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Iman’s Message to the Mass Market

Ethnic beauty can’t be confined to part of a cosmetics wall that changes infrequently, nor confined to a handful of doors in urban areas.

Iman has a major message she’d like to deliver to the nation’s mass-market channels: ethnic beauty can’t be confined to part of a cosmetics wall that changes infrequently, nor confined to a handful of doors in urban areas.

It’s a lesson she learned firsthand — as a model who is a woman of color, and then in seeking to place her cosmetics line in mass-market distribution.

Iman started out in J.C. Penney in 1994, in 400 doors, building the brand to about $25 million in sales by 1996 and selling in Penney’s and Sephora. After a restructuring at Penney’s, Iman Cosmetics found itself entering the mass channel in 2004 and, later that year, inked a distribution deal with Procter & Gamble Co.

Iman quickly learned mass operates differently than prestige. “It was this struggle of trying to find a way to exist in this new arena that I had no intention from the beginning to enter anyway,” she said.

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Her biggest surprise? “In mass, it’s all on walls, and skin care isn’t marketed with color — and I didn’t understand that it was if they have 1,000 doors, 200 are for women of color,” she said, adding that she takes exception with mass retailers allocating “for you the doors that they think your customer is. I mean, I think, personally, if a black woman or a black family or a Latina family is shopping in your pharmacy, in a Walgreens or a Target, she probably would buy the cosmetics line if it was there.”

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Trying to secure that distribution has been a challenge; while mass retailers sell her brand online, it is in limited store distribution. “I approached the players — Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens — and everybody knew about the brand and how successful it was, so everybody said yes to it,” said Iman. “But then there was this, ‘Oh we’ll test it.’ Like I just started, like there was no customer base for it. I tried to make them understand that I didn’t want to be tested in the whole of the U.S. — especially where we were very strong and where we were already at J.C. Penney’s, because those customers would need to be serviced.”

Overall, she said, “It was a no-go. They wanted me to be placed at the back, which they considered, like it is, for the ethnic section, which I was totally against it for no other reason but ’cause also I never considered myself an ethnic brand.”

“I honestly can tell you that the people are desperately looking for brands that they can believe in right here, right here at home,” Iman said to applause from the room, adding that a large percentage of her current business is done online. “There is growth right here, if only the retailers understood it. I have customers from all over the world that look for the products, but I also have customers in the U.S. that can’t find the product in a store near them.”

One particular opportunity for growth is foundation, a challenging category for many women of color, and a category that accounts for 75 percent of her overall sales, she said.

“Last year, I decided to create a liquid foundation, which I have been told numerous times by the retailers, ‘Oh, black women don’t buy liquid foundation,’ right?” she said. Rather than do a typical beauty-editor breakfast, she invited 40 beauty bloggers to an event and introduced the line to them that way. Within three months, the foundation was the number-one product in her brand, she said.