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‘Sephora kids’ and the booming business of beauty products for children

A social media firestorm is swirling around beauty retailer Sephora in response to the US locations’ apparent shifting demographic.

'Sephora kids' and the booming business of beauty products for children
‘Sephora kids’ and the booming business of beauty products for children

Teen and adult beauty shoppers have been uploading post after post on social media complaining that tween girls under 12 are flooding stores such as Sephora and Ulta Beauty. On TikTok and Instagram, the hashtags #sephora or #sephorakids reveal the conflict in full force, showing messed-up stores and product displays, and recounting run-ins in which young shoppers were rude to other customers and employees alike.

According to the complaints, this behaviour even includes grabbing products right from other shoppers’ hands, as one TikTok user shared. She specifically called out Drunk Elephant, a brand Glamour magazine recently called a “tween obsession”.

These same social media posts, many of which have gone viral, point out that Gen Alpha are busy buying products containing ingredients such as retinol, harsh exfoliating acids or pricey moisturisers, toners and serums designed to minimise the effects of aging. In other words, products that traditionally have been aimed at slightly older consumers.

Drunk Elephant, a self-described “clean beauty” brand acquired by Japanese conglomerate Shiseido in 2019 for $845m (£665m), responded to the attention by explaining on Instagram in December which of its products, specifically, would be recommended for kids.

As marketing campaigns and beauty influencers drive shoppers towards personal care products are children really flooding stores and hauling home all the hyaluronic acid their wee hands can hold, as social media users and apparent product popularity indicate?

“Yes, tweens are not only flooding Sephora stores, but they’re also making a lot of purchases of these products online,” says Denish Shah, an associate professor of marketing at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business. “This category, in general, is seeing a huge increase in sales.”

Shah points to California-based cosmetics brand e.l.f. A publicly listed company, e.l.f.’s stock prices have been “off the charts” lately, he says. Throughout the past year, e.l.f.’s stock price has surged 203%, per Marketwatch. And those soaring stock prices are a direct result of e.l.f.’s enormous sales growth.

“The company’s sales have increased exponentially over the past year, and that’s significant because they position themselves as really affordable cosmetics. And if you look at their marketing efforts, they’re all targeted toward that tween demographic,” says Shah.

Marketing to a younger demographic may merely correlate to this industry-wide growth, but Shah says the connection is there, and e.l.f. is but one example of the tween-cosmetics and skincare phenomenon taking place more broadly. Many companies in the beauty and skincare industry are targeting ever younger customers and raking in massive sales as a result, says Shah.

Data from Statista shows that the baby and child skincare market is expected to experience an annual growth rate of about 7.71% until in 2028, it reaches $380m (£299m) in market volume worldwide. Meanwhile, the number of product users is expected to reach 160.7 million worldwide by the same year. This isn’t just about young kids trying their mums’ creams, but an industry expanding to reach a broader age spread of consumers.

“The market is growing pretty rapidly. There are a lot of new brands launching specifically for tweenage girls,” says Jessica DeFino, creator of The Unpublishable, a newsletter behind the scenes of the beauty industry.

DeFino names several cosmetics and skincare brands that have launched in recent years specifically to serve not only tweens, but also younger demographics. Parents of toddlers may have heard of Yawn, a company that launched to offer make-up and skincare for customers who are aged 3+. Bubble, which bills itself as “new school skincare” offers acne and skin-texture products launched in 2020, and is now sold at Ulta as well as drug stores; Gryt, which launched in 2023, says its products are for tweens and teens but can be used by those as young as eight years old.

“I have seen an explosion of tween products,” says DeFino. “I’m also increasingly seeing girls younger than teens using adult products … From a business perspective, the marketing is there; these younger age groups are actively being targeted.”

And it’s not just the cosmetics-specific stores: US retailers including CVS and Walgreens have undergone renovations in recent years to put beauty products – including the types of cosmetics that are actively marketed to kids via cross-branding with favorite childhood books or TV shows – front and centre. Often, these general pharmacy stores are where kids have their first shopping experiences with their parents well before they’re old enough to head to Sephora alone.

Brands are marketing to tweens in multiple ways, continues DeFino. In addition to specifically creating those products designed to appeal to younger users, DeFino says there’s a proliferation of social media marketing aimed at young consumers. That includes witnessing a growing number of tweens, often “skinfluencers”, demonstrating how to use such products for their followers.

This is happening at a time when tweens have been spending increased amounts of time on social media since being cooped up during the pandemic.

They’re among the biggest consumers of some social media platforms, says Shah, founding director of Georgia State University’s Social Media Intelligence Lab. All that social media time is, in turn, exposing these young users to influencers paid by brands to use and promote beauty and skincare products. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms also feed this exposure, serving users recommendations about beauty tips and influencers after just a few searches on the topic.

Add to this mix the fact that tweens are known to be concerned about how they look – and you have the perfect storm. “Tweens are preoccupied with personal appearance. They’re very, very self-conscious in terms of how their growing bodies are going to turn out and about their developing self-identity,” says Shah. “There’s a lot of sensitivity around that and that’s existed for decades. And these two factors combined are what’s really driving the sales in these younger demographics.”

So are Sephora and Ulta stores being overrun by pubescent shoppers? Both brands declined to comment – but the youth-targeted product market is booming, and these products are sold in both.

And even if all the data pointing to the expanding pool of beauty consumers doesn’t tell us the ages of those buying up Drunk Elephant, Shah has something else convincing him of the substantial marketing shift in the beauty and skincare industry. And so do many parents.

“My own daughter has been impacted by this,” he says. “She asked for these products as a gift and she has never done that before, ever.”

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