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JCPenney Beauty brings BIPOC-founded brands into focus

An unrenewed contract with Sephora forced the Texas department store chain to find its own way into the competitive retail beauty business.

When Sephora announced that it was leaving 650 J.C. Penney stores, Penney had to reinvent the wheel.

The Texas-based department store chain needed a new beauty concept — and it had to do it while dealing with a pandemic and a bankruptcy reorganization that gave it new owners.

JCPenney Beauty debuted this week on jcp.com and in 10 Penney stores, including two in Texas at Town East Mall in Mesquite and La Plaza Mall in McAllen.

Sephora has already opened inside 150 Kohl’s stores. Penney’s big rollout will be in the second half of 2022 as the Sephora contract ends, said Penney’s chief merchandising officer, Michelle Wlazlo.

JCP Beauty is a light and bright section of the store that’s organized in a way that shoppers continue to discover something new around the corner.

Wlazlo was committed to creating a beauty department that represented Penney’s diverse customer base. The depth of product was as important as the makers of the brands. Penney’s new beauty concept is giving many indie brands their first foray into retail.

In the wake of last year’s George Floyd killing and summer of protests, consumers had come to demand brand diversity and inclusion. Wlazlo had some help with that from experienced beauty executive Nykaio Greico.

The stories of indie beauty brand entrepreneurs appear along the shelves in the new JCPenney Beauty concept.
The stories of indie beauty brand entrepreneurs appear along the shelves in the new JCPenney Beauty concept. (Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Greico created her own skin care line, nykaio Beauty, almost 20 years ago. It’s now owned by Unilever and sold at Target, and Greico helps entrepreneurs navigate the crowded beauty business as a co-founder of Thirteen Lune, an inclusive e-commerce site created last year.

Thirteen Lune brought 39 lines to the Penney mix, all fresh new brands and 90% of them BIPOC-founded brands.

BIPOC, an acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color, is a hip term for a 119-year-old department store.

“Rooted in inclusivity, JCPenney Beauty grew out of direct feedback from our customers,” Wlazlo said.

Of Penney’s beauty assortment, Wlazlo says, “It’s America.”

One of the new brands featured at JCPenney Beauty is Las Cruces, N.M.-based Prados Beauty. Founder Cece Meadows has a cultural background that hadn’t been represented in the beauty business.

JCPenney Beauty debuts at the retailer's Town East Mall store in Mesquite with 170 brands, including exclusives Makeup Geek and Mirabella, shown here displayed at the department's entrance.
JCPenney Beauty debuts at the retailer's Town East Mall store in Mesquite with 170 brands, including exclusives Makeup Geek and Mirabella, shown here displayed at the department's entrance.(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

“I am so proud to be the first Xicana and Indigenous-owned beauty brand sold in a big retailer and that our customers can walk into a megastore and purchase our products easily,” she said. “Accessibility is key.”

Meadows is an Army wife who said that in her family’s multiple moves there was always a familiar J.C. Penney store nearby. She worked in finance jobs before starting her company and said her office wardrobe was Penney’s Worthington.

JCPenney Beauty’s assortment of 170 familiar and new brands includes products for women and men in makeup, skin care, hair care, styling tools, fragrance, nail care, and bath and body products, with prices ranging from mass market to prestige.

The mix includes some exclusive brands, such as Makeup Geek and Mirabella. And established brands like Buttah and Vernon Francois also said yes and support Penney’s new effort.

The stories about JCPenney Beauty’s Thirteen Lune brands, which also include founders with backgrounds from Southeast Asia and Eastern Asia, are displayed on the shelves.

Many of the brands that are sold on Greico’s Thirteen Lune site are based on family traditions. Greico learned from her coffee-farming grandmother in Kenya, who shared her skin secrets with her of using restorative oils.

Greico wants to make it easier for entrepreneurs to get to market.

“I launched my first brand when I was in my 20s. It took me 18 years to succeed with so many challenges for a woman of color. It was harder to get on shelves,” she said.

While 90% of Thirteen Lune brands are created by “Black and Brown founders, the products resonate with people of all backgrounds,” Greico said. She remembers a rejection early on because her skin care brand was for a certain skin tone.

She shot back: “I’ve used products not for Black women my whole life.”

Greico says she’s determined not to go back. “I’m now seeing the doors open and I’m so excited about this partnership with Penney, which stands for something authentic,” she said. “This is a place of true discovery. Beauty can’t go backwards now with segregated aisles.”

In its last full year as a publicly traded company in 2019, J.C. Penney’s women’s accessories, including Sephora shops, represented 13% of its total sales of $10.7 billion. Post-bankruptcy, the company is much smaller after more than 150 stores closed permanently.

Wlazlo joined Penney as chief merchandising officer in early 2019 and is one of a few of the retailer’s senior executives who have bridged the old Penney with the new owners. Penney was acquired last year as part of its bankruptcy reorganization by mall owners Simon and Brookfield.

She’s also been the face of the brand. Penney’s interim CEO and chief investment officer at Simon, Stanley Shashoua, stays under the radar.

Wlazlo has introduced multiple brands in home and apparel over the past year as the corporate staff worked from home and in temporary office space in a former Penney store in Lewisville.

Penney no longer reports earnings, but Wlazlo said, “We’re doing extremely well. We have a loyal customer base.”

With JCPenney Beauty, Penney is trying to stand out in a hyper-competitive environment. Ulta, which operates 1,250 stores, said this week that it plans to build 50 stores a year, including a smaller concept, and will have 100 shops inside Target stores by year’s end. Already, Kohl’s has 150 Sephora shops up and running and will eventually expand that to 800 stores.

Beauty retailers are also highlighting their diversity efforts. Ulta’s CEO, Dave Kimbell, has aggressively moved the company to sell more “Black, Latinx and Asian founders,” and Ulta recently worked with Modern Salon to style the first transgender cover model.

J.C. Penney's new beauty department at Town East Mall in Mesquite.
J.C. Penney's new beauty department at Town East Mall in Mesquite. (Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Sephora said this summer that it is adding more Black-owned brands and that those companies now represent 15% of its social and digital marketing content.

But while Penney is the new kid in beauty, following a 15-year relationship with Sephora, its partnership with Thirteen Lune makes it on trend in its support of BIPOC founders.

Prados founder Meadows got to see the new beauty department in Penney’s Whittier, Calif., store last week and said Penney is “amplifying and giving space — real space — to BIPOC brands.”

“It’s innovative and creating real change in the retail world,” Meadows said.

Twitter: @MariaHalkias

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Maria Halkias, Staff writer. Maria Halkias has covered the retail scene for The Dallas Morning News since 1993. She has chronicled the stark changes in grocery, malls, e-commerce, major bankruptcies and local retail entrepreneurs.

mhalkias@dallasnews.com /maria.halkias @MariaHalkias mariahalkias LinkedIn Iconhttps://www.linkedin.com/in/MariaHalkias
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