Aleta Wells, lauded by suppliers as one of the most-respected merchants in mass beauty retailing, will retire from Meijer on May 24.

This story first appeared in the April 25, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Wells, 63, leaves her role as buyer and merchandiser for beauty and nail care for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based, family-owned retailer after 42 years.

Wells started at the then 20-store Meijer company — which now operates 204 supercenters and grocery stores throughout the Midwest — as part-time summer help. Employment there turned into a career upon graduation when she found jobs “scarce.” Her majors in music and math proved the perfect mix of art and science, contributing to what vendors call Wells’ uncanny knack for spotting beauty blockbusters.

“Her wealth of knowledge and understanding of the beauty consumer has built an incredibly successful cosmetics category at Meijer,” said Shawn Haynes, vice president of sales for E.l.f. Cosmetics. “Her insight led to sustained growth in a highly productive cosmetic category. She tells it like it is and always knows what she is talking about.”

During her career, Wells expanded the cosmetics category well beyond tiny departments attached to the pharmacy to sprawling beauty boutiques that span upwards of 160 feet. She helped Meijer be among first to introduce Softsoap to the U.S. market, as well as be among the premier retailers to bring L’Oréal Paris to U.S. mass doors.

“Being first to market resonated with her,” observed Harvey Alstodt, president of MBA Beauty and a former executive with Del Cosmetics. “Some of today’s buyers should take a look at how she operated. That’s what is missing today, a willingness to bring new products in on a regular basis and support them,” he added.

“You can’t close your mind because you never know what the next Crackle might be,” said Wells, referring Sally Hansen’s special-effects nail polish. Wells also was among the first to support Revlon’s Virtual Violet collection. Virtual Violet made its debut about the time of Chanel’s iconic Vamp shade and the dark hues scared off some buyers. “We really got behind it with endcaps and sold thousands of products,” Wells recalled. Another big hit was adding OPI to the mix. “It was magic, we started getting shoppers who never shopped us for beauty buying two or three bottles,” she recalled. “It had a halo effect on all cosmetics.”

Her advice to those in beauty is to have a passion for the business. “With cosmetics you either hate it or love it. You are never bored,” she quipped.

One vendor said, “There’s only a few of these true beauty merchants left. The new buyers just use numbers and data. The skill is fading.”

Wells and her husband, who have two grown children, are fans of nostalgic cars and hope to journey along Route 66, as well as enjoy their lake cottage. Wells also plans to focus on one of her first loves, the violin, by performing more often in the local orchestra and symphony.

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