J.C. Penney Co. Inc. has rebuilt its beauty business and is ready to run with it.
Ten “pilot” JCPenney Beauty shops will open inside Penney’s stores in mid-October, and on Oct. 15, the recast beauty assortment will debut on jcp.com.
Beginning in fall 2022, Penney’s will roll out the beauty shops to the rest of the 650-unit department store chain. The project is expected to be completed sometime in 2023.
An announcement is expected today.
“It’s been a year and a half of working on this beauty strategy and now we are only a couple of weeks away from launching in stores and online. It’s been pretty magical,” Michelle Wlazlo, Penney’s executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, said in an exclusive interview with WWD.
“At this point, we actually have more than 170 brands. Those are a combination of household names, cult favorites, indie brands, BIPOC [brands owned by people of color] and minority-owned beauty brands,” Wlazlo said. “We will have makeup, hair care, skin care, styling tools, fragrance, nail care, bath and body — all at various price points. About half of our beauty business is in masstige,” which is the tier fueling the most innovation, growth and experimentation. “The other half is split between mass and prestige.”
Penney’s had to remake its beauty business due to the phaseout of its 15-year-old partnership with Sephora that expires in late 2022.
As previously reported by WWD’s Beauty Inc, Thirteen Lune, the online platform selling Black- and brown-owned beauty brands, has entered into a partnership with Penney’s via shops-in-shop as part of the department store’s beauty push. Among the brands on offer are Buttah Skin, Bossy Cosmetics, Mischo Beauty, Pholk Beauty, Prados Beauty, Sara Happ, Spraise, Vernon François and Wander Beauty. The Thirteen Lune e-commerce beauty site, focused on showcasing diversity, was launched late last year by Nyakio Grieco, the founder of Nyakio Beauty, and Patrick Herning, founder and chief executive officer of size-inclusive 11 Honoré e-commerce website.
Partnering with Thirteen Lune added credibility to — and shined a light on — Penney’s emerging beauty strategy and has encouraged some other brands to do business with Penney’s as well.
Customers, too, “actually helped us build the strategy,” said Wlazlo. “We interviewed thousands of customers. They were loyal customers and customers that may not have shopped J.C. Penney as frequently as we would like. It was a broad spectrum. We heard over and over again, ‘I want more choice of price points and brands.’ They were really loud telling us they wanted more choice, in mass, masstige and prestige.
“There’s a really good balance. The most interesting thing is how much discovery our customers will have.”
Wlazlo said building the assortment was a “combination of our incredible team seeking out brands and quite frankly, brands seeking us out.…When you’re starting a new business, you bring in people with an entrepreneurial, curious spirit. I set the parameter of don’t put yourself in a box of what you thought we should carry. You should just explore, see what’s happening out there, and talk to people. There is so much creation and interesting founder stories out there. Even if they do one or two products, talk to them. I’m a big believer that big partnerships are important and small partnerships are important. That is what makes retailing so interesting. There is no set rule on how big a brand has to be, or how small it can be. We are really balancing a mix of household name brands and some new brands. It’s not one way or another.”
Penney’s chief merchant said the 170-brand count for the launch is just the beginning. “You will see in future seasons some additional brands.” Shopping Penney’s beauty department, added Wlazlo, “will be an ongoing discovery for our customers, for both known and some newer brands.”
Once Sephora ended its partnership with Penney’s, only to form a new one with Kohl’s, a direct competitor, a new beauty strategy urgently had to be developed. The competitive climate has been compounded by Target, another competitor, forming a partnership with Ulta. Both the Kohl’s-Sephora and Target-Ulta agreements were disclosed in December 2020, at which time Penney’s disclosed it had begun working on a new beauty scheme. That same month, Penney’s emerged from seven months in bankruptcy proceedings when the Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management bought Penney’s retail and operating assets.
Despite the pressing nature of the situation, “We have been very thoughtful,” Wlazlo said. “There was no cutting corners and or sense of ‘Let’s do this really fast.’
“When you see the physical space, along with online experience, you will actually understand not only the importance but the investment we put into a really superior shopping experience that demonstrates our commitment to our customers and this category.”
She described the in-store beauty shops environment as having natural wood tones, soft white coloring, windows that aren’t covered up so light flows in, and extended sight lines so that the beauty floor is visible from other parts of the store.
Wlazlo also said the JCPenney Beauty shops, as the department is called, will have “a unique position in the marketplace with the type of partnerships that we are doing and the brands that we are carrying.”
The 10 Penney’s stores piloting the beauty shops are both near cities and in more suburban sites across the U.S. “It’s a nice mix of store locations so we can learn from this pilot,” Wlazlo said. “This isn’t a test. It’s a pilot. We will learn if a brand (presentation) could be bigger or smaller, and learn if brands sell differently in certain markets. We will learn from the customer reaction. It’s really about getting all the learnings we can this year,” in advance of the big rollout beginning late next year.
Penney’s beauty shops will average approximately 2,000 square feet in size and be situated in the space vacated by Sephora. But as Wlazlo emphasized, “The beauty space is completely reimagined. It doesn’t look anything the same. It’s really hyper inclusive. We are very proud to say we are building a beauty business that fills our customers’ needs regardless of age, gender, race, skin tone, hair type, even beauty regime or budget. It’s really a strategy welcoming all customers — men, women, older, younger.”
Prior to Sephora, Penney’s stabs at the beauty business were generally unsuccessful. Penney’s salon business, on the other hand, has been consistently strong over the long haul. Consequently, Penney’s is creating a synergistic connection between beauty and the salons. “What you will see in our beauty space is that we tripled our footprint dedicated to hair care and a third of that will be for textured hair. Our customer wanted more choice in hair product.”
Penney’s beauty shops will have some exclusives such as Mirabella, a prestige brand, and Makeup Geek, a brand for customizing your own makeup kits. Some exclusive Korean beauty brands, and well-known brands like Revlon and Cover Girl, are also part of the mix.
Wlazlo acknowledged that rebuilding the beauty business was “a little nerve-wracking, but every day that passes, my confidence level that this is right for our customers just keeps growing.”
Among the services and perks, beauty experts will be trained to help customers find the right shade and instruct on the latest beauty tool.
Similar to JCPenney Salon, the new beauty business will participate in storewide discounts and Penney’s rewards loyalty program.
The 10 Penney’s stores that will be housing the pilot beauty shops are in Davenport, Fla.; Dearborn, Mich.; Greenville, N.C.; McAllen and Mesquite, Texas; Niles, Ohio; Springfield, Mo.; Saint Cloud, Minn.; Trumbull, Conn., and Whittier, Calif.