A group of teenage girls, chattering loudly while clutching bubble teas, stride past the bright orange Mannings store with its gleaming Maybelline and L’Oreal displays without sparing it a second glance. Instead, they stop outside a dirty old building at the end of Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mongkok, that has an outdated, flickering “CTMA Center” sign mounted outside. Inside, a run-down escalator leads them to the basement, where a treasure trove of imported makeup awaits them.
Inside these dusty stores, clear acrylic cubicles are stuffed to the brim with imported makeup. Kylie Lip Kits, Colourpop eyeshadow palettes, Wet n Wild foundations; all the products that are currently featured on the trending pages on Youtube and Instagram are available here. These “cubicle stores” have managed to achieve something that mainstream makeup retailers such as Sasa and Watsons fail to do: make these highly coveted makeup items available to the Hong Kong population.
Some of these brands, like Kylie Cosmetics and Colourpop, are online-only makeup retailers based in the United States. As a result, shipping costs to Hong Kong are quite high if you are looking to purchase a single item, at $14.99 and $9.99 USD respectively. Through buying makeup at cubicle stores, the shipping costs are essentially split amongst the customers, as business owners stock their products in mass quantities. Other than shipping costs, consumers are also reluctant to buy the products directly from the website as they can only rely on images from the website to make their decision, which might be edited and therefore not a true representation of the product. By purchasing the product at CTMA Center, makeup shoppers can decide whether to buy the product after getting to see it in real life, and so a more informed decision can be made.
Owners of these cubicle stores often utilize online platforms to promote the products they stock. Instagram, a photo based social media platform, seems to be the most popular. Angel Chung, the owner of gel-beauty, one of the most popular cubicles in CTMA Center, first started her business through Instagram four years ago. She says, “I created gel_beauty because I love makeup, and I want to explore more foreign brands.” On Instagram, she shares photographs of new products and existing stock, and takes pre-orders and requests from customers through the platform. Apart from using popular hashtags, gel_beauty also offers exclusive discounts and giveaways to her followers, which helps boost user engagement, and generate customer loyalty.
Since the traditional overhead costs of marketing and rent are reduced, business owners can offer their customers cheaper prices. The monthly rent for a cubicle can range from $500-3000 HKD, depending on its location within the store. A cubicle at eye-level, for example, is the most expensive, whereas a cubicle near the ground will be a lot cheaper. For mainstream beauty brands, an economic factor to consider is the notoriously expensive rents that Hong Kong is known for, which results in a huge markup on beauty products. For example, the popular Fit Me foundation from Maybelline, is sold in the US for $5.99 USD (equivalent to ~$50 HKD). But in Hong Kong, the price has been raised to $129 HKD, a dramatic increase of 150%. Ruby Tam, a makeup enthusiast who has been shopping at CTMA center for the past three years, says, “You’re practically guaranteed a cheaper price if you buy it at CTMA Center. Most times, things are cheaper by at least a third.”
Apart from fulfilling the latest makeup craze, these imported makeup cubicles also fill a market gap for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Cosmetic companies operating an official distribution line in Hong Kong tailor their products to the East Asian demographic to maximize their profits, but often, this means that a narrower shade range is offered, which is usually skewed towards pale-skinned consumers. Using the same example of the Fit Me foundation, which is offered in a whopping 40 shades in the US, only comes in a paltry shade range of 6 colors here in Hong Kong, the darkest of which is “natural beige”.
For a lot of South Asian or tanned shoppers, finding a foundation or concealer in Hong Kong drugstores is a tedious task. Instead, they are forced to turn to mid-range or high-end makeup, which could end up costing a lot more. This may not be a problem for people with more disposable income, but CTMA Center’s target demographic, teenagers and students, would rather seek out cheaper alternatives. Reetu Rajbhandari, a Hong Kong born Nepali, says, “I used to buy my foundations from high-end brands like Makeup Forever, which cost me $420 per bottle. That was an astronomical amount for my budget as a student.” Now, she can purchase foundations in her shade for about $100 HKD, a much more reasonable price that she can afford.
However, unlike department store counters and drugstore makeup displays in Hong Kong, you won’t find any tester products in CTMA Center. The owner of gel_beauty explains, “I can’t really offer tester products because it’s quite expensive for a small business, and additionally, there isn’t enough space in the cubicles.” This means that consumers may not necessarily be able to see how the product performs. To get around this issue, gel_beauty again turns to Instagram, “I usually try to swatch products and recommend colors and shades to customers through Instagram stories.”
Although CTMA Center may seem like a heaven for makeup lovers in Hong Kong, one thing that you must keep in mind is that these makeup products may not necessarily be approved for sale in Hong Kong by the Consumer Council. These businesses operate on a small scale, and therefore have not been subjected to governmental scrutiny. Therefore, it’s relatively easier for imitation or unapproved products to be sold in cubicle stores. What shoppers should do is try to buy from reputable brands, and be wary when a product is sold for much less than market price. Stay safe when makeup shopping!