MONTCLAIR, United States — Wellness has a bit of a class divide — there are companies like Goop that cater to women who will pay $90 for “Madame Ovary” dietary supplements, and then a mass of cheap, undifferentiated products, from hair growth gummies to dubious laxative-infused teas hawked on Instagram and Amazon.
Enter Bobbi Brown. Since leaving her beauty brand in 2016 after nearly three decades, she has repositioned herself as a wellness guru for the 99 percent. Brown’s line of supplements, Evolution_18, launched on QVC, and she curated a wellness-themed section for mid-market department store chain Lord & Taylor's since-closed Manhattan flagship that was stocked with everything from powders to sneakers.
Next week, she’ll gain a massive new platform when Evolution_18 launches in over 1,500 Walmart stores across the US, as well as the retailer’s website. The partnership instantly catapults Brown into the top tier of wellness entrepreneurs, with a person familiar with the details of the launch projecting sales to top $11 million in the first year (Goop needed about seven years to hit that amount). New products, including probiotic powders and hair growth gummies, will retail for between $10 and $20, below similar items sold by beauty brands like Murad and Ouai at Sephora.
It’s not just about a product, it’s about a platform to educate consumers on health and wellness.
The deal is a bet by the world’s largest retailer that, a decade or more into the clean living boom, wellness has become mainstream enough to support a mass consumer brand. The market for pills, supplements and other “ingestibles” meant to make skin smoother, hair shinier and gut bacteria happier has been dominated by luxury-focused players like Sephora, Net-a-Porter and Nordstrom. They position these items as aspirational products, with the high prices to match. Walmart’s decision to carry Evolution_18 marks one of the most aggressive attempts by a mass retailer to compete in the space on the strength of a brand rather than as a cheaper alternative.
The nexus between beauty and wellness is a potentially lucrative niche. Global supplement sales are growing about 5 percent a year, totalling $106.4 billion in 2018, with the US making up about a quarter of that, according to Euromonitor International, a market research service. GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe are the top specialty retailers in the category. However, both chains have struggled to stay on top of new trends in recent years and have closed stores amid falling sales.
Though chains like Sephora and Ulta have made inroads, most consumers still buy beauty products at big-box retailers like Target and Walmart or drug stores like CVS and Walgreens. And Walmart is already the default choice for dietary supplements for many Americans, with 39 percent of consumers saying they bought products there, compared with 5 percent for GNC and Vitamin Shoppe, according to TABS Analytics.
There is an overlap between beauty consumers and those interested in health and wellness.
“There is an overlap between beauty consumers and those interested in health and wellness," said Mintel senior analyst Alexis DeSalva. She said two factors working in Evolution_18's favor are "having that consumer who is going to recognize Bobbi Brown from being a beauty consumer and then maybe surpassing expectations from a price side.”
Brown, who sold Bobbi Brown Cosmetics to Estée Lauder in 1995 and stayed on as chief creative officer for nearly 22 years, said wellness was a natural choice for her second act. She released her ninth book, the wellness-themed “Beauty From the Inside Out,” the day she left Estée Lauder in 2016. (By contrast, previous books largely stuck to makeup advice; her last title was “Everything Eyes”).
Brown said “beauty food” and the idea that feeling good will help you look good has always been a part of her mantra.
“I always believed it, I always taught it, I always discussed it,” she said. “[A supplement line] was certainly something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s not just about a product, it’s about a platform to educate consumers on health and wellness.”
Evolution_18, which is self-funded, originally launched on QVC with two different powders, then added a probiotic supplement, a de-bloating powder and a hair/skin/nails formula. Products are currently sold through a dedicated website online, for prices ranging from $35 to $60. They are no longer sold through QVC.
Brown and her team were introduced to Walmart by VitaQuest, her line’s New Jersey-based supplement manufacturer, which also has made products for the retailer. Walmart was looking to make ingestibles a focus in 2019 and wanted a name with a strong pedigree in beauty.
I always believed it, I always taught it, I always discussed it
“It’s smart for [Brown] to partner with Walmart,” said Liz Dunn, a retail analyst and founder and CEO of Pro4ma. “Brands are learning that it makes sense to partner with companies that have a built-in audience. It’s much easier to build your business, particularly a consumable business, with smart distribution versus trying to do it on your own.”
