And then L'Oreal bought them. "We'll keep Kiehl's exactly as it is," they chirped. "Nothing will change." And before they even finished talking the advertisements started: "TRY OUR ORGANIC QUINOA SKIN CREAM!!!" "DON'T MISS OUR KOSHER LIP BALM!" The shelves multiplied and different bottles appeared until it took professional help to actually shop. Pomegranate, mango, rose hips, beeswax. Forget the legendary family-run firm: now they were just a free-range guava away from being Bath and Body Works.
I was almost comatose from over-choice when a salesclerk walked up to me. "Can I put you on our email list?" she asked. "I promise we won't email too much. And we'll send you coupons!"
She clearly knew my soft spot, and two minutes later I had fourteen emails clogging my inbox. "TWO SAMPLES WITH EVERY PURCHASE!" one screamed. Then "THREE SAMPLES WITH EVERY PURCHASE!" When I went sixty seconds without replying they upped the ante: "TWO DELUXE SAMPLES WITH EVERY $45 PURCHASE!" "THREE DELUXE SAMPLES WITH EVERY $55 PURCHASE!" When it hit "FIVE DELUXE SAMPLES WITH EVERY $65 PURCHASE!" I caved. In fact, I'd have passed out if I hadn't been near the Thai Basil de Provence smelling salts.
I picked out $65 worth of products -- a moisturizer, a toner, a tube of stuff for under-eye bags -- and then pondered the sample possibilities. I had to be methodical to get the biggest bang for my buck. Some were a quarter of the size of the full-size product, so theoretically they'd be worth $10 and up. Eye cream was the priciest, so I figured I'd get three of those. Wrinkle-reducing moisturizers were a close second so I'd get two of those.
I hadn't even thought about checking out when a clerk yelled, "I can help you over here," and then ran behind a register and stared at me.
I wandered over and dumped my selections on the counter. "I got an email about five free deluxe samples?"
"No problem," she said. She scanned the products with a little plastic gun and said, "That'll be $70.12."
Instantly I got sucked up in a tornado of déjà vu. As an avid bargain-hunter, I'd run into this dozens of times. I'd see a newspaper ad from a desperate store offering a discount. "HALF OFF EVERYTHING!" it'd say. "COME IN!!! DON'T MISS IT!!! And then I'd go to the store and the clerks would be like, "I never heard of that. Nope. What do you want to talk to the manager for?"
The ads blare about amazing, fabulous free offers FOR A LIMITED TIME that only a fool would pass up, and in person they're, "Wow. You're really gonna waste our time with that shit?"
"I want to get some eye cream samples," I said. "I travel a lot so I need them."
"We don't have any of those," she said. Then, to the woman holding products and standing behind me: "I'll be right with you. This will literally take ten seconds."
Really? I thought. You just promised somebody that you wouldn't waste any time with ME? I was mystified by how she'd arrived at that estimate, as it clearly didn't include human speech. It didn't allow for "Do you have any questions?" or "Have you used this before?" or "Do you honestly believe Moroccan spices can erase those frown lines?" It was barely enough time for "Have a nice day!"
Unfortunately for her, I wasn't playing along. "Would they have it at another store?" I asked.
She glared at me. "I can call and see," she said in the tone she'd use to say, "I can dance around and we'll see if it rains."
"That'd be great," I said. She shot me a look that said, "Seriously?" and said to the woman behind me, "I will literally be with you in just one sec."
She ran up my credit card and I signed the receipt, then she threw my stuff into a bag. To the woman behind me she said, "Here, let me get all of that." She took the woman's assorted items out of her arms and set them on the counter, then without a word she ran through a side door. I moved out of line to an unused counter, and a minute later she reappeared and dumped a pile of assorted samples in front of me. "I found an eye cream," she said. "Take whatever you want." And she scurried back to her register.
The samples were actually okay. In fact, I had a hard time narrowing it down. I finally settled on five, then looked to the clerk for her okay. She and the next customer were busy. A thought ran through my head: these were free samples, right? FREE. And wasn't that word usually followed by "for the taking"? I shot the clerk a carefree smile and said, "I am literally taking them all," and with enough açaí in my bag to choke a camel I hit the road.