While 4th Ave Market has all of the contemporary D2C branding and marketing boxes checked, this e-retail platform for hair, beauty and personal care products for consumers of color goes back more than a century for its business model. At the height of the Jim Crow era, the 4th Ave district in Birmingham, Alabama was a hub of Black American-owned businesses where communities of color built and supported a thriving economy. These were businesses that both gave and got support from their own community. Launched in late 2019, 4th Ave Market sells over 7,000 products and positions itself as an alternative to traditional retail outlets that have underserved a consumer base that represents massive spending. 4th Ave promotes Black-owned manufacturers and has a series of partnerships with nonprofits to reinvest in the community.
Co-founder and CEO, Salim Holder, brings to the venture years of experience with legacy brand building for Pernod Ricard, Kimberly Clark and Prestige Brands. But he brings out of history a very simple lesson for all of the high profile brands that are now chasing after “meaning,” and it comes right out of the legacy of 4th Ave: Don’t “leverage” community, invest in it.
MediaPost: What has been the main challenge for communities of color within the hair, skin and personal care segment of the market?
Salim Holder: Black consumers themselves spend over $2 billion a year just on the hair care products, but we own 7% of the stores.
We're forced to go into stores that don't have what we want.
Typically these traditional stores have the little four-foot section called the “ethnic” set, and that's in most major retailers. And the brands in these large companies don't get a lot of support, don't get a lot of innovation. So as a result, more likely than not, consumers don't go to that shelf, and they end up going to stores in our community that don't tend to be owned by people from the community.
You can hear countless stories of being followed around the store, of
people just being disrespected in the store. At the end of the day, when it’s consumers spending this much money a year, $2 billion dollars, to be faced with the
option to choose between stuff that you don't want and places where you're not wanted, it has become a real issue for the community.
We saw this gap, and we said, nobody's talking to this consumer in an authentic way that's actually giving back to the community as well. And then there are consumers just sitting here like, “I just want products that work, and I just want to buy in a good environment where I feel comfortable,” and that's all they want.
But to see that there's so much struggle to do that, it was just kind of eye-opening for me, just two years ago, to think that this is still such an issue around the country.
MP: Your site claims about 7,000 or more products for sale. How many individual manufacturers or sellers does that represent?
Holder: I looked as this as something that could easily be a one-stop shop. We can have major products. We have Dove. We have Shea Moisture.
We also, though, have been really aggressive going after these smaller niche specialty brands that are targeting this particular consumer. So those smaller
brands that are just starting up, some of those brands that are specialty niche brands that have been
talked about by influencers, talked about on Instagram. We brought on 20 brands already just in the last two months -- 20 black-owned brands.
MP: How did you discover all of these manufacturers yourself?
Holder: We've recognized there's a unique way the black community connects and operates, and there's what we call points of trust that exist in that community. Points to trust being somewhere from the HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] to the black churches to the barbershops and the salons.
There are historic reasons why these have evolved to take on a different point of presence in this black community. We found we can tap into those different communities. These people may be nurses, they may be lawyers, doctors, but on the side, they're like, “I need to make something for myself.” They stumbled into a great product. How do I get it off the ground?
Here comes 4th Ave Market to give them not just shelf space, but also tools and experience. We've given free training for marketing, and so
we're really about uplifting these businesses to be able to get there.
The other side was to understand that point of tension that really exists with this community. We had over 100 people that had reached out in the first month that said, we want to put our products on your shelf.
MP: So on the other end, what does the media plan look like for building this brand and reaching your consumers?
Holder: We started in November 2019. I used Facebook and Instagram ads. I recognized the opportunity to leverage the community through social media, through content marketing, using influencers to be able to get just the main message out there.
We found affiliate marketing publisher links in different media publications can be really effective and have been effective for us. Also working with affiliate marketing, again, in this community, working with commissions for barbers and stylists for those in the community who are already passing along the message. Now I'm giving you an incentive to talk about it, to drive them back to our site, and so that has also worked really well for us.
MP: Are there other business segments beyond beauty and personal care that you think this alternative ecommerce channel
has potential in?
Holder: Definitely, I think the way that we're building the model as based on the community-powered commerce that reinvests back into the community -- there's a ton of different products and services that can be served through this model.
Health and wellness is a big one. When it comes to media -- when I think about books -- I think about even like kids’ books, for example. I have a seven-year-old son and I have a two-year-old daughter, and when I look at what they watch on TV or the books they read, there’s still a huge opportunity to have more representation and for them to see themselves.
But there are books out there, there are
movies out there, but again, individually you've got to go to one site at a time, you've got to find them. And so there's an opportunity to consolidate that, so that this consumer can see
the choices they have in one place. And I think the same thing, even with health and wellness, there's different outcomes that we can help the community to achieve better, even more than just buying
products, but even with information, too.
MP: There's another point I'd love you to address about this idea of building brands with meaning, brands that give back. As you look around and you see all these other legacy brands “market with meaning” now, what do you have to say to them about doing this authentically rather than just checking another box?
Holder: I think that at the end of the day, we're building our business on this principle of, there needs to be an exchange of value. So when we think about anytime you want to get somebody to take an action, to buy your product, to listen to your conversation -- you have to give them something of value.
A lot of times companies think, oh, I'm going to give them this little discount, but consumers are looking for much deeper value than that. They're looking for something that has more meaning. If we rewind back and think about even in 2008 when the economy started coming crashing down, and People’s parents and grandparents were losing their pensions. They work 40 years, and then just as they're about to retire, the whole economy comes crashing down, and they have nothing left over.
And what does that say to people who are graduating school that are looking and thinking, how do I live the rest of my next 40 years of life?
And so, as a result, I think this new generation has taken this mindset of, I actually want to have the company that cares about me, businesses that care about the community, because they just saw what happens when there are companies who don't care about anything except for making more money.
And so, for those businesses and brands that are truly focused on bringing value, it has to be deeper than, “Oh there's a Black Lives Matter movement, what can we say for the black community? Let's give someone a check, let's give something free.” It's got to be a deeper conversation about how we can deliver value, not just to the black community but to the LGBTQ community, to women, to communities of color, to whomever.
But how do we deliver something of value and not just be about ourselves? And I think when we really truly look through that lens, the conversations internally are going to be different, too. I think that as a result, what we're doing is, we're trying to build something that is from the community, of the community.
We don't believe that profits and purpose have to be mutually exclusive. We feel we can make a ton of money and have purpose at the same time, and elevate
the community while we do it.
That's what 4th Ave is about. We started this from the bottom up. I'm trying to build that into the culture, the fabric of who we are. As we get value, we give value. As we give value, we should get value back, and so that's what I think I would say to those brands.