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Caught in the Clutch: Beauty Packaging On the Go

Kelley Styring
Products falling into an open purse
  • According InsightFarm research, 95% of women 18–64 carry purses, and in those purses are an average of 67 products—many of which fall in the beauty category.
  • All the innovation and effort that can go into beauty packaging can be easily destroyed once it is carried around in a purse.
  • Important attributes for a beauty product carried in a purse include that it is findable, durable and clean.
  • Smaller or travel-size beauty products have a lot of opportunity for in-purse beauty options, as they are far easier to carry and often are created with mobility in mind.

She stands at the glittering cosmetics counter, under the bright, shining lights. Holding the jewel-like lipstick case in her hand, she removes the cap and a cylinder of rich color rises to greet her. Its asymmetrical top beckons to be swiped across her lips for a bloom of color, and after applying the engaging shade, she twists the lipstick down into its protective chamber. She replaces the cap, reassembling the perfect, beautiful package—then tosses the lipstick into the dark, dirty, mobile junk drawer that is her purse.

Beauty brands and companies invest a significant amount of money into developing their products, their packaging and their marketing. Yet, as this article's opening vignette demonstrates, all that effort to develop a glamorous, sexy product can be destroyed by one simple action—putting that product into a purse.

A purse may be a woman’s most important accessory, holding all manner of vital and precious things. But it is also a disorganized pit, mixing the tools of daily life with the trash created by daily living. Having analyzed the contents of 100 purses in their natural habitat (shopping malls in Dallas and Portland), research by InsightFarm uncovered that consumer product companies in general, and beauty companies in particular, could learn a lot from the humble handbag.

A Peek Inside

From a marketing standpoint, the purse is a billion-dollar opportunity. Look at the numbers: Ninety-five percent of women aged 18–64 carry a purse every day, and those women use an average of two to three purses on a regular, rotating basis. Inside those purses, they carry an average of 67 objects.

Doing the math, an estimated 88.5 million women are using more than over 212 million purses at any given time. Multiply that by the number of times a woman could purchase one of your products for regular use (and storage in her purse), and you are talking about billions of dollars in purchasing opportunities.

But it’s not just the volume of purchases that should be important to the industry; it’s also what happens to those products once they enter the hostile environment that is the purse.

Beauty in the Bag

InsightFarm research showed the beauty/ hair care category is one of the most extensive categories represented in the average purse, ranking in the top five of all the categories. This category consists of color cosmetics, cosmetic accessories, fragrances, moisturizing lotions and skin care products, and hair care items. Overall, 91% of purses contained at least one beauty care item.

Here’s a breakdown.

  • Lip care: Lip beauty products lead the way in terms of beauty care items in the purse. There were very few bags without a lip product of some type (only 14% without). Typically, even the smallest bag included at least one lip product.
  • Hair care: Hair care items and accessories closely followed lip care. One in five women carried a brush and/or comb for grooming. However, importantly, there were no hair styling products in any purses researched.
  • Lotion and skin care: One in three purses contained a moisturizing lotion, principally for hand and body use. Very few facial moisturizing products were observed.
  • Color cosmetics: Nearly a third of all purses contain some type of foundation or skin-related cosmetics. Powder/compacts top the list with nearly one of every four women carrying it in her purse. Foundation, concealer and blush round out the other top cosmetics in the bag. These items are often considered “touch-up products” for use throughout the day. Also, one in four purses contains at least one eye-specific cosmetic product. Eyeliner/pencil and mascara are common to one in five bags, with eye shadow slightly less prevalent.
  • Nail care: A mere 4% carry nail polish, but more bring along nail care items such as clippers and files (19% and 16%, respectively).
  • Fragrance: Only one in five women carries a fragrance in her purse. Most notable, however, was the fact that many of the fragrances observed were in full-size containers, not smaller travel sizes. The fragrances carried in purses tended to be light in potency, like body mist or spray, and very few high-end, designer fragrances were observed.

