If the idea of Walmart as a beauty hub seems new, then the expansion of the nation’s leading grocer’s beauty e-commerce business by Musab Balbale may be equally disruptive.
Balbale, the merchandising vp of omnichannel beauty at Walmart, has worked within consumer retail for the past 20 years and most recently has transitioned from wellness to the beauty space. This transition, which he said is “exciting” began when he had the chance to spearhead the beauty and health e-commerce businesses for Walmart in 2016. “[Beauty] combines considered purchases — those that are infrequent higher price points [alongside] daily regimen purchases. And [the consumer] is also looking to be inspired,” said Balbale on this week’s episode of the Glossy Beauty Podcast.
Within the last year, Walmart’s beauty team has “nearly doubled” the number of new brands coming into the beauty aisle by “[evolving] our stores to work in a new way to accelerate the freshness of our assortment on our shelves and to make it easier for the customer,” said Balbale. The ingenuity of products on Walmart’s shelves isn’t the only measure that the team has taken to increase customer engagement. They have also begun to step into the popular worlds of TikTok and livestream shopping, hosting their first live shopping event through TikTok in March.
According to Balbale, Walmart’s involvement with TikTok has to do with its new customer base: Gen Z. “This was the first live selling event on TikTok,” said Balbale. “We were striking the balance between showcasing products that you care about and talking about it in an authentic and genuine way, while also making it a selling event.” He said the ultimate goal was to “create energy in the industry.”
Along with their identity as “digital natives,” Balbale admits that Gen Z is “leading us to be more focused on inclusivity and equality,” a core value that the omnichannel beauty team has capitalized on through their selection of mission-driven beauty products.
The current political climate, with calls from the public for racial and environmental justice, has become “articulated in the beauty shelves” in the past 12 months, according to Balbale.
Walmart beauty’s new partnership with Uoma by Sharon C, a Black-owned, sustainable beauty brand from Sharom Chuter that is inspired by Gen Z, exemplifies the team’s push to “change how we engage the beauty community” through “diversity,” as well as “inclusivity, accessibility [and] sustainability,” said Balbale.
Uoma by Sharon “has pushed the boundaries on sustainability” by including vegan, eco-friendly and cruelty-free products within the line. Both the omnichannel beauty team and Chuter shared the desire to “bring these values that we all care more about now than we did pre-Covid and make them more accessible, both in terms of price point and physical reach to consumers.”
Also during the pandemic, Balbale said the beauty team translated to beauty products the “simplicity and convenience” of grocery pick-up. “We were conscious about making sure that the beauty products she was already purchasing were in front of her [and] easy for her to reorder,” said Balbale.
Balbale, who is tasked with bringing “a digital lens to the traditional brick-and-mortar retail,” has come to the conclusion that “our physical space offers a chance for discovery that is unmatched online.” So, Balbale and the Walmart beauty team will continue to develop the “storytelling part of retail” through digital media platforms like TikTok. However, it’s important to make observations and facilitate “behavioral targeting” of customers in physical stores, in order to make indie brands like Uoma by Sharon C “come to life in an authentic way at Walmart,” according to Balbale.
“The ethos of Gen Z squarely matches Walmart’s ethos. Our ability to drive access, our ability to drive value, our ability to talk to a diverse set of consumers again, on all dimensions, is part of what Gen Z is authentically passionate about,” said Balbale.
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
The storytelling part of retail
“From the beginning of retail, telling customers about what’s exciting has been the core of what we do. And as I understand it, there are key pillars to storytelling: There’s the story, there’s the medium, there’s a narrator, and there’s the amplification of that message. On the story itself, we have become more intentional about making sure that our stories are compelling, and telling a series of stories that are beyond just the traditional value story that we may have gone to market with in the past. We’re telling more stories about what’s new and what’s different. We’re telling more stories about the quality. And of course, we’re telling more seasonal stories that showcase what we have to offer, and [highlight] important moments like Mother’s Day and certain holidays. The second pillar is the medium. We’ve used traditional media, television, print and email, and those will continue to be important. But the number of canvases has expanded. We’ve got our on-site editorial pages, we’ve got a multitude of social channels — each of these works differently. We’ve got an emerging nonvisual channel, [like] Clubhouse and certainly what we’re doing here on the podcast. And each of these mediums is different in how the story’s presented and shared. TikTok is certainly an example where we’ve talked about how we’re trying to learn about these different mediums — their pillars, the narrator. Brands and retailers have always held the voice, and they’ll continue to hold the voice beyond the endcap we talked about or in terms of how a brand advertises. But, consumers now, through user-generated content, have a voice that they’ve never had before. Influencers, small and large, have these powerful voices. And we’re working more closely to make sure that our stories are coordinated across multiple narrators. And the final piece is amplification, because you can sort of imagine that, as mediums increase and narrators increase, that’s an exponential growth in the number of coordinated places you need to tell a story.”
Supporting the pace of brand growth
“In the second half of this year, we’ll double the number of new brands that we brought on all of last year. And in order to support that pace of brand growth, we’ve broken the process down into four steps. The first is what is the right number of stores and reach of stores for them, given where it’s at. And that includes both looking at the capabilities of the brand, in terms of their ability to make products and support the high unit velocity that Walmart requires, as well as who’s the right customer audience that already knows that brand so that when a customer walks into our stores, they’ve understood that they know the brand, they react to the brand and they’re more likely to put it into their shopping cart. The second part of our process is expanding our financing programs. We have a number of new programs that we’ve built over the last year to help smaller and minority-owned brands access capital. And we know this is a problem, especially for minority founders. The third is creating a community. We started with Beauty for Change, which is a nonprofit that piloted a program to help train, teach and mentor smaller Black-owned suppliers on their journey to larger retail, and we’re looking at how we can expand that for indie brands more broadly. And the fourth piece is doing more to showcase our indie brands. We are restructuring how our endcaps work to make it less cost-prohibitive for small brands to show up on our endcaps, to make it easier for them to make the level of investment they need to show up in our endcaps. We’re telling more of their story on their behalf through our social media channels and through our outreach. And we’re matching the energy that the brands bring to our stores with our own platform to expand the broadcast that they have. My ultimate goal is to make every single one of these brands successful. We are making bets on these brands. We’re not looking to churn through these indie brands. Rather, we’re looking to create a sustainable program for them.”
Establishing core values
“We’ve circled around words like simplicity, convenience, accessibility and delight. And to achieve those ambitions, our new structure allows us to follow the customer and not just the dollars. For example, our beauty customer, when compared to our average Walmart customer, is twice as likely to visit Walmart.com prior to purchasing in the store. And nearly half of these dot-com visits happened 24-hours prior to purchasing in the store. It’s a powerful insight. And it’s just the beginning. We know, for example, that half of the beauty touchpoints happen outside of our physical space and outside of our digital platforms. And we know that on those offsite spaces that the share of voice by brands is disproportionately held by smaller, indie-niche brands. And we started to measure the products and brands we’re bringing in not just on the traditional metrics of sales — the productivity — but we’ve also started to measure brands based on their ability to drive traffic and consumer energy. Put differently, we’re focused on three large goals. The first is offering an exciting assortment that drives traffic and sales. The second is evolving our experience to be a lot more simple and convenient, and a little bit more fun and delightful. And the third is to become better storytellers to build more meaningful relationships with our customers.”