Hillary Hardy, a medical assistant for a women’s health clinic in American Fork, Utah, never imagined she would buy lube and a vibrator from Walmart.
But on her weekly trip to the retailer, while picking up her usual for groceries and personal care items, she discovered Cake, a new sexual wellness brand that hit Walmart’s shelves and website in July. Hardy, 28, left the store with “Tush Cush,” a $10 hybrid water and silicone-based lubricant designed for backside play, and looked the brand up on Instagram shortly after.
“Cake ended up being this really cool brand I now follow because of just seeing them at Walmart,” said Hardy.
Cake is just one of about 100 beauty brands landing on Walmart shelves this year, as America’s largest retailer continues a revamp of its beauty, wellness and sexual health assortments. Other new names include Bubble, Gen-Z skin care line; Uoma’s new makeup label, Uoma by Sharon C; cosmetics brand Lotti London and Skinproud, a Glossier lookalike that sells skin care.
“We’re bringing more indie, niche brands into our stores that would probably surprise a customer five years ago,” said Musab Balbale, vice president of beauty at the retailer.
Walmart’s beauty assortment has traditionally featured standard mass market and drugstore brands. But today, as traditional retailers are making new investments in beauty, a fresh approach was required.
Competitors Target and Kohl’s inked partnerships with Ulta and Sephora, respectively, last year, and JC Penney just unveiled a new in-store beauty experience. To further reinvigorate their aisles, all are vying to sign exclusive deals with newer, digital-first brands. The hope is to become a brand-discovery destination for younger consumers and generate (even a fraction of) the buzz that other direct-to-consumer lines like Kylie Cosmetics and Glossier have in the past.
“Beauty is a battleground that a lot of retailers are trying to focus on,” said Balbale. “These digitally native brands have built a business model on customer acquisition … It’s no longer financially feasible to reach the type of customers you need at the frequency you need to in order to stand out.”
Building an Assortment
With 4,700 stores, Walmart may be America’s largest retailer, but “when we think about ... being on the cutting edge [in] big box, you think of Target over Walmart,” said Chris Ventry, a vice president at SSA & Company, a consulting firm.
Balbale is trying to change that and is leaning into bolder categories like sexual wellness to send a message to customers that it’s okay to buy products that may have a stigma attached.
“That kind of democratisation from the big box retailers is making people feel like this isn’t something I have to be nervous to order or be ashamed of,” said Katie Thomas, head of the Kearney Consumer Institute, a think tank that evaluates consumer behaviour.
The benefits go both ways: Mitch Orkis, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Cake, wants lube and toys to be accessible to all consumers. He said the brand was approached by high-end retailers but passed on the opportunity.
“If we’re going to help the most amount of people have the best of sex they can, putting it within arm’s reach and working with the largest retailer in the world seems logical,” Okris said. “There’s never been a masturbation cream on the shelf and now there is.”
Walmart is also building up its standard beauty categories, like colour cosmetics, introducing lines like Uoma by Sharon C, a more affordable version of founder Sharon Chuter’s Uoma, a prestige line that launched in Ulta Beauty in 2019.
Prices for Uoma by Sharon C, which launched at Walmart in June, are a fraction of those for the original brand. A lip gloss is $7 and foundation $15, while Uoma’s lip gloss and foundation sell for $22 and $39, respectively, at Ulta. The biggest difference, according to Chuter, is the packaging, which contains less custom detailing like a mascara with a lizard skin effect.
Despite the affordable price point, the diffusion brand looks and feels sexier and more “indie” than the drugstore makeup mainstays traditionally sold at Walmart.
Balbale said the retailer is trying new ways to support product launches and get the word out about new brands. For example, Walmart celebrated the launch of Uoma by Sharon C with a beauty runway show hosted by Chuter and Sir John (Beyoncé's makeup artist) that included a live shopping component. The retailer worked with content creators who showed followers their skincare and makeup routines using product from Walmart.
Know Your Arena
Despite the new introductions, Walmart has no aspirations to be a specialty retailer. What it wants to do is be the convenient option and capitalise on customers’ weekly grocery trip. While Target and Kohl’s are using specialty retail partnerships to inch their way into the prestige beauty space, Walmart will remain rooted in mass (and some masstige).
That proposition is why young brands are interested in teaming up with Walmart. A presence at the massive retailer offers unparalleled access to millions of customers, a major selling point for a brand that otherwise would be deploying much of its budgets on digital marketing to drive sales and awareness.
“Ulta and Sephora win at being that beauty destination, but Walmart wins at being that cross-shop destination,” Thomas said.
But with that, Walmart also faces a challenge that other retailers don’t: striking a balance between being a place for replenishment and a destination for discovery of new brands.
“Consumers come to Walmart because of a shopping list, that’s what drives them there. The trigger for the customer journey is one of replenishment and a need for speed and efficiency,” said Balbale. “It’s really different than a department store or specialty retail where people go to spend time.”
But a store needs to look and feel like the lines they sell, and Walmart is still figuring out how its beauty investment plays out in-store in the longer term. The retailer needs to support weekly shoppers buying bars of Dove soap while simultaneously attracting a hipper clientele who wants Uoma by Sharon C’s “Badder Boom!” mascara.
And once people realise that Walmart is selling the brands that were only available online or a beauty-specific retailer, there’s a new challenge: to keep consumers coming back.
“For the people already in shopping the store, maybe they [Walmart] can get them if they do something different,” said Reg Yarbrough, founder and president at The Consumer Products Group, a consultancy that helps brands create and optimise retail partnerships.