Key Product and Packaging Issues

Consider the lipstick purchased in the little story at the beginning of this article: Six months from now, that woman is going to pull that beloved lipstick out of her purse. However, now it’s likely going to be cracked and damaged. Maybe the lid is completely gone, and there’s hair and other debris stuck to what remains of her favorite shade. Certainly unappealing, but the consumer can replace it. But that can prove to be challenging too, if the label is really scratched, obscuring the name of the color and possibly even the name of the brand.

In the packaging for beauty products that often end up in purses, three key issues converge: findability, durability and cleanliness.

Findability. One of the most common expressions heard from purse owners researched was, “Oh my gosh, I wondered where that was!” The handbag environment is unstable—things are piled in randomly and then the bag itself is tossed from car seat to shoulder to retail counter to shoulder to car seat—around and round. As a result, things get disheveled, broken and, worse, sometimes become unusable trash in the process.

Women often have difficulty finding things in the dark recesses of their purses (especially giant shoulder bags), so they resort to other methods to locate items. Almost half of those in the study carried a makeup bag as a solution to this problem. However, this bag-within-a-bag is symptomatic of the overall organizational issues and compensatory behavior to collect loose items into findable units in the purse.

Durability. If your product packaging is destroyed when you put it in a purse, is that any good?

The purse is a mobile makeup counter, used for touch-ups and even complete application when necessary. Yet, the makeup itself is stored in such a harsh environment that it becomes very unattractive as a set of tools to beautify. Labels are dirty and scratched off. Product may be leaking around the seals, damaging both the product itself, and other contents of the bag.

Cleanliness. A purse contains an almost limitless array of things you might put in your mouth or use for personal care, and yet it is an environment that is almost never actually cleaned. Brushes often are filled with debris, rendering them unusable, and, as mentioned in the durability section, other beauty products may have leaked, not only making a mess, but negating the product’s usefulness.

Some women do use a separate makeup bag for their in-purse beauty products, but this can just concentrate the problem in an isolated environment. While a makeup bag is often an improvement, as mascara isn’t likely brushing up against loose change and gum wrappers, it’s still not displaying the products and maintaining the packages in a way conducive to a beauty brand’s essence of elegance and style.

Beautiful Opportunities

Contradiction is where the genius of innovation often lies. Researchers—and innovators—look for unmet and unarticulated needs by paying attention to the contradictions they observe, and then helping companies and brands to create or modify products to satisfy these needs. And the purse is one big contradiction. It contains some of the most vital things in life right alongside a veritable wasteland of trash and debris.

For beauty brand owners and managers, the contradiction that offers the biggest opportunity is this: The purse contains cosmetic products that beautify, yet do not maintain their own beauty. Many of the attractive packages purchased become abraded and soiled over time, with peeling, deteriorating labels removing brand appeal and, in some cases, brand identification as well. This indicates an innovation opportunity for both packaging and printing technology.

Another purse-related beauty packaging opportunity relates to size. A remarkable 11% of women had small tubes of hand or body lotion from Bath & Body Works in their purses. This is a sign that, despite seemingly lower overall household penetration, well-designed, purse-friendly packaging can create a big hit in women’s purses. Compare that prevalence of Bath & Body Works’ lotions in purses to popular household brand Jergens, which only showed up in 2% of purses studied.

Beauty and packaging companies should also consider designing specifically for the purse. Women often buy two of the same product in order to have one at home and one in their purse, so why not design beauty products that bring together popular combinations—foundation, blush and mascara or a hairbrush with styling gel in the handle, for example? Why not more “industrial-strength” packaging that will hold up in the harsh environment of the handbag?

For every item in the purse, there is a host of contradictions to explore and a wealth of opportunities to make the lives of women easier. Beauty brand owners that do so will win not only a spot in a woman’s heart but also a place in her purse—right next to her wallet.

Kelley Styring is the author of In Your Purse: Archaeology of the American Handbag. The insatiably curious, fearless and passionate innovator helps her clients discover new opportunities for growth through consumer insight. A Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay market research veteran, Styring is a favorite marketing industry speaker and has authored several studies and books on consumer behavior and trends. For more information, go to

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