In a World of Full Spectrum Foundation Ranges, an Ulta Shopper Is Told She Is 'Too Dark for Most Colors in the Store'

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It’s 2020, and after decades of greige, beauty brands across America now regularly stock over 40 shades to accommodate a wide range of skin tones. But as Ulta client Ebony Kankam London learned when she attempted to get her makeup at the beauty chain’s Holmdel, N.J. location in preparation for her baby shower, accessing those shades in-store continues to be a challenge.

“I brought in a picture for reference and was told that my skin tone was too dark for most colors in the store,” London said in social media posts following the Dec. 28 appointment, in which she documented the very murky results of her encounter with one of the store’s staff, writing:

So today at @ultabeauty in holmdel I went in to get my make up done for my baby shower. I brought in a picture for reference and was told that my skin tone was too dark for most colors in the store. So this was the best she could do. She then asked if I had ever gotten my make up done professionally. It was sad af. Like I felt like I was in 1990 when make up was made for one type of skin. In a store full of people who didn’t look like me I felt sad and upset. Like my skin tone was a problem. Thank god for make up like @fentybeauty and @lancomeofficial for being so progressive . But I honestly think #ultabeauty should give their make up artist some diversity training and teach them how to glamorize all skin types.

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Following London’s posts, which went viral, she says she was contacted by a Holmdel store manager “who is apparently biracial and witnessed the entire situation” alongside the corporate manager. However, neither manager intervened because they “didn’t want to make a big scene.” Instead, they allowed London to complete her appointment looking like this:

“I wanted to look and feel my best at 8 months pregnant at my baby shower,” London told The Shade Room. Obviously, that wasn’t the outcome. But when she called the store to complain the next day, she was offered a bag of sample lotions for her trouble.

I wish we could consider this an anomaly, but it reflects an unfortunate trend: As beauty brands have become more diverse in their offerings, shelf space within most beauty stores has neglected to keep pace, with store buyers forced to do their own form of racial profiling as they attempt to predict what will be most appealing to their customer base. For instance, as I experienced during The Glow Up’s Black-Owned Beauty Month (also known as Black History Month), asking for black-owned brands within the Ulta on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue prompted blank stares from the staff. While the offering and knowledge in my South Side neighborhood location is significantly better, I still struggle with finding my (light-to-medium-toned) foundation match in store, as brands sacrifice more nuanced shades to demonstrate that they hit both ends of the spectrum.

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Is this an excuse for London’s experience? Absolutely not. Shelf space costs money, but not democratizing the customer experience can cost revenue and brand loyalty. So, stores and brands need to get creative and collaborative in finding ways to ensure all of their customers have an affirming in-store experience; unlike London, who left feeling “like my skin tone was a problem.”

As Today noted, incidents like these are part of an ongoing learning curve for Ulta, which was accused last summer of encouraging racial profiling; a complaint made by both customers and past and current employees. At the time, Ulta issued a statement that read, in part: “These accounts are disappointing and contrary to our training and policies. We stand for equality, inclusivity and acceptance and strive to create a space that is welcoming to all...This is our responsibility and we take it seriously...We know it is about daily action and accountability.”

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In regard to London’s experience, Ulta issued the following statement on Thursday:

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Well, as we know, pretty is as pretty does—so let’s hope for some serious progress from the brand in 2020.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.