Retailers Put Brands to the Test

Niche beauty retailers are moving beyond curation.

For years, curating assortments has been crucial to how retailers have differentiated themselves — picking the best items from brands, and offering them up to beauty shoppers in a mix meant to surprise, delight and differentiate.

But now, the most innovative beauty retailers are moving beyond curation, into vetting. “If you go back in time, curation is not necessarily new because that’s what specialty stores brought to the table,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president, industry adviser at The NPD Group. “Curation now is the same idea, but it’s much more targeted. It’s a deeper curation. The direction the market is going and the direction that the consumer is going toward is more value-based type trends that require more personalization.”

At the same time, the number of beauty brands is increasing exponentially, as the barriers to entry in the business have been lowered. The result: more products than ever, but also more consumer confusion. Increasingly, influential indie beauty boutiques around the country are differentiating themselves from larger retailers with a rigorous approach to what products make it onto their shelves. Those businesses, including Standard Dose, Violet Grey, Credo, Thirteen Lune and Shen Beauty, have started to dive deeper to vet the brands, founders and individual products they offer in order to meet the demands of that ever-evolving beauty shopper.

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New York City-based Standard Dose is known for its range of CBD and wellness items. Coming from the pharmaceutical world, Anthony Saniger, founder of Standard Dose, created his vetting process by implementing some of those pharma principles when determining if a product makes the cut. “There has to be a place that spends time vetting and ensuring the quality of the products,” he said. “Some retailers look at ingredients, but ultimately, it comes down to a buyer making a decision of will this product sell for our customer.”

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The first step for Standard Dose is deciding whether a brand elevates the conversation around plants and self care experiences like yoga mats and meditation cushions. Then the retailer looks at ingredients for known carcinogens, sustainability and ethical practices. They also request documents like liability insurance and ingredient testing.

“With ingredients such as palm oil, we ask for additional documentation and certification from the brand to ensure that it was harvested in a way that doesn’t harm the planet,” Saniger said. “Some ingredients don’t have great ethical practices. For example, a lot of the world’s supply of mica is mined for child labor. So we ask for additional documents on that ingredient. We also do our own independent testing, some of which are then sent to labs for third-party testing, where we look for things like pesticides and heavy metals.”

The final piece of Standard Dose’s process is focus group testing with at least five people, at most 50. “It’s an anecdotal focus group,” he said. “We’re looking at the messaging on the product packaging. If it claims that it’s going to help with sleep, did you sleep better? Did you sleep deeper? Did you go to bed easier? Did you stay asleep? Did you wake up in the middle of the night?” Standard Dose’s process is working. The retailer is up 10 times in order volume year-over-year. Top sellers include brands like Rae Wellness, Maude and Theragun.

Violet Grey, on the other hand, tests products in consideration with a committee of makeup artists, hairstylists, nail experts and aestheticians. This process is known as The Violet Code. [Editorial disclosure: The writer of this story previously worked at Violet Grey.]

Violet Grey taps into a variety of external experts to vet products. 

“The vision for Violet Grey was always about the cosmetics wardrobe,” said Cassandra Grey, founder and chief executive officer of the e-commerce company. “That’s how we’ve always approached merchandising, thinking about what fits into our customer’s routines. In the beginning, largely due to our curation, it was really hard for us to get the brands. Now, we’re working on auditing the edit and figuring out what we can trim down.”

That mission is evolving. Sarah Brown, executive director of Violet Lab, who joined Violet Grey in May, has been tasked to streamline the testing process. “Thus far, we’ve had amazing relationships with about 160 of the industry’s most talented artists and experts and it’s been pretty informal,” Brown said. “Moving forward, I’ll formalize that relationship, crafting new and elevated ways in which we will work with our committee members in order to engage more deeply with them. We are currently adding to our roster of experts and building out a powerful network.”

Brown and her team hunt down new innovations and the committee itself also presents the editors with their latest findings to inform the curation. “To earn The Violet Code seal of approval, it needs to receive 70 percent positive feedback from our pool of testers,” Brown said. “We give them a month to test and make sure that it’s a product that’s appropriate for them and the type of clientele they have. When products do fail, it’s important for us to pass on that feedback because we consider these brands our partners, even brands that don’t necessarily work with us yet.”

As retailers evolve their standards, beauty brands are navigating how to maintain their narrative when sold with multiple partners. “There is no [industry-wide] standard for clean,” said Ron Robinson, founder and CEO of BeautyStat, which is sold at Violet Grey and Thirteen Lune, among others. “So rather than trying to conform to each retailer’s definition, we focus on making sure that every ingredient we use is proven to be safe and effective.”

To that end, Credo has earned its reputation by creating a banned roster of ingredients known as The Dirty List and eco-conscious packaging standards that they require their brand partners to uphold. According to Elizabeth Albrecht, senior merchant, skin care and body care at Credo, these requirements quickly weed out a lot of companies inquiring to be sold at the retailer.

