euro prices now -- previously we could buy in dollars which was cheaper. Still, it's capable of turning up good savings and shipping is free. www.strawberrynet.com

>Beauty steals

I hadn't heard of this one before writing this piece. It's an American site and, according to my beauty-loving source: "They ship very quickly to Ireland! I have even managed to get colours that have been discontinued by some of my fave [brands] on there!" After checking it out it does seem like it could offer hope to those seeking a long-lost shade of lippy. Prices are great too: celeb fave La Praire Skin Caviar Concealer Foundation SPF15 is $175 (about €137) compared to €167 here. Shipping to Ireland is free. www.beautysteals.com.

>HQHair and HQOutletstore

HQHair offers more than just hair care; it's also an easy way to get niche brands that may be hard to get here, but bargain hunters should check out its sister site HQOutletstore. There are great savings; up to 80pc in some cases; with end-of-line stock, discontinued colours etc, all perfect quality. To ship here it's £4.50 (€5.22) for one item only, £6.50 (€7.50) for unlimited items. Current offers include the GHD IV Styler which was €140.08, now €107.75 and an Anya Hindmarch Washbag down from €107.02 to €53.75 www.hqhair.com or www.hqoutletstore.com

>Cheap smells

Like HQHair, the name is misleading as this site offers more than perfumes and smellies! There's skincare and cosmetics alongside a baffling array of fragrances. Keep an eye out for brands you can't get here anymore such as Stila and Kanebo. Prices can be fantastic, too.

Olay's Touch of Foundation is €7.64 versus €22.99 here and Guinot's Nutrizone Intensive Nourishing Cream (50ml) is €48.55 compared to €88.70. Shipping is calculated by order but you'll know what you're paying before you check out. www.cheapsmells.com

>counter culture

If you are on the lookout for a bargain -- and who isn't in this financial climate? -- don't discount the shops. All too aware of the threat posed by many of their online competitors, brand counters in stores are keen to woo shoppers with discounts and freebies.

Estee Lauder Estee Lauder counters offer free foundation consultations. It's part of its Signature Service, which gives customers a chance to pick the brains of the staff on things such as the perfect perfume or new colour shades. Once you've found your perfect base you'll be given a 10-day supply (no purchase required).

Nourish At the Nourish health store on Liffey Street you can book in for a free facial and skin consultation with a natural beauty therapist, focusing on any of the store's product ranges such as Dr Hauschka, Trilogy and Burt's Bees. There's a private therapy room and appointments usually last for about 30 minutes. www.nourish.ie

Bobbi Brown All Bobbi Brown counters offer a menu of services -- a choice of 13 make-up lessons customers can book themselves in for and (with the exception of the bridal lessons) they're free! There are things such as a 20-minute smoky eye lesson, a 15-minute skincare consultation and 35-minute teenage beauty session.

Jo Malone Jo Malone offers free hand and arm massages to customers, which might just be the perfect thing half-way through a hard day's bargain hunting. Plonk yourself at the Tasting Bar in the Grafton Street concession, or the Jo Malone store in Dublin Airport, and enjoy a 10-minute treat.

>gifts galore

Estee Lauder herself pioneered the beloved 'gift with purchase' tradition which is still going strong. Companies seem to be upping the ante with the 'GWPs' and bonus offers these days so make sure to shop around. But know what you're shelling out for too.

Customers usually have to adhere to a few rules before getting their bag of fantastic freebies -- it's usually something like 'two purchases, one to be skincare' so you could be spending a fair bit of cash; make sure you think the 'free' gift is worth it.

Gifts and special offers usually run for a limited time; sign up to mailing lists so you know what's in the pipeline.

In particular beauty brands' Facebook pages are a brilliant way to stay in the loop.

For now though, here are some goodies on offer over the next few weeks, while stocks last:

Michael Kors A Michael Kors clutch bag is free with the purchase of any 50ml Michael Kors fragrance (such as Very Hollywood Michael Kors Eau de Parfum 50ml, €70).

Tommy Hilfiger When you purchase any 50ml Tommy Hilfiger fragrance (Tommy Cologne 50ml, €42; Tommy Girl Cologne 50ml, €44) you'll get an enormous Made in the Shade beach towel (right).

Lavera At Nourish health stores, you'll get a 75ml Lavera Wild Rose hand cream worth €6.15 when you buy any two products from the range. While this offer is exclusive to Nourish stores, Lavera is also available at www.breatheonline.ie

The Body Shop Buy any three items from skincare and make-up and you'll receive a free blusher brush worth (right) €19.60 from The Body Shop's award-winning range. (Offer is available until the end of May.)

Trilogy To celebrate the anniversary of Trilogy's Age Proof range, when you buy two products from their Age Proof range, you'll get a Nutrient Plus Firming Serum worth €28.95 for free.

Elizabeth Arden You have to be quick with this one as it's only available until Sunday, at Debenhams. When you buy two Elizabeth Arden products (one to be skincare), you'll get one of two gifts, worth over €80.

Elemis At Harvey Nichols, Dundrum, you can choose '5 from 10' mini-sized products with any two full-size Elemis purchases. With a third purchase, you get a 300ml Lime and Ginger wash free. (Offer ends May 23.)

Vichy The new family-friendly 300ml Capital Soleil Protective Sun Milk Face and Body SPF30 (€20) comes with 45pc extra free and the Protective Kids Face & Body Spray SPF50 200ml (€19.50) has a whopping 60pc extra free. Plus, when you buy any two products from the Capital Soleil range, you'll receive a free beach bag (left).