Where do your loyalties lie?: A look at beauty rewards programs

MAC and Urban Decay, two of my favorite brands, recently rolled out rewards programs for shopping on their websites and at their brand boutiques (so, NOT Sephora, Ulta, and department stores), so I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at what they're offering and how much you have to spend to get it.

They're not the first to offer rewards programs, and they certainly won't be the last, but I'm going to be focusing specifically on MAC, UD, Ulta, and Sephora since they are the beauty retailers I buy from most often.

So, first, let's take a look at Sephora's program. There are three tiers, and it's pretty straightforward. For every dollar you spend, you get a point, and the points can be redeemed for deluxe samples and exclusive sets. It does not directly earn you any discounts, but spending more = moving up a tier = better perks.

Level 1 is Beauty Insiders (BI), and it's free to join:

If you spend at least $350 in a calendar year, you can earn Very Important Beauty insider (VIB) status for the rest of that year as well as for the next calendar year:

And if you spend at least $1000 in a calendar year, you will receive VIB Rouge status:

So what does this mean in real life? VIB Rouges get free Flash shipping (free 2nd-day shipping on any order, no purchase minimum, for a year), but it's only $10 a year anyway, so it's not a big deal. Sephora notably does a friends-and-family type discount for its Insiders, and the higher your level, the larger the discount, I believe - don't quote me on this, but it's something like 10% vs. 15% vs. 20% or something like that. Around the holidays, Insiders usually get a "gift card" code, which is essentially a dollar-amount discount from a minimum purchase, and the amount you get (and/or the amount of the necessary minimum purchase) varies with your tier level as well. Also, VIB Rouges usually get first dibs - like, their discount days occur first, and then the VIBs, and then the BIs last. Each level also gets early access to certain products occasionally.

I've been a VIB for the last three years or so, and while I enjoy the slightly larger discounts, I've rarely felt compelled to attempt VIB Rouge. The only times have been when there's an item that is made exclusively available to Rouges, but I luckily had friends who could order for me. The points are pretty much the least interesting part of their program, because you can only redeem them for deluxe samples or product sets, and if they're not offering anything you're interested in, then they're kind of useless - you can't cash them in for discounts. Luckily, though, they never expire, and you can redeem them anytime you want. (I guess they DO have a use for me - I've rarely had to buy a full-size high-end mascara in the last couple years.)

Ulta's Ultamate Rewards Program DOES actually give you cash back for points, which is why they get more of my business, really. They also offer lots of "3x points!" and "5x points!" specials, which is pretty awesome, because you can earn those discounts more quickly.

There's the basic level membership, and there is also Platinum level for spending more than $450 in a calendar year:

Basically, when you're Platinum, you earn points faster for your purchases (which means, discounts), they don't expire, and you get extra perks, exclusive access, etc. You also get an additional coveted 20% errrrrthang coupon at some point during the year that I think the other members don't get or they get one that includes a purchase minimum or something. (This is a big deal because usually Ulta coupons cannot be used for prestige brands. When you get one that CAN be, it's a special occasion!)

If Ulta were to offer a free and/or expedited shipping option, I'd be over the moon. That's just about my only critique of their rewards program. Remember, you get points for pretty much every dollar you spend at Ulta, whether it's high-end makeup, drugstore makeup, Neutrogena face wash - whatever they sell, and you can use the points on basically anything.

Now, between Sephora and Ulta, I've got all my Urban Decay purchases covered in terms of rewards and perks. Lo and behold, UD decided to start their own rewards program, UD Junkies:

It's definitely worth it to sign up just for the free standard shipping - no more having to spend $50. Also worth noting is that there are a number of ways to earn points without necessarily having to spend money (for example, reviewing products on their website), which is pretty cool. Between maxing out all my non-spending options and the 2x points special they were offering last week, I was able to get my first kickback pretty easily, and I have until 2017 to use it. You get a $10 "kickback" at 100 and a $20 kickback at every odd-hundred (300, 500, etc.) after that, but if that's not something you care a lot about because you know you won't buy from them often, then there's no difference between having 300 points or 1100 points in terms of discounts. (You get free expedited shipping for being at Rockstar level, but hey, I have Sephora Flash anyway.)

The program with the least overlap, of course, is MAC's MAC Select program, seeing as how you can't buy MAC from Sephora or Ulta.

For a long time, MAC tracked your purchases in their store individually, separate from the website - now they will track you by email address, which is great, because my in-store purchases have been added to my order history. (That's good from an organizational standpoint - I didn't get points for my previous purchases or anything.)

Like UD, MAC Select gives you free standard shipping (although, if you subscribe to their email newsletter, you'll know that they constantly have codes for free standard and 2-day shipping anyway). Noteworthy is the expanded Back-to-MAC program and their Back-to-MAC tracker.

For the uninitiated, the Back-to-MAC program basically allows you to trade in 6 used full-size product empties for a full-sized lipstick. Apparently the expanded program allows you to choose either a lipstick, eyeshadow, or lipglass. You can also bring back empties whenever you have them, and they will get tracked on your account for you, instead of you having to hang onto your empties until you have six to bring back. Pretty cool!

Noteworthy perks at the higher levels - complimentary makeup applications and free 2-day shipping on purchases above $50. (But, again, MAC tends to send out those codes relatively often...)

So which ones are worth it?

Belonging to any of these rewards programs is free and awesome if you're an avid makeup buyer. And even if you're not, even if you only buy every now and then, some of these programs offer free standard shipping just for signing up, so it's a good idea to sign up anyway.

Spending money to go beyond the basic level though? Let's crunch the numbers:

Sephora: $350; $1000
Ulta: $450 (only one additional level)
UD: $300, $600 (keep in mind that you could earn 100+ points not through spending)
MAC: $150, $500

What makes each level worth it is going to vary from person to person. You can count up the number of added rewards, or you can consider which rewards will actually be useful for you, etc, etc. One retailer might offer 20 additional rewards for their top tier, but if none of them are anything you're interested in, it's not worth it to actually try to achieve it.

Of course, if you don't care about trying to achieve anything, then none of this matters - you will still shop however you want to shop and you will earn points regardless of whether you intend to use them or not. :)

I think Ulta's is the most useful for me, because it just translates to straight-up discounts and at the Platinum level, the points don't expire. Obviously Ulta (as well as Sephora) offer more options in terms of things to buy - it's easier to spend more money when there are more products to choose from. I'm sure I could very well achieve 2nd/3rd tiers on all these programs over the course of a year, but if I'm choosing which ones to prioritize, I'm going to have to go with Ulta and Sephora - I want to be sure to lock in my Platinum/VIB statuses in time for those special coupons that they send out. UD and MAC offer good enough perks at the basic levels that I don't feel particularly compelled to level up. (Though, it will inevitably happen anyway, I'm sure.)

Are there any other good rewards programs I should know about? I'd love to hear from you!