Inside the Beauty Sample Trading Black Market

Never going to use that umpteenth BB cream sample you have cluttering up your medicine cabinet? Well, you can now get rid of it, because a unique trading market has developed thanks to the ubiquity of beauty sample box programs.
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Never going to use that umpteenth BB cream sample you have cluttering up your medicine cabinet? Well, you can now get rid of it, because a unique trading market has developed thanks to the ubiquity of beauty sample box programs.
Photo: BeautyBoxSwaps Instagram

Photo: BeautyBoxSwaps Instagram

Never going to use that umpteenth BB cream sample you have cluttering up your medicine cabinet? Well, you can now get rid of it, because a unique trading market has developed thanks to the ubiquity of beauty sample box programs.

Makeup forums like MakeUpTalk have pages-long discussions (we’re talking multiple, continuing threads with over 430 posts), where users document their "trade" lists, divided up into "Have" and "Want" items. Many individual users’ trade listings receive upwards of 1,000 views. One of the largest Facebook groups dedicated to swapping, Beauty Box Swaps, has over 2,000 worldwide members and counting.

The reasons people engage in beauty sampling trading extend beyond, “Well, I got a sample I didn’t like and don’t know what to do with it.” Sometimes, as Lucy Brown, the Administrator of Beauty Box Swaps details, it’s a matter of preference and wanting a different shade/variation from what you received.

For some users, trading’s become a necessary complement to enjoying the beauty discovery experience. “Trading has COMPLETELY transformed how I've thought about these monthly boxes," Meagan Senesac, a Fashionista reader, told us. "I have hated certain items in boxes and had no idea what to do with them. Now, I really don't care what I get in a box because I know I can probably trade it with someone.”

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

But trading has also become a form of entertainment and a game all unto itself—and the thrill of being able to trade for a sample you fervently want is akin to what drove the Beanie Baby and Trolls craze. Shannyn Allan, of the blog FrugalBeautiful, who organizes a monthly sample swap among a group of bloggers, likens the beauty sample trading experience to “baseball card swapping, but for adult women.”

Jacinta Perkins, who runs the blog, MyBeautyBox says, “Trading can be just as fun as receiving the boxes.” She stalks the Internet to try and find out the contents of a box before they’re shipped, to decide in advance if she wants to trade or stockpile a favorite. “If I see something coming that I love, or something that I know I will want more of, I will try to figure out what I do not want and put it up for trade,” Perkins says. “People seem to go gaga over anything that is full size or by brands such as Stila, the Balm, Pixi, Beauty Blender, or Tarte."

So should cosmetic companies and beauty subscription boxes keep an eye on the independent behavior of this quickly growing group? The creation of the online trading community is a clear indication that, “the waste element in the discovery platform [beauty subscription boxes] is too big,” as BeautyArmy CEO Lindsey Guest previously told us. There are too many samples out there and they’re not always allocated to people who truly want them.

Traded beauty samples are beyond the trackable data reach of beauty subscription boxes, so beauty companies don’t know about potential new customers. And the wide availability of beauty samples makes it easier for some customers to become sample customers forever, instead of brand loyalists who purchase full sizes.

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While Ipsy is the only beauty subscription box with a trade forum, beauty subscription box companies are definitely paying attention to the activity occurring after customers open their boxes. Jennifer Goldfarb, president of Ipsy, thinks that trading activity is indicative of how passionate and willing women are to engage online over beauty and makeup. “We think it's another great way to sample the products that we send as part of our Glam Bag program.”

The largest beauty subscription company, Birchbox, was positive on the subject; co-founders Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna remarked that “it's great to see that our business has also inspired customers to help each others, peer to peer, through online communities” and calling it a “fun extension of the Birchbox experience.” They added that the online forums serve in some ways as “focus groups” for how well customers are reacting to the products. But as far as future plans go, they remain vague, saying that they “often brainstorm ways that we can learn more about it and participate.”

Will beauty subscription boxes find a way to build trading into their services? Only time will tell. But consumers aren’t waiting around to find out.