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Nordstrom Is Betting On Natural Beauty

Department stores need help, and this could be the answer.

A beauty event at Nordstrom.
Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images

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Nordstrom just announced that this month it will open “natural beauty outposts” in 46 of its brick-and-mortar stores, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Charlotte, Chicago, and Seattle, and it will likely expand to other markets. This means part of the beauty floor will be devoted to so-called natural brands, which Nordstrom is loosely defining as not containing parabens, sulfates, or phthalates. There is also a separate menu for natural beauty on the retailer’s website.

The brands Nordstrom will sell under this new category include some they already had, like Alterna, Bare Minerals, Butter London, Eve Lom, Julep, RMS, and Tata Harper. New brands include Herbivore, Youth to the People, Raffaele Ruberto Skin, Plume Lash & Hair Science, KNC Beauty, and Lanolips.

(I think it’s important to note here, as I do every time I write about natural beauty, that “natural” is essentially a meaningless word that’s not regulated by any agency or governing body. However, it’s come to loosely define products that generally avoid ingredients that are controversial, like parabens.)

It’s not a secret that department stores in general and their beauty departments specifically are suffering, as evidenced by data in a recent Bloomberg report. But beauty sales in general are actually booming — so department stores are getting creative to harness that momentum. Macy’s, for example, bought indie beauty store Bluemercury and opened up outposts in a few dozen of its department stores. It also brought Peach & Lily, a Korean beauty specialty shop, into a few Macy’s locations. JC Penney had the good sense to open small Sephora shops in its department stores several years ago.

But these stores are still competing with online-only entities like Net-a-Porter, whose luxury beauty department has been growing, as well as direct-to-consumer sites like Revolve, which just added a beauty assortment. Then there are stores which are becoming newfangled department stores in their own right, like Anthropologie, and offering expanded beauty selections. Just selling individual brands at separate counters is no longer enough, and indeed, is probably hurting department stores.

Enter natural beauty. As Nordstrom cited in a press release, natural beauty sales are expected to exceed $13 billion by 2018. Freestanding natural beauty store chains like Credo and Follain are growing, and Target, Sephora, and Ulta all carry robust lines of so-called natural products. But they’re not necessarily marketed separately and distinctly as such in stores; customers need to seek them out.

So it’s smart of Nordstrom to highlight these brands together in one section to make it easier for the consumer — who’s clearly hungry for this category — to find them. Nordstrom is already doing better than most of its department store competitors, thanks to a combination of top-notch service and compelling brands. Time will tell if natural beauty will help it even more. It certainly can’t hurt.