Retailers Missing A Great Opportunity to Generate Millions in Sales, And There’s No Excuse

Can a sistah get an espresso lip pencil? That’s what I asked a fellow shopper who along with me was digging through the crowded shelves of “tawny beige” facial powders and “nude” lip pencils — colors that were the antithesis of what we were looking for, for our brown skin tones. She was looking for a pressed powder color to match her complexion. Frustrated, after carefully examining each related product and crevice, we called off the search.

Here we were — two disappointed, empty-handed, black shoppers in a mass retail store in our neighborhood, where 99.5% of the shoppers are black, eyeing the, blonde, blue-eyed models on point-of-shelf displays, and shelves and shelves of hair-care and cosmetic products that clearly weren’t designed with us in mind.

“Why do they do this to us?” my new cohort asked. “Because they can,” I answered.

For years and years it has been the norm for “planogramming” –- a planning model that retailers use to help determine the placement of products on shelves to maximize sales — to stock loads and loads of the same skin care, cosmetics and hair-care products in every community. But in predominantly black communities, this practice falls short of meeting the needs of the community. The few ethnic brands that squeeze through the funnel are typically relegated to a special “ethnic” section. You will find a shelf or two in the back of the store, with never enough products or variety of products for the community the store serves. In such a competitive environment, it seems like a no-brainer to do the reverse.

Black women, for example, spare no expense when it comes to their hair. Given society’s intrigue with black hair, the black community’s frequent judgment about it and all the challenges associated with styling and maintaining their hair, black women are likely to spend two to three times as much money on their hair as white females.

New hair-care products, Miss Jessie’s and Mixed Chicks, launched within the past few years with online sales and now in big-box retailers, were targeted to black biracial women to help tame their naturally curly locks. The products have also attracted many African-Americans who choose to wear their hair naturally (versus relaxed with chemical straighteners). Today, these multimillion dollar brands have inspired the launch of hundreds of other “me too” natural hair care products. Collectively, these products for naturally kinky and curly hair have become one of the new standards of hair-care products within the $9 billion black hair-care industry. But they have no shelf space in mass retail outlets in black communities.  They squeeze into neighborhood beauty supply stores, but would serve the community better and do well in national chains. They have the potential to generate billions of dollars in sales from the black community alone.

Talk about lost revenue and opportunities.

Industry experts give three reasons for why this obvious problem has yet to be resolved:

1. Manufacturers insist that they are distributing ethnic skin and hair care products where there are high concentrations of African Americans, and although they have budgets for mainstream campaigns, they claim to not have the budgets to support these brands with national ad campaigns.

2. Retailers complain that it is difficult to determine which stores and brands should be given precious shelf space through “ethnic” planograms. Really?

3. Ubiquitous beauty-supply stores in black communities rob them of customers by providing more variety of products in combination with low, competitive prices.

Blah, Blah, Blah.

A few weeks later while in that same store where I and the other shopper couldn’t find our “ethnic” products, I saw young kids stocking the shelves with an old heritage brand of shampoo among African Americans that has not been popular with the community in decades. I walked over and asked: “Wow, black folks are really buying ____ huh? Who knew?” “Oh no”, one girl replied, “We’re taking down the old [bottles that weren’t moving] ___ and putting up new ones [of the same brand].” She said they always send blacks to the ethnic section in the rear for the shampoo they actually want to buy.

Kind of blows the retailer excuses out of the water.

I took a final stroll down the mainstream aisles which, as usual, were loaded with products and no shoppers. I wrote the retailer and explained my dilemma. After going back and forth about four times via e-mails, I finally got a call. “What do you want?” the confused person asked. “I want to see more variety of products that are relevant to me, my needs and the needs of my community in this store,” I said. They increased the ethnic aisle another foot. A victory? Hardly.

Pepper Miller is the founder and president of The Hunter-Miller Group, Chicago. In September 2005, Pepper and co-author Herb Kemp launched the landmark African-American marketing book, What’s Black About It? Insights to Increase Your Share of a Changing African-American Market.