Is the ethnic aisle outdated? As texture becomes mainstream, segregated hair products are losing relevance.
Chanel Schenck is an African-American woman with curly-coily hair. When she looks for hair care products, you won’t find her in the ethnic hair care aisle. She gravitates toward brands like Paul Mitchell, L’Oréal Paris and Aussie for her cleansers, conditioners and styling products when she shops at Walmart or Ulta.
“I really don’t buy anything in the ethnic hair care section because it doesn’t really help my hair,” says Schenck, who lives in Jesup, Georgia.
This purchasing trend is slowly changing the way hair care products are being sold, with a movement by both brands and some key retailers away from shelves dedicated to “ethnic” products. This trend has been led by curly and coily-haired consumers, as well as the growing number of brands that sell products specifically for their hair types. It also has been spearheaded by organizations such as NaturallyCurly.com, which has focused on hair texture rather than skin color since the social media company was founded 15 years ago.
“Since day one, we always talked in terms of texture type, and how best to embrace curls, coils and waves,” says Michelle Breyer, president and co-founder of TextureMedia, which includes NaturallyCurly, CurlyNikki, CurlMart, CurlStylist andTextureTrends. NaturallyCurly’s 1.6 million unique monthly visitors include a wide range of ages and ethnicities, and use the nine category texture typing system—from 2a to 4c—to find the best products and stylists for their hair.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are; it’s about what texture you have,” said Mahisha Dellinger, creator of the CURLS line of products. “So many people of different ethnicities buy my products. Obviously the lines are blurred.”
This trend has been fueled further by plummeting relaxer sales as more consumers embrace their natural hair texture. According to Wave III of TextureTrends' market insights report, 90% of women are more likely to wear their natural texture than they were five years ago. “The new general market dictates that hair care be categorized by hair type and concern rather than ethnicity,” says Richelieu Dennis, founder and CEO of Sundial Brands, which owns the SheaMoisture brand. “America’s increased blending of cultures means that millions, whose backgrounds defy simple categorization, need efficacious products for their curls, coils and waves.”
TextureTrends' research supports this: All texture types include a variety of ethnicities, with an increasing number of people identifying themselves as multi-racial.
Helping lead the charge are retailers like Ricky’s, a New York-based beauty supply chain, and Target, a mass retailer with more than 1,900 stores in the U.S. and Canada. Since 2008, Target has partnered with some of the top brands for textured hair, adding SheaMoisture to its shelves in 2008, Miss Jessie’s in 2010, Mixed Chicks in 2012 and Camille Rose in 2013. The retailer now carries a number of favorites among the curly and coily consumers—multi-racial consumers who span all ethnicities.
“We monitor guest feedback, census data and market research to help us identify multicultural trends,” says Courtney Foster, spokeswoman for Target. “In response to increasing demand by our guests, Target is committed to growing this category and expanding beauty aisles with a differentiated product mix that appeals to a wide range of guests. We understand that every guest is unique, so we strive to offer differentiated and relevant beauty solutions that meet the needs of all guests and provide solutions for specific hair needs, but not make distinctions about ethnicities in doing so.”
Sundial’s Dennis said it makes business sense to merchandise and market this way, as 65% of the world has textured hair. He notes that his brand worked closely with Target when they first went into the store to help them understand this new textured-hair space, as well as to create the education and engagement around it that would appeal to this new, inclusive general market. “Women and men from all walks of life have textured hair, and placing hair care for textured hair in an ‘ethnic hair’ section creates confusion for consumers who feel that they can’t use these products because they’re not a particular ethnicity,” Dennis says. “Making the section about hair type and concerns supports a more therapeutic, results-oriented, less myopic approach that’s all about hair care needs.”
Usage of hair products for textured hair supports this strategy. The TextureTrends report finds brands that might once have been considered ethnic products—such as Carol’s Daughter, Organic Roots Stimulator, Miss Jessie’s and As I Am—are now used by women with wavy, curly and coily hair of all ethnicities.
Dennis believes there will come a time when the ethnic hair sections of stores may be phased out altogether. To many consumers, especially younger consumers who are increasingly wearing their hair in natural styles, these ethnic aisles are viewed as a dinosaur, selling relaxers and products that cater to straightened hair. “We believe eventually, all hair care will be segmented according to hair type rather than the color of one’s skin,” Dennis says.
This is a no-brainer for Marsha Coulton, the African-American creator of the Curl Junkie line of hair care products. “It’s how it should have been in the beginning,” says Coulton. “It should always have been about solutions rather than segregated—something I always found offensive. I shouldn’t have to search for the right products.”
Coulton notes she believes there may be resistance to the phasing out of ethnic hair care sections because it’s the way it’s been done for generations. “It’s a daunting task to rethink it,” she explains. “You’re changing an entire mindset about product placement.”
Among those who believe this is Sam Ennon, who heads up BOBSA, a leading trade association for black-owned beauty supply stores, salons, barbershops and training institutions. He doesn’t think the black consumer is the same customer as the curly/coily customer. “The ethnic sections of stores won’t disappear,” he says. “You’re still going to need black stores that carry all of the other products. You can’t integrate all those products into the general market.”
But many brands, retailers and consumers believe integration of products for textured hair is inevitable. “It opens up products to all customers because there’s no stigma attached,” says Coulton. “This is not about being black and white. It’s about breaking down barriers as more people embrace their natural texture and texture becomes mainstream.”Michelle Breyer is the president and co-founder of TextureMedia, Inc. Find more information on TextureTrends here.