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Amazon made a skin care line based on what users search for

When it comes to face products, shoppers often search for ingredients, not brands.

Belei, Amazon’s new in-house skin care line.

On Amazon, you can find thousands of items in any given category. This isn’t always a good thing; it can feel like diving into a black hole. Take two things I recently searched for: “white bathrobe” gave me 4,000 results; “spatula” returned 20,000. Those are fairly straightforward products, and it took me many minutes and way too much soul-searching to narrow it down. I still have buyer’s remorse about the bathrobe I chose.

Now imagine you want a decent moisturizer for a good price; it’s infinitely more complicated.

A moisturizer isn’t just a moisturizer anymore. People have become a lot savvier, thanks to forums like Reddit’s /r/SkincareAddiction and Instagram, and robust media coverage of the intricacies of skin care. Affordable brands like Deciem’s the Ordinary have helped democratize skin care and increase ingredient awareness. As a result, shoppers are looking for hyaluronic acid, retinol, vitamin C, and peptides now — they expect brands to talk to them about ingredients. Product descriptions often include these keywords and tout the benefits.

For a person who may have heard that vitamin C can supposedly impart a glow, but who may be on a budget or is not plugged into the skin care zealot community, Amazon is often the first place they turn. And like every other category on the site, the field has become increasingly crowded. If you search for “vitamin C serum,” 10,000 results for almost identical dropper bottles pop up. The most popular one, by TruSkin, has more than 6,400 reviews as glowing as it claims to make your skin.

Amazon is increasingly seeking world domination in every conceivable category. It now has more than 135 private-label in-house brands. (Private label means a brand that a retailer produces itself, like Whole Foods’ 365 brand or Target’s Cat & Jack kids’ clothing line.) But Amazon’s in-house brands only account for 1 percent of its total sales, according to a Marketplace Pulse report. That means there is a lot of potential for Amazon to grow brands that ultimately make the company more money. Enter Belei, its new skin care range.

Belei is pronounced like “belay,” the rope system used in rock climbing to prevent people from falling off cliffs. The unorthodox “e-i” vowel combination here is a bold move for the company, but then again, it also just launched a makeup brand for its UK market called Find, a truly bewildering choice. (“Alexa, find Find.”)

Skin care is popular, which is why Amazon is doing this. According to the NPD Group, high-end skin care sales grew a whopping 13 percent in 2018, compared to makeup’s more meager 1 percent growth in sales. Amazon currently takes an 8 to 15 percent commission on outside brands’ sales, depending on the category, according to John Ghiorso, the founder and CEO of Orca Pacific, a consulting company for brands that want to sell successfully on Amazon. Selling its own beauty brand directly to consumers would mean much higher margins for Amazon, though there are high costs associated with launching a brand. But Amazon already has the distribution, warehouses, and shipping firmly in place, a hurdle that more traditional beauty brands need to overcome.

Products range in price from $9 for a two-pack of micellar water face wipes to $40 for serums. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s not inaccessible either. The price range seems to fall squarely in the middle of the skin care products currently sold on Amazon. Neutrogena’s makeup wipes, a best-seller on the site, are also about $9 for two, while the popular Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair serum is $88.

The 12-product range features buzzwords that anyone even casually aware of skin care will probably find familiar. There’s a vitamin C/vitaminE/ferulic acid serum, a combination popularized by the classic $160 SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic, which is currently embroiled in a patent lawsuit with Drunk Elephant. Hyaluronic acid (perhaps most recognizable for the Eva Longoria ad where she carefully pronounces the phrase) and vitamin C are included in several of the serums and moisturizers. There’s a dark spot-correcting serum with niacinamide and an acne spot treatment with benzoyl peroxide.

They are all formulated with the “free froms” that consumers demand now: free from parabens, phthalates, sulfates. The products aren’t tested on animals. The outer packaging is recyclable. The formulas aren’t luxuriously scented in expensive containers, but the ones I tried (Amazon sent me comped samples) were functional and pleasant.

While Amazon did not make anyone available for an interview, this feels like a brand birthed by an algorithm. A spokesperson did send me the following quote: “As a company, we’re always listening to customers, learning and innovating on their behalf to bring them products we think they’ll love.”

In other words: Amazon has reams of data on what people are searching for. This gives it a huge potential advantage over outside brands that sell in its marketplace.

[Everything] Amazon is doing is data-driven. When they make a decision around the structure of a detail page or the structure of the browsing experience on the site, that’s all been A/B tested. They’re doing 10 different versions, testing, and picking the one that resonates the most with consumers,” says Ghiorso.

There’s no reason to think Amazon hasn’t applied that same strategy to its own product lines. And we know beauty shoppers on Amazon are often looking for a thing rather than a brand.

“Consumers on Amazon are becoming more and more brand-agnostic. They’re looking for ingredients or they’re looking for the solution rather than [having] really strong brand loyalty,” says Nancy-Lee McLaughlin, a senior manager at the marketing agency CPC Strategy.

Still, Amazon launched Belei like a lot of beauty brands do, with a press event in New York City at the end of March featuring editors, influencers, and that ubiquitous yet uncategorizable former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo. Marianna Hewitt, an influencer with almost 900,000 followers on Instagram and a beauty brand of her own called Summer Fridays, did a paid post for Belei. Otherwise, the reception has been quiet.

One could expect that Amazon would flood its search results with Belei, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be happening. My decade-old personal algorithm is likely too skewed, so I opened up an incognito page on my browser to do some virgin skin care searching on Amazon. When I went to the beauty page and clicked on the skin care tab, it spit out some deals and its top four sellers (Neutrogena wipes, Aztec Secret healing clay mask, Thayers toner, and the TruSkin Vitamin C). In a “recommended for you” bar, it was all Belei:

Amazon recommended a bunch of Belei products to me.
Screengrab via Amazon

But when I then searched for vitamin C serum, the algorithm didn’t send me a Belei product until the second search page, which really surprised me. What shopper makes it to page two? These results were consistent for hyaluronic acid serum too.

It’s not obvious that Belei is an Amazon brand, the way, say, AmazonBasics is. It’s not mentioned at all on Belei’s splash page, but, as Amazon has since pointed out to me, there is a bullet point on the bottom of a dropdown menu stating “an Amazon brand” on the individual product pages. Perhaps this is because it’s trying to lay low as politicians, most recently Elizabeth Warren, take aim at many tech companies’ increasingly monopolistic tendencies. Warren’s