Post-Sephora, JC Penney Cleans The Beauty Slate

After its long breakup with Sephora, JCPenney is rolling out a brand-new beauty department into more than 600 stores. The process has given the 120-year-old retailer time to approach beauty as -- more or less -- a blank canvas. Its new vision: dialed-up inclusivity, new brands to discover, and synergy with its salons.

Michelle Wlazlo, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, tells Retail Insider what the store hopes to accomplish.

Retail Insider: Who is your beauty customer these days?

Michelle Wlazlo: That's an easy one. Our beauty customer is our JC Penney customer. We keep saying, "We're here to celebrate and serve the diverse world of American families." That's what we're doing in beauty -- celebrating and serving those exact customers.

Retail Insider: With the departure of Sephora, you've got a virtually clean slate. What's that been like?

Wlazlo: A question I like to ask on any project is, "If you were starting the business today, what would you do differently?"

We started with customer research, not just those who already shop here, but those who don't yet. We've been in the beauty business a long time, well before Sephora. We had some assumptions. But our customers gave us the new positioning, saying, "I want to feel like I belong. I want to feel welcome at JC Penney." That's given us the courage to do something different in the industry.

It also helps that we have this amazing team. We've got 3,000 dedicated beauty associates and 5,000 stylists in our salon business. We've got a ton of embedded expertise.

Retail  Insider: Beauty is always the heartbeat of a department store -- the first thing people see when they walk in. How do you want them to feel in these new departments?

Wlazlo: Welcome. We want them to have a sense of discovery. The most important thing we've done is open up the space so it is fully integrated. You can wander out of beauty into women's apparel, then wander right back in. It's inviting.

Retail  Insider: You've announced new partnerships to add brands and a partnership with Thirteen Lune, an ecommerce platform for Black and brown-owned brands. How does that fit in?

Wlazlo: We knew from the beginning that we weren't going to say, "We must be X percent diverse." We must represent our customers; people have to be able to see themselves in the products we sell. This partnership with Nyakio Grieco, Thirteen Lune's founder, brings products that authentically reflect our customers. Skin color is important, but it is just one thing. It can be texture. It can be age. It can be budgetary.

These beauty brands may be from Black and brown founders, but they're for all customers. That's really important. We have to change the conversation. These founders aren't just doing products for people who look like them. It's not just one level of diversity.

Retail  Insider: You've introduced new tech tools, too, including partnering with Revieve, an AR skin diagnostic.

How does digital work into the new departments at a time when most young people first meet beauty trends on TikTok or YouTube?

Wlazlo: We've been on TikTok and Instagram, and we'll keep being there -- this is where people get inspired. We're using more video on our website, too. With Revieve, we're the first department store using these technologies.

We live in a world where people are doing more things on their own and being inspired at home. And you have to be where your customer is. I've used Revieve to buy foundation, and it's amazing the confidence it gives you in color choice. Plenty of people will still want to come into stores to try products with the help of our associates. But this helps people who want to do it on their own.

Retail  Insider: Has anything surprised you during the rollout?

Wlazlo: We started with a pilot of 10 stores, which let us work out operations. And it validated our thinking. Our customers want these advances. They want advanced skincare, with serums and masks. They want edible gummies that make your face look good. They're not just shopping for mascara, eyeliner and foundation. They want to talk about ingredients. That's given us more confidence in expanding our assortment.

Retail Insider: You have a large salon business. How do they connect?

Wlazlo: It's been fascinating to see the integration of our stylists with our beauty associates. They're learning about beauty products in the salon and hair products in beauty.

It's all the same -- all part of your regime.

Salon customers come in six to seven times a year. And 80% of them cross-shop.

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