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Why Is It So Hard for the Beauty Industry to Get Wellness Right?

The segment is meant to be beauty’s next holy grail, but nailing the experience hasn’t been easy.
Wellness
Wellness has become a lot more than collagen supplements. (Getty Images)

When Lindsay Ullman, a former Sephora executive, launched the retailer’s wellness category around eight years ago with Gabriella Giron, another former Sephora executive, the industry mainly looked to Gwyneth Paltrow’s burgeoning Goop empire for inspiration.

In 2015, “wellness” was a word many were familiar with, including the phrase “beauty from within,” marketing speak that almost anyone who has bought a beauty product has heard of by now. The concept was already a powerful selling point for an increasing number of brands making gummies and powder packets of vitamins, “superfoods” and other ingredients we couldn’t pronounce, promising better skin with consistent use over time.

As such, Ullman said that the overarching sentiment at the time was that wellness must be linked to beauty – and making that “strong, clear connection” was paramount. (Ullman, Giron and Cassie Cowman, another Sephora veteran, have since moved on; they’re the co-founders of View From 32, a new beauty consultancy that counts Sephora as a client.)

Vital Proteins, Elle Macpherson’s WelleCo and The Beauty Chef, which all sell ingestibles with skin care adjacent claims, were among the earliest wellness lines to enter Sephora. The latter’s first ever product, Glow Inner Beauty Essential — a powder that, according to The Beauty Chef’s site, makes skin glow, improves energy and immunity and “boosts digestive wellbeing” – remains a bestseller for the brand today.

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Yet nearly a decade into the wellness craze, not much has changed. “I don’t think anyone has particularly nailed it,” Ullman told me.

Why?

Wellness has become a lot more than collagen supplements. The term is now a catchall for ingestibles, anything related to sleep, sexual health, spa treatments, non-invasive treatments and/or services and facials, masking, body care, gut health and in some cases, oral care. Some even consider water to be a vital part of one’s wellness routine (in addition to being necessary for life), which if consumed daily and in large amounts, yields miraculously hydrated skin. Wellness has been cemented into our brains as anything tangentially related to self-betterment.

According to BoF and McKinsey’s “The State of Fashion: Beauty” report, a $1.5 trillion global wellness industry could grow at a compound annual rate, or CAGR, of up to 10 percent in the next four years.

For brands and their stockists, one of the most attractive things about the sector is its breadth. The space encompasses not just a multitude of sub-categories, but an excess of products (and related experiences) both beauty and personal care-adjacent. It’s why all sorts of retailers, from Walmart, Whole Foods and CVS to Sephora and Ulta Beauty, are trying to cash in on our quest to be our most optimal selves.

One of the most challenging things about the sector is also its breadth. It’s hard to establish a unified vision or strategy when the category is fragmented with sub-categories that span everything from toothpaste to massage oil. Beauty retailers face a conundrum; they have to divorce wellness from beauty while at the same time remain beauty centric. At the same time, confusion appears to stem from focus, or lack thereof, with grooming products or oral care (Kendall Jenner’s Moon oral care is sold at Ulta) feeling a bit out of place.

Combine that with society’s evolving and ever-changing definition of “beauty.”

“Beauty was aesthetics and instant gratification and a look,” Cowman said. “Now it’s also health and how your skin looks, but it’s also a feeling and how it makes you feel… it’s a physical feeling, too.”

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Up until recently, ingestibles – the lowest hanging fruit of wellness – and select bath and body care were the easiest ways to get into wellness. Supplements and pleasant smelling body wash are good sources of incremental revenue that won’t cannabalise existing brand partners.

But to win at wellness, beauty retailers need to do more. They need to create a real assortment.

“It requires its own moment in time and its own dedicated space, language and communication,” Giron said of wellness. “It’s hard for it to be housed in a place that normally talks about a different category.”

Ulta and Sephora, for example, are investing in sexual wellness, a space dominated by drugstores and big box retailers. Their approach to the sub-category, however, still feels similar to the way they merchandise hair and makeup. It’s basically a “skinification” of sex by way of skin care designed for your nether regions, or products infused with skin care ingredients intended for use before, during, after or in preparation of sex. Devices like vibrators are typically sold online only.

An alternative thought many will probably disagree with: why does a retailer have to be everything?

If one’s specialty is beauty – and people come to you for expertise in assortment and curation of beauty – why not be the best in the categories you’re serving? Maybe we can leave vitamins to Target or CVS, which both have plenty of aisles to dedicate to Olly’s dozens of gummy vitamins and supplements. I don’t think Walmart has plans to sell La Mer in the near future.

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