Face to Face with Brown Beauty Co-Op

Kimberly Smith, founder of Marjani Beauty and co-owner of Brown Beauty Co-op told me, in an offhand way, that Brown Beauty Co-Op had been in its brick-and-mortar location for about eight months. It seems effortless, but it isn’t, not at all.

Retail space in Washington, D.C.’s famous Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue isn’t cheap or easy to come by. Flagship hotels like the Mayflower, luxury boutique women’s clothing stores like Rizik’s, and retail chains like Ann Taylor and Allen Edmonds are all within 200 hundred yards of this store, on the strip of Connecticut Avenue that stretches from Farragut North to Dupont Circle. And yet, this store is fully stocked, ready to welcome women of color and give them a personal tailored experience that they can’t get anywhere else. And it’s on a street that gets some of the heaviest foot traffic in the District.

“When it comes to me wanting to enter the beauty space on a business level, it was in 2017. My frustration level was [at] an all-time high. I felt that something has to be done where the amount of money I’m spending on products, but I’m not receiving equal amount of treatment when it comes to services and a welcoming in environment,” Smith told me in an interview. After having a frustrating experience trying to find a contour stick, Smith decided to open an online store and take it on the road around the country as a pop-up store. There was a lot of excitement, particularly when it came to selling foundation that closely matched darker women’s skin tones.

On Tuesday afternoon, when I walked in, the store was empty, save for the co-owner, Kimberly Smith, who also owns the beauty business brand Marjani. Kimberly Smith and her business partner Amaya Smith are best friends and entrepreneurs in the ethnic beauty space, and went into business together. The business partnership was an extension of the friendship, and they took their online store to a brick-and-mortar one. Kimberly Brown and Amaya both have their own businesses, Marjani Beauty and Product Junkie, respectively. Marjani focuses on skincare and makeup, and Product Junkie focuses on natural hair products.

I asked Kimberly why she was committed to an in-person experience, because it’s not necessarily a natural progression to go from an online store to brick-and-mortar. Many successful entrepreneurs leverage YouTube, Instagram, and other social media outlets to promote their products and build a loyal audience. But Brown was determined to not only make her products available for consumption, but to promote an experience that caters specifically to brown women.

“You can’t do everything online. It’s more transactional,” Kimberly said. “But [with] a brick-and-mortar space, you’re able to offer service and create more of an experience when someone comes into a store.” Marjani offers makeup services for individuals or groups, and occasionally closes the store for private parties or events.

I had to admit, a beauty store by and for women of color, especially African-American women was a totally new experience for me. I enjoyed exploring the space with neat rows of wonderful-smelling products, and I bought a charcoal face scrub. As a woman of color myself, I spent my youth and adolescence sorting through dozens of tannish shades of foundation and brownish lip colors, and even longer times spent looking for products for my hair. The closest I would get to getting recommendation would be flagging down a salesperson who was also black and asking in a sort of code, “what do you use on your skin/hair?” while making eye contact. I still occasionally ask black women what they use in their hair to this day. They’re never upset or think I’m forward when I do it. They get it. That kind of knowledge isn’t usually available in magazines and mainstream advertising.

It sounds funny, but it’s not. Black women’s beauty products have always been face-to-face, word-of-mouth sort of thing. Madame C.J. Walker, one of the first wealthy entrepreneurs, sold her hair products door-to-door and taught women how to style their hair. Communities of women share knowledge of best practices to style hair and which makeup products to use. After decades of using harsh chemicals to straighten hair, many black and Latin women are moving away from relaxants and to more all-natural products, but the demand for ethnic products remains high.

Black women spend nine times more on hair and beauty products than white women. It’s a built in market that’s not going anywhere, and is probably going to expand, as more millennials and Generation Z people identify as multicultural, and need specific products for their skin and hair. This also extends to trans women and nonbinary individuals as well.

Question to marketers: is there any segment that you may have overlooked? Who are they, where are they, and what is the best way to reach them?

(You can let us know in the comments below.)

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