The line launches with ten products, including effervescent hyaluronic acid tablets, drinkable collagen shots and a gummy to support hair and nail growth, all packaged in Instagram-friendly “Caribbean blue” inspired by Brown’s Bahamian vacation home. Her name doesn’t appear on the box.
Brown attributes the low price point to the use of “simple ingredients” and Walmart’s ability to buy at volume. For example, her original $36 hair supplement contains a new keratin derivative that she says is expensive. By contrast, the Walmart version with standard keratin is about $10. She will re-evaluate pricing on the existing Evolution_18 range, but for now, it will still be available on the brand’s site.
“The credibility that comes with Bobbi Brown and her ability to educate, plus our scale and the ability to leverage the supply chain and distribution has allowed us to make this accessible to the masses,” said Melanie Deschaine, senior buying manager for Walmart beauty.
Outside the luxury space, retailers have struggled to stand out from a crowd of sellers offering similar-sounding beauty ingestibles at rock-bottom prices. Amazon carries supplements from hundreds of unknown brands. Target sells two well-known supplement brands, Vital Proteins and Olly, which offer a few beauty formulas, as well as established mass brands like Nature Made that are more traditional health-focused supplements.
A lot of things that are big in wellness involve just switching on the belief button.
Ulta sells hair growth supplements like Viviscal and the infamous blue Sugarbear Hair gummies that are all over social media. Beauty influencer Tati Westbrook launched her own line of supplements last year, Halo Beauty, which are sold online. Online grocery and personal care retailer Brandless said this week it is entering the wellness space with powders, oils and vitamins, all under $15.
Then there are the “fit teas”: laxative drinks that became so ubiquitous on Instagram that they remain many consumers’ first thought when it comes to ingestible wellness products. That speaks to a hurdle brands face in appealing to a mass audience: there’s conflicting evidence - or no evidence - that any of these products work, or that they can even be harmful. (Brown offers a diuretic/antioxidant “tea” for de-bloating that does not contain a laxative. “I will not do a product that makes you poop,” she said.)
There are few studies to support many of the often vague claims that products make. Individual ingredients may offer some clinical evidence of efficacy, but medical experts advise caution with supplements that use multiple ingredients and proprietary blends. There are almost never studies on these completed products because they aren’t required by regulators. Plenty of people are happy to take a leap of faith when shopping for supplements, but differentiating products made from similar ingredients can be hard, as all make the same claims to give consumers better skin, hair or digestion.
“A lot of things that are big in wellness involve just switching on the belief button,” said Beth McGroarty, vice president of research at the Global Wellness Institute. “You don’t have that kind of medical evidence behind you, so there’s a lot of raging dispute.”
We are working with very credible partners and we rely on our supply chain partners and our manufacturers to really understand the rules and regulations
In the US, the FDA does not regulate supplements to the degree it does pharmaceuticals. It has published many warnings and alerts about adulterated over-the-counter supplements. Many of these have been about weight loss supplements or products that claim to treat cancer, but also biotin, a common ingredient in hair and nail supplements, which can cause false lab results. In February, the FDA released a statement that the agency will look to strengthen regulations and reform its oversight capabilities of the supplement industry.
“We are working with very credible partners and we rely on our supply chain partners and our manufacturers to really understand the rules and regulations provided in that space,” said Jody Pinson, vice president of merchandising at Walmart beauty
Brown’s personal brand will help complete the sale to consumers who may be coming across prebiotics for the first time (or have seen similar products at Target or Ulta). Pinson said Evolution_18 will be positioned like a beauty brand in stores, with coveted end-of-aisle displays. Though Brown doesn’t appear on the package, her image and name will be prominently featured in those displays, and digital and video content will be hosted on a brand page on Walmart’s website.
Mintel’s DeSalva sees this partnership as an opportunity for Walmart to fix its image with shoppers, who turn to the retailer for low prices but little else.
“When you look at qualities like ‘pleasant store environment’ and quality store brands, and words like ‘upscale’ or ‘hip’, that’s where Target outpaces Walmart,” said DeSalva, citing 2017 Mintel research.
Walmart has recently been focusing on outside partnerships with well-known personalities. It just launched Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard’s baby product line, Hello Bello, a potential competitor for the troubled Honest Company. Last year it launched Ellen Degeneres’ exclusive fashion line EV1.
“Doing this with someone who has the reputation and credibility of Bobbi Brown is something that’s been really special,” said Walmart’s Pinson.