Beauty merchandisers have long been the gatekeepers of which brands make it and which do not, but their roles have changed thanks to the advent of social media.

Traditionally, competitive shopping in-store and trade shows defined the hunting ground for buyers and merchandisers, but the rise of Instagram has added another dimension to their discovery methodology. Clean beauty retailer Credo’s merchants consult with their social media director before onboarding a brand, and Kohl’s beauty merchandisers have begun working with Instagram and Facebook teams to find social media-first brands. Neiman Marcus has established a task force of employees for its Trending Beauty section that combs through Instagram to find brands, and Ulta debuted its Sparked platform in a similar vein.

Credo organizes its merchandisers by category, so there is one employee that focuses on skin and body care and another that is dedicated to hair care. However, despite this separation of categories, Instagram has moved the structure to be more horizontal than vertical. For example, a skin-care merchant might spot a cosmetics brand on Instagram and share it with the cosmetics merchant, who ultimately decides whether to bring the brand into Credo. In 2019, Credo brought on three brands that the team discovered through Instagram, including Corpus Naturals deodorant. Though common at Credo, historically, merchants have not operated this way, said Kristen Bertiglia, Credo merchandise and planning manager for hair and wellness.

“Coming from other corporations, retailers have usually been focused on having you stay in your lane,” she said. “Now there has to be a level of humility, because there is so much happening in beauty, and you can’t be an expert in everything.” 

For Bertiglia, she typically likes to follow influencers who are very different from her, such as Hannah Bronfman, in order to understand what they are using and what their beauty concerns are. Her colleague Oakjoo Lee, who is a merchandise and planning manager for skin care, said she typically follows hashtags like #cleanbeauty in order to immerse herself in a particular cultural trend. The whole team also works with the digital and social media teams, who are at the front lines of receiving direct messages from customers and new brands.

“Our world has become more intertwined with our social media director. We essentially pitch ideas to her on what brands are capable of doing on their own social media, and how we can work with them on social and marketing with us if they don’t have the budget,” said Bertiglia. “There has been more conversation about incorporating brands into our social strategy, given what they are doing on their own.”

Neiman Marcus also works closely with its social media team to identify potential new brand partners. The retailer started heavily relying on Instagram in 2017, which helped push the retailer to form its Trending Beauty section, driven by 20 millennial assistant buyers, merchandise planners and coordinators. In 2019, Neiman Marcus identified 50 brands on Instagram that the team then assessed for in-store distribution. There is not a formal method for how the team is meant to use social media to find brands, but the use of Instagram has increased how quickly Neiman Marcus can onboard a brand, said Kim D’Angelo, Neiman Marcus cosmetic buyer.

“We can get information more quickly and discover brands in more ways than we used to,” she said. “It has made it so we can discover a brand on Instagram today, talk to them by the end of the week and onboard them right after. We can also react to more trends quickly, but it has made it more challenging because there are more brands to sift through.”

The number of brands on Instagram has increased the volume of work for merchandisers, but each emphasized the need to discover the next big brand before another retailer. Bertiglia said the “rush of newness” that Instagram perpetuates has been beneficial for the customer, but she has had to be mindful not to lean into it as her only measurement.

“We have to make sure that a shiny and new brand has substance,” she said. “It has to align with our mission and standards first, so I have trepidations about solely using Instagram to find brands.”