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Buy Black Trend Sees Staying Power With Corporate America Buy-In

Zerina Akers' e-commerce marketplace 'Black Owned Everything'. Website Image.
Zerina Akers' e-commerce marketplace 'Black Owned Everything'. Website Image.

The Buy Black movement has shown surprising durability since its resurgence last year, opening long-closed doors in corporate America and fuelling sales at many Black-owned businesses.

That’s been the experience of Janell Stephens. Although she has dealt with top US retailers since 2012, a year after she founded Atlanta-based beauty brand Camille Rose, she says demand and support both picked up sharply in the past year. Stephens saw a more than 70 percent year-over-year increase in retailer sales in the 12 months through January 2021; some of the stores that carry her products started giving her coveted shelf space and featuring her in more circular ads, and on their social media channels.

“Retailers are offering opportunities that have always been there, but were never offered to us,” says Stephens. She and other Black business owners — including Michael James, who owns the New York-based Frederick Benjamin Grooming line — say they’ve gotten a larger foothold with big-name retailers. Companies like Target Corp. and Ulta Beauty Inc. have intensified promotions around the Buy Black drive following the death of George Floyd in May.

Big companies aren’t embracing Buy Black for purely altruistic reasons; Black consumers in the U.S. have more than $1 trillion to spend annually, according to market research firm Nielsen. They and the increasingly important and socially conscious Gen Z consumers are looking for mission-driven companies, with stances rooted in environmentalism, equality or, ideally, both.

While earlier pushes to Buy Black typically faded along with consumers’ attention spans, this time it seems to have staying power, says Mandy Bowman, who runs Official Black Wall Street, an online directory of international and US Black-owned businesses.

“This go-round, the push to buy Black was bigger than I’ve ever seen before in my five years of running Official Black Wall Street,” says Bowman. Her platform’s Instagram page gained more than 100,000 new followers after protests swept the nation following Floyd’s death. Despite seeing a slower rate since then, the following has kept growing, she said.

Although you wouldn’t know it looking at corporate America before mid-2020, the Buy Black movement isn’t new. Black businesses and the push to support them have always been around, but the movement was often contained within communities of colour. What’s different this time — and the reason the demand has held up over the past nine months — is it’s finally getting broader buy-in from White consumers and brand-name companies with deep pockets.

Those companies are “actively seeking out the brands and trying to do what they can on a macro level,” says Josanta Gray Emegano, founder of Grayscaled Media, a firm specialising in retail strategy and distribution for beauty brands. While systemic racism in corporate America has hardly been overcome, “I can say right now that the conversation is open,” Gray Emegano says.

After the pandemic’s devastating impact on Black-owned businesses — their number fell 41 percent in the early months of the virus crisis, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research — that kind of support is very welcome. Corporate initiatives, however, won’t singlehandedly save Black businesses post-pandemic. These companies are among the hardest-hit by the virus, with 77 percent of owners saying their financial condition was “fair” or “poor,” according to a Federal Reserve study published earlier this month. Access to credit was the top expected challenge, cited by 30 percent of those surveyed. The next biggest challenge was weak demand, cited by 26 percent.

Black History Month, which draws to a close this week, has helped amplify the Buy Black message. Target doubled the number of stores featuring products around the event after the positive response to last year’s promotions, according to spokesperson Jessica Carlson. Macy’s Inc. added 11 Black-founded beauty brands just this month. Ulta Beauty will double the number of Black-owned beauty labels on its shelves to about 5 percent of its store offerings by the end of the year and plans to spend more than $4 million to market them.

That support has paid off for James, whose grooming line saw sales triple last year across its website, Amazon and Ulta’s e-commerce platform. According to James, the beauty retailer’s effort to promote Black-owned brands helped his business go from “good to better,” partly thanks to the six-foot tall in-store displays featuring founders for Black History Month.

“When this happened, it was great that folks finally said it was time to elevate Black entrepreneurs and give them some love,” James says, adding that Ulta had also used email newsletters to highlight Black-owned brands earlier in the year. “That awareness was something we were looking for for a long time. Normally you have to pay for that.”

Gray Emegano says true integration of Black brands has yet to be fully achieved, and for that to happen, smaller, Black-owned companies will need assistance in supply chains and logistics. Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette highlighted the same thing in an interview this week, saying the company is trying to fix it by bringing in designers of colour to work with its existing brands.

“Part of our issue in the past had been that when we would bring in diverse designers or content of minority-owned businesses — where they really understand the customer — they weren’t up to scale that could do enough business with us,” he says. “What we decided to do differently this time was to offer this great diverse talent with the backbone of our private brands.”

In spite of the disproportionate pain Black-owned businesses faced during the pandemic, the recovery has begun to take shape, according to Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. He sees the group poised to erase declines from the crisis by mid-2021, faster than any other demographic. Two reasons: they’re coming back from a very sharp drop, and they’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand. The Buy Black movement also may have played a role, he says.

Still, relying on corporate altruism or White consumers isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy, says Jared Ball, a professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at Morgan State University. He’s also the author of “The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power.” For businesses facing economic disparities to see meaningful improvements, lawmakers will have to do more to target systemic inequalities, including a stronger push for federal relief for Black communities and student-loan forgiveness programs.

“We want to make buying Black habitual,” says Kezia Williams, chief executive officer of The Black upStart, which trains Black entrepreneurs to run businesses. With the #MyBlackReceipt hashtag, she’s encouraged patrons to post purchases at Black-owned businesses, and recently partnered with PepsiCo Inc. as part of its efforts to track and boost business at Black-owned restaurants. “Black-owned businesses are trying to be in business 365 days a year,” she says.

By Jordyn Holman, Deena Shanker and Gerald Porter Jr.

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