Musab Balbale is the new guy on the block, in more ways than one.
Like many New Yorkers seeking relief from the stressors of a pandemic-stricken city, he and his family recently decamped from the Upper West Side to greener pastures in Westchester County. It was a previously planned move accelerated by the pandemic, he says, and he feels bad leaving the city behind, though office space and room for kids to roam prevailed.
Then there’s the new job. The Yale and Harvard Business School-educated Walmart exec this month transitioned into his new role as vice president of omnichannel beauty for the retail giant. He takes over from Jody Pinson, the former vp of merchandising credited with bringing Walmart’s beauty department into the modern era.
Balbale is a different kind of executive than Pinson, a Walmart lifer who got her start on the sales floor and worked her way up the top spot in beauty before retiring earlier this year.
For starters, he’s an e-commerce native. Balbale arrived at Walmart in 2016 during the acquisition of Jet.com. He was the now-defunct e-tailer’s vice president and general manager. He quickly moved over to Walmart’s e-commerce business, where he served as general manager of the health and wellness category. And then there’s location—Balbale, unlike Pinson, isn’t based in Bentonville, Ark.
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Different though he may be from his predecessor, Balbale’s hiring reflects the direction in which Walmart’s beauty category is headed as the big-box behemoth navigates a time of pretty explosive growth and transition fueled by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Walmart’s sales surged in the most recent quarter—foot traffic was obviously down, but its e-commerce business doubled, and revenue was up 97 percent from last year, as consumers continued to stockpile groceries and pulled up for curbside pick-up.
Beauty especially is at an inflection point. Over the past few years, Walmart has significantly amped up the in-store shopping experience for beauty, bringing on hundreds of new brands and new store formats featuring upgraded fixtures and enhanced lighting inspired by specialty stores like Ulta Beauty. Now, with the pandemic still raging in the U.S., wellness and online purchasing will serve as key growth drivers.
“She leaves big shoes to fill,” Balbale said of Pinson. “A lot of what we’ll be doing is continuing the acceleration of what she’s already started.”
In a Zoom call with Beauty Inc from his brand-new remote office, Balbale gave his first interview as Walmart’s beauty head. Below, he talks about growth opportunities, the future of the multicultural beauty department and finding a new word for e-commerce (he’s still open to suggestions).
Beauty Inc: Welcome to beauty. What about the category excites you?
Musab Balbale: Beauty is a category that has a halo [effect] on the box. People determine quality of the overall retail brand often by the beauty department, and it’s a category that offers us an opportunity to be more on-point socially by offering products speaking to a [more] diverse demographic than is walking into our stores. And then all the trends that are happening—a lot of great innovations, great direct-to-consumer brands, a lot of new problems for consumers being solved, really fascinating personalities that are influencing the purchase or building brands. It’s a category that brings a ton of fun to what is often a replenishment part of someone’s morning routine.
Beauty Inc: Let’s talk about your strategic vision for your new role. What are the key things you’re hoping to achieve in the next year?
M.B.: Jody has done an incredible job transforming the assortment in our store and thinking about the physical retail space. What I’m hoping to bring to the table as we think about omnibusiness is [two things]. The first is what we offer the consumer and the second part is being able to have the consumer know that we have all this great product. There’s so much conversation in the digital eco-sphere and that conversation influences purchase decision in regards to where to purchase. I’m really paying a lot of attention to making sure that not only do we have a great assortment at really compelling price points across the spectrum, but that we’re part of the conversation that consumers are having, regardless of where they choose to make the final transaction.
Beauty Inc: What kind of opportunity does wellness represent?
M.B.: We are being incredibly mindful in terms of pushing brand partners to think about formulations and transparency in their product. We’re bringing in a more holistic view on wellness—that might include everything from sustainable packaging to product formations. We want to make sure we’re offering customers what they want, which is a lot of focus on just being healthier with everything going onto and into their bodies. We tried some initial moves putting supplements in the beauty aisle, and we’re going to push on that and see where more traditional wellness products fit into the beauty set.
Beauty Inc: Broadening the range of brands owned by and/or targeted to Black and POC consumers is a key area of focus right now for retailers. How do you think about diversity of assortment?
M.B.: We’re continuing to elevate the supply and demand of diverse products, whether [that means] diversity in ownership or targeted to consumers of color. Supply and demand allows us to sustain and accelerate instead of having a one-time flashpoint of a large amount of brands [coming in] that don’t do well. Our multicultural hair set, for example, is growing really really well and continues to get a lot of demand. As more consumers walk our textured and natural hair aisles, it affords us the opportunity to provide them with more products and diversity to our brand base so we can take more bets on Indie, Black-owned brands.
Beauty Inc: Does the “multicultural beauty aisle” needs to be rethought?
M.B.: It’s a balance between making it easy to shop our store and making sure customers of color don’t feel like they’re shopping a separate aisle. One of the questions I’m asking is, “Is this how the customer shops?” and “If so, is it because we’ve trained them or is there a better way to merchandise stores?” What we’ve tried to do online is pull away from having two separate shopping experiences. It’s a lot easier online because everything is driven by search—in store, people need to walk down the aisles and in a store like Walmart, if they can’t find what they need, they’ll just leave.
Beauty Inc: Your predecessor redesigned Walmart’s in-store space, and you come from an e-commerce background. How important is e-commerce right now in terms of Walmart’s overall beauty strategy?
M.B.: It’s interesting the way you asked about e-commerce. E-commerce is absolutely important, the consumer is shopping more and more on their phones. The term, though, is changing—the digital engagement of the consumer manifests in a variety of different ways. They could be shopping on their phone or laptop to pick up in-store [or curbside pick-up]. They could be shopping, kind of, traditionally for ship-to-home.
Beauty Inc: OK, so clearly we need a new word for e-commerce. What do you think it should be?
M.B.: I don’t think the term has been defined yet. I’m just conscious that as we talk about e-commerce, that defines the purchase part of the journey—but we’re really talking about the digital shopping journey. The shopping path is becoming one.