The 350 beauty and fragrance consultants at Selfridges sell dreams to almost three million people a year. Here are a dozen of them. By Sarah Stacey Photographs by Colin McKillop
So how does Madam see her life and lipstick today? Is it Woodland Rose Perfect Lipcolor (the classic pinky beige, "perfect for all ages"), or could it be Luscious Magenta Melting Lippy? (a daring little number, "inspired by Schiaparelli's Shocking, for every woman who is wild at heart".) Or a fresh floral, perhaps - so suitable for after sport or at the office. Maybe Madam is planning a seductive soiree - in which case, what about something more sensuous?

Do you know what lipstick, scent, eyeshadow, skincare range will really suit you? Every year, 2.7 million people seek the answer in Selfridges' Cosmetic and Fragrance Halls. The halls, scheduled for a face-lift next year by Christian Liaigre, the man behind Paris's superchic Hotel Montalambert, are vital to Selfridges' balance sheet: they account for 11 per cent of the store's sales.

Key to the success of this altar to aesthetics are The Women Who Know - the 350 beauty and fragrance consultants who spend up to 20 minutes with each customer. Time was when these style oracles would, if they deigned to acknowledge your existence at all, glare down camel-like noses, curl a lip and wait for customers to stammer out a request. But in today's competitive climate, the value of sales can be directly linked to the perceived value of the service. Consultants must be approachable as well as informative.

"Let's face it, the product is the product is the product," says Deborah Robinson, American-born national training manager of Parfums Christian Dior. "The difference is how the customer is treated. Eye contact is vital, for instance, and, if you have a couple shopping together, always acknowledge her first."

Madam is always right, therefore, even if that magenta lipstick seems a tragic error of judgement. "We might think, `Oh, God' - but if that's what she wants, that's what she gets," continues Robinson. "Before she goes, however, we would ask if she had seen the new summer look which has other lip colours. Subconsciously, the customer is saying to us, `Meet my need, then I'm happy to listen to your suggestions'."

So powerful is the doctrine of accessibility that consultants now practically jump over the counter so that they are on the same side as the customer.

Male customers flock in droves, too, buying presents for women and, nowadays, skincare and fragrance for themselves. "Ten years ago, women made 70 per cent of the purchases but men are much more confident now," says Richard Hawkins of Yves St Laurent.

Young men, from their early 20s on, tend to come in on their own wanting the trendiest, newest fragrance. They're heavily influenced by the consultants. The customer is invited to hold out the back of his wrist for a spray. But - and this is the crucial difference between how male and female customers are treated - there's no touching because men may feel uncomfortable.

They're treading a tightrope, these purveyors of taste. Warm, but not too talkative, they need to inspire customers to feel they're buying into the designer dream and that it's worth paying a premium price at a department store, rather than going to a consultant-free zone at cut-price stores such as Superdrug.

"In its barest form, what we're doing is selling products," admits Robinson. "If we don't make them feel special, someone else will."

Oh, and the steamy hot tip for summer scent? Try Tommy Girl by Tommy Hilfiger. "It's fantastic... phenomenal," according to perfume guru Dr Luca Turin, author of Parfum: le Guide. "You can't better it for summer." He predicts it will sell for a century

Jenni Sadler, 21, from north London, beauty consultant for Clinique: `This woman came in and picked up some polish that was on the counter while we were cleaning. Before we knew it, she was spraying it all round her neck and on her wrists. She went away happy as Larry'

Diana Maros, 21, from Australia, beauty consultant for Pearl Agency: `Most British men look after themselves. Not like the men back in Australia... they are all Surfy Bums'

Nicky Reynolds (centre), 21, from Kent, beauty consultant for Christian Dior: `The Arabs spend a lot of money. One came in and said he wanted a big bottle of perfume for each of his wives. He bought 26 bottles'

Laura Phillips, 19, from Bournemouth, promotions manager for Clinique: `A customer came to the counter asking for a refund on a product. She said, "It's my sister's. She has just died and it's not my skin type"'

Sophie Parr (centre), 22, from Kent, business manager for YSL: `I was doing a full make-up on a customer and I was blending the foundation on her forehead so I lifted her fringe... it was a wig!'

Joyce Ademasa, 30, from Surrey, account manager for Beauty Bureau: `A lot of women comment on my very long eyelashes and they ask what mascara I use. Well, I'm afraid I have to admit that they are false'

Rose Morgan, 32, from south London, beauty consultant for Fashion Fair: `One customer said I looked like a statue'

Kay Regan, 38, from east London, counter manager for YSL: `An elderly man wanted to purchase a fragrance. I asked if the

age group the lady was in was "mature". He said, "To me, she looks about a hundred years" '

Mine Ozel, 30, from London, beauty consultant for Estee Lauder: `To have good skin, you have to look after the whole body. You have to eat healthy food, exercise and drink lots of water'

Samantha Bennet, 29, from Hampshire, account manager for Guerlain: `The Japanese buy the most. Always skin care and always luxury products. Arabs buy in bulk. They say: "Give me six of that"'

Zoe Parmenter, 22, from south London, beauty consultant for Guerlain: `If I was on a desert island and I could only bring one item of make-up, it would have to be my eyebrow pencil'

Natasha Brooks, 20, from Surrey, make-up and skin care analyst for Prescriptives: `Some men will come in, buy something and get out as quickly as possible. Perhaps they see this as women's territory and that's what makes them nervous'