Brands boast about their foundation diversity—then don’t carry darker shades in-store

“Inclusivity” is a hot button item in the beauty industry but to some it’s merely a clickbaity buzzword. Shades of Melanin unpacks some of the many untouched issues that women of color experience in the beauty community told from the perspective of a black beauty enthusiast and writer. This month, NYC-based beauty writer Mika Robinson is asking why some retailers aren’t matching their brand partners’ inclusivity efforts, because what use is a foundation shade range of 40+ if the darker shades aren’t as accessible as the rest of the range?  

Back in 2014, during my peak of working in retail cosmetics, inclusivity was just slowly but surely becoming a topic of conversation in the beauty community. Social media and influencer marketing were steadily growing as a means to reach consumers, and retailers began to shift their marketing and sales tactics to adapt to these changes. More specifically, major retailers that depended on cosmetics to drive traffic into the store (and away from the internet) began looking to social media to see what concerns consumers had in regards to beauty—inclusivity in both advertising and product ranges were amongst some of the biggest.

When I think about how inclusivity has progressed over the years, I always think about my time working in retail cosmetics when the corporate executives in my store called for a significant revamp of the cosmetic department. In 2013, the bigwigs in the company requested that counters place more dark complexion products in displays, and signage was updated to include more inclusive imagery, emphasizing “all shades” throughout the department. While I felt this was a great initiative, something about it also felt troubling.

Even though we went to lengths to show consumers that we carried darker shades of foundation, those shades never seemed as heavily stocked as their lighter counterparts, including even those fairest shades that rarely ever sold in our location.

I found it questionable how shades that rarely sold would replenish faster than those that sold often. While I hated to think that it had something to do with skin tone, things didn’t seem to add up. Since that day in 2013, I’ve freelanced as a beauty advisor and makeup artist at various retailers and I’ve come across the same issue quite often. After years of witnessing this, I had to ask why retailers have been limiting accessibility to makeup for black women. Could they still be stuck in the “darker women don’t buy makeup” mindset? Do they not care, or is there another reason?

A close friend, who typically wears one of the darkest shades in any true expansive foundation range, opened up about how she is often torn on how to feel about “inclusive” cosmetics launches. She said that in most cases, her shade typically isn’t available online or in-store until weeks after the product’s initial launch, and that it feels as if the brands that are catering to women in her shade range are doing so just for show and to jump on the inclusivity train. I came across a similar issue when attempting to repurchase a foundation in-store. The brand I wanted to purchase from made 40+ shades, but I could only find a third of them in-store. And yes, most were the fairer shades. Either this was a coincidence, or there’s a disconnect somewhere along the supply chain.

Nearly every foundation launch of 2019 included at least 40 shades, a precedent that Fenty Beauty set in September 2017 with its iconic Pro Fil’tr Foundation launch. However, one launch that took inclusivity to new heights was the PÜR 4-in-1 Love Your Selfie Foundation. In addition to an impeccable full-coverage foundation formula, this product launched with 100 shades. As someone who has their ears to the beauty side of social media, I sensed that the beauty community didn’t quite know how to dissect this launch. On the one hand, 100 shades of foundation sounds like a dream come true for people who have difficulty finding an exact match. But again, not all of the shades launched in-store.

I reached out to Tisha Thompson, Vice President of Marketing and Innovation at PÜR, to ask for insight into the barriers the brand faced when launching 100 shades of foundation. While Thompson admits it wasn’t an easy task, the launch meant too much to the brand to not figure it out. Here’s what she shared:

"In formulating 100 wearable shades, we took a thoughtful approach to develop the proper undertones and to cater to all shade categories, so of course we faced challenges that we had to navigate. One of the main [challenges] is sheer space in the retail stores, but our partners have been extremely supportive throughout this process. While brick and mortar [stores are] amazing for the shopping experience, we understand space is limited, so we worked closely with our retailers to optimize our real estate in-store and to expand the product offering to ensure this inclusive range was accessible to everyone."

I understand why a retailer may not be able to determine the appropriate stock levels for a completely new launch. However, barriers still exist for products that have existed long before the eruption of inclusivity in the beauty industry.

I currently live in a Brooklyn neighborhood that has a primarily black and Afro-Carribean population. However, I rarely find my foundation shade in any drugstore in my area.

Similarly, when I visit primarily non-black neighborhoods, I’m faced with the same issue. How is it that neighborhoods with completely different demographics limit access to the same group of consumers? To better understand stock levels, I asked Thompson how they’re determined and how they were managed for PÜR’s extensive launch.

"Stock levels are generally determined by purchase history of like-SKUs. However, when you enter such uncharted territory of offering anything more than 60 shades of foundation, it’s a new concept for retailers. There’s no way to judge how well a shade will perform if it’s never offered, so this was a challenge we were willing to take on.

While some retailers have struggled to keep up with the needs of consumers in the beauty industry, some retail giants, like Sephora, are continuously thinking steps ahead in terms of diversity.

Even before a lack of diversity was a cancel-able offense in the beauty industry, Sephora has shown and proven that diversity is ingrained into its company culture. From the product lineup to the employees on the sales floor, Sephora has been a great example of what real inclusion should look like. A spokesperson for Sephora shared the following with HelloGiggles about diversity, ditching demographics, and providing product offerings that are genuinely reflective of the company’s unique customer base:

"While diversity and inclusivity principles have been embedded in Sephora’s culture from the beginning, we are proud to say that we’ve made it increasingly more apparent over the last couple of years. Our manifesto, 'We Belong to Something Beautiful,' is a pledge of continued action and commitment from us to foster a sense of belonging amongst all of our clients and employees. "There is no single 'type' here. We don’t have many standardized demographics for who our clients are. When evaluating new brands and products, we take into account the fact that we have a very diverse client base who all have their unique beauty goals, and for that, we have to have a product assortment that reflects that and meets all of our clients’ needs and interests.

She wrapped up by saying that if a product wasn’t available in a particular shade, it would be shipped to the client free of charge.

This was a line that I often regurgitated during my years in cosmetic retail, and more often than not it was told to women of color. And yes, I know that waiting an additional five business days isn’t the end of the world. However, it’s disappointing and disrespectful when it becomes a pattern that only affects one particular group. As Thompson so perfectly stated, “Finding a match to your complexion should be a standard, not a luxury.” A part of this “standard” is to make full ranges that are accessible to all women. Brands (and retailer partners) that boast inclusivity need to ensure that accessibility is a part of the equation.

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