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Buyer beware: Shoppers waste millions on beauty and wellness products due to fake reviews

Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Buyer beware: Shoppers waste millions on beauty and wellness products due to fake reviews SMALLER

Everyday a new influencer-backed beauty brand pops up on our Instagram feeds, promising to sell out of the buzzed about product du jour. Often these products — which are far from cheap — indeed sell out, prompting disappointed shoppers to look online for the real deal at an even better price.

The result? On top of unknowingly jeopardizing their health with counterfeit products, shoppers collectively waste $9 million each day on health and beauty products purchased on the merit of misinformation like fake reviews.

In this article we’ll unpack our recent consumer study quantifying the extent of this problem, and what shoppers can do to buy health and beauty products with confidence.

The problem of counterfeit products

The reality is that highly sought after beauty and wellness products sold through alternative resellers could be counterfeit, posing major risks to both consumers’ wallets and their health.

If you’ve so far been spared the misfortune of sinking money into a fake, the Netflix documentary Broken: Make-Up Mayhem shows just how extreme the negative effects can be. Just ask the interviewee who shared that a counterfeit Kylie lipstick got its shiny appearance from actual superglue, which stuck her lips together.

Though COVID-19’s effects on our daily life seem to be letting up, its effects on the consumption of beauty and wellness products are poised to last. According to our health and beauty study with London Research in April 2020, shoppers in the US and UK spent more than usual on beauty and wellness products while in lockdown.

Increased demand over the last few months, combined with official suppliers struggling to restock products caught up in global supply chains, has led some shoppers to take a chance on online stores they may ordinarily distrust. In short, lockdown was a counterfeiter’s dream.

Demand for beauty and wellness soars in uncertain times

Just how much has demand for beauty and wellness products increased over the last few months? According to our research, 59% of US consumers and 55% of UK consumers are spending more on health products relevant to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, about a quarter of consumers report spending more on beauty products. For many of the respondents, the extra spend came down to wanting to treat themselves while in lockdown.

Within the health and wellness category, the impact of COVID-19 on purchasing behavior is plain to see. To no one’s surprise, hand sanitizer and soap have been the most commonly purchased items, along with supplements and vitamins promising to strengthen our defenses against the virus.

And with so many beauty-focused consumers taking advantage of time indoors to revamp or even expand their beauty routines, haircare and skincare were the most popular spending categories.

health and beauty

Beauty and wellness products are surrounded by fake reviews and misinformation

When savvy shoppers realize that their usual sources are running out of stock, they tend to find new sources of products. Yet, only about a third of shoppers in the US and UK report that they’re more cautious about the beauty and wellness products they buy because of fake or inaccurate reviews, or even exaggerated claims about a product’s effectiveness on a brand’s own website.

A bit more than half of shoppers in both the US and UK are confident that they’ve avoided any form of misinformation around beauty and wellness products, but 12% reported that they weren’t sure. As it turns out, even the savviest shoppers aren’t always aware that they’re dealing with untrustworthy information.

Unfortunately fake reviews are far from uncommon in the beauty and wellness industry, where even major brands have been known to post positive reviews about their own products — and sometimes go so far as to leave negative reviews for their competitors.

According to Ed Saper, Director at Pai Skincare, there’s little stopping brands from surrounding their products with false reviews, which means it’s the consumers (and the honest businesses) that lose out.

Spotting a fake review isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds, but Trustpilot’s Head of Fraud Investigations recommends the following:

  1. Step back and look at the full spread of rating scores, as well as the timespan in which they were left. Honest companies tend to have a range of reviews collected over a long period of time, so solely positive reviews collected within the same week could indicate a false representation of the business.
  2. Look for recurring words or sentence structures. If the reviewer mentions the brand’s name an unnatural number of times, or if it reads like a product description written by a marketing team, take that as a red flag.
  3. Take note of whether reviewers were invited to leave feedback. If all positive reviews were invited by the brand, and all negative reviews were left organically, you might have reason to take the positive reviews less seriously.
buyer beware

So, what are the most trusted sources of beauty and wellness information?

With only about half of consumers feeling certain they’ve avoided the impact of online misinformation around health and beauty products, where can smart shoppers look for sound advice?

Our research shows that customer and expert ratings are the most trustworthy sources, followed by third-party news articles.

Trusted beauty sources survey

Despite the droves of celebrity-backed brands in this category, influencers are now the least trusted source of information about health and beauty products. It would seem that digitally savvy shoppers have taken note of the #ad hashtag on sponsored posts, and worked out that the influencers’ words are rooted in endorsement contracts rather than genuine experiences.

The staggering amount wasted on beauty and wellness products

We’ve established above that reviews are among the most trusted sources of information in the health and beauty space, but they can also be gamed by dishonest businesses. Fake reviews are fairly commonplace, with nearly half of consumers sharing that they’ve wasted money on a health or beauty product after reading false reviews.

According to our study with London Research, the average health and beauty shopper has wasted $39.6 in the past year – 9% have lost more than $100 over the same period. This equates to 3.7% of their total spending on health and beauty, an industry worth $90 billion in the US. That means a staggering $3.3 billion is wasted every year due to fake reviews, breaking down to $275 million a month, or $63.5 million a week or $9 million every day.

On top of dishonest reviews and widespread misinformation, counterfeit products also lead to quite a bit of money wasted. This risk was even further heightened during the uncertain period of COVID-19 lockdown, when salon and store closures made it difficult for shoppers to get expert advice right from the source.

Fraudulent beauty reviews UK
Fraudulent beauty reviews US

About two in three (64%) shoppers have wasted money on fake health and beauty products in the last year, with the average wasted amount coming in around $43.90.

Money wasted is bad enough, but Janet Nudelman, Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics points out that it can get much worse:

“We regularly hear horror stories about what happens when health and beauty products are counterfeited or tampered with using dangerous chemicals,” she says. “There was a recent case of a woman in California ending up in a coma because the skin lightening cream she had bought contained mercury."

“This is only going to be made worse as the lockdown and recession lead to more stores closing and more people shopping online and buying products they’re not familiar with that could be counterfeit, especially because they can’t see or feel the packaging to get an idea of whether the product is real or not.”

Buying beauty and wellness products with confidence

According to Robert Myers, General Manager for Memberships at the Professional Beauty Association, consumers ought to be extra careful whenever they purchase products without the advice of an expert professional.

“Consumers must be careful about where they purchase their professional salon products,” he cautions.

“Counterfeit products, phishing campaigns, defective inventory and other deceptive business practices are ever-present and a risk when going outside authorized channels. False claims have been an ever-present issue and we recommend seeking the advice of a licensed professional to select the best products and solutions.”

But who can health and beauty shoppers trust as stores and boutiques move from lockdown to social distancing measures, reducing the number of people a professional can assist?

Our study shows that smart consumers see right through the hype of clever advertising and famous faces. The writing’s on the wall: authentic customer reviews are the best information source when it comes to buying beauty and wellness products with confidence.

If you’ve had an experience with a counterfeit or questionable beauty brand, report it to your local consumer protection agency and consider leaving a review of the brand or business on Trustpilot to alert other health and beauty shoppers.

Can’t get enough of this stuff? Check out the full version of our 2020 Consumer Report: Combating Misinformation in the Health + Beauty Sector.

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