Credo’s standards are among the most stringent in beauty. 

“We started partnering with a third-party website called Novi,” she said. “Brands submit their formulations into this platform and they get either approved or not approved according to ingredients we allow.” Novi, which connects brands, manufacturers and suppliers to develop products that meet specific retailer values, allows the brand to look into alternatives and helps them become compliant.

Besides its clean formulation specifications, Credo also looks closely at packaging. “We’re looking for packaging that has a high percentage of post-recycled plastic,” Albrecht said. “The idea of recycling something when you’re done is not enough for us anymore. We want to see less plastic and less waste going into the initial product that you buy in the first place. We’re also done with single-use product sampling. A lot of our brands that we’ve recently brought in are using tubes that are made of sugarcane. And most brands are offering a refillable program.”

Albrecht noted some categories are completely off-limits for the moment, for example, nail care. “We want to avoid any chemicals for the time being,” she said. “We, the merchants, are the guinea pigs. And as long as they meet our qualifications, we review it.”

Exclusives are also a priority for Credo. Recently, they launched Kinship Super Melt Vegan Lip Jelly Mask exclusively due to its ingredient composition and packaging, a tube made of 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastic and a recyclable cap with PP plastic. According to Credo, the applicator is made of naturally hygienic silicone and the carton is made of mixed recyclable FSC paper.

Another important initiative for Credo is its recently launched program, Credo for Change, where minority-owned beauty businesses can submit their products for feedback. “It’s similar to an incubation program,” Albrecht said. “We’re helping these brands gain insight into what we’re looking for.”

Ellis Brooklyn, the clean fragrance brand which is sold at Credo, Sephora and Thirteen Lune, among others, loves when retailers give specifics and allows room to comment. “At the end of the day, we all have our own standards and beliefs,” said Bee Shapiro, the brand’s founder. “For the most part, there is consensus, but everyone has a different definition of clean, so we try to push forth proof and science when we can.”

Thirteen Lune, which launched in December and will reveal an upcoming shop-in-shop concept in J.C. Penney, abides by its 90/10 rule. Ninety percent of the products on its platform are created by BIPOC, Black and brown founders who formulate products for people of all colors. And 10 percent of its brands are dedicated to fostering allyship. “People buy into people before they buy into products,” said Nyakio Grieco, cofounder of Thirteen Lune. “A rich founder story and clean and non-toxic beauty are important to us.”

“Thirteen Lune is about the beauty of inclusion,” added Janelle Freeman, the retailer’s head buyer. “When looking at new products, we make sure we have a well-rounded assortment of brands representative of all cultures. And when it comes to our ally partners, it’s about moving the needle of diversity within their formulations and a commitment to serving all, including melanin-rich skin and textured hair.”

Thirteen Lune carefully vets brands for inclusivity as well as efficacy. 

Grieco cites Goop as an example of an ally brand. “Goop as a company, for me as a Black beauty founder, was one of the first retailers that got behind my brand Nyakio Beauty and operated as a true ally in my life before 2020,” she said. “We take into account, beyond the actual product assortment, how these brands are out loud about their desire to help move the needle for change and support what it is that we are building at Thirteen Lune.”

Shen Beauty, which has been tightly curating its assortment since it opened its doors in Brooklyn in 2010, looks at brands from the perspective of what they’re an expert in. “I don’t take the full assortment because not everything from every brand is always good or effective,” said Jessica Richards, founder of Shen Beauty.

The first thing Richards looks at is the packaging. “If it’s hideous, it’s not going to merchandise and customers aren’t going to be as inclined to pick it up,” she said. “Then I look at what is the story behind the brand? Is it something that is a white space in the store? Lastly, who’s the founder? If they’re difficult, it’s not worth my time. People want something to attach themselves to from an emotional standpoint. And it’s important to have a founder behind the brand.”

She also personally tries the products that come across her desk and then passes them to her staff to try since each has a different skin type, tone and texture. “I also dig into the inky list,” she added. “For example, hyaluronic serum. If I don’t see hyaluronic in the first three ingredients, I don’t care. Sometimes I’ll ask for percentages of certain ingredients to make sure that it is an effective product.”

Richards also stresses the importance of exclusives. In spring 2021, Richards launched Decree Skincare exclusively at Shen. The brand has gone on to launch at Net-a-porter and Cult Beauty. “Exclusives help drive business to my site,” she said. “I love partnering with somebody from the very beginning and seeing their trajectory. It’s like raising a baby, watching it bloom, and leaving the nest.”


Top Three Takeaways

  1. In the absence of industry-wide criteria for terms like “clean” beauty, many retailers are applying vigorous vetting standards to brands.
  2. From ingredient sourcing to founder story to, of course, efficacy, every aspect of a brand is under scrutiny today, by consumers and retailers.
  3. Vetting processes range from internal product testing to external assessments that gauge sustainability impact and ingredient efficacy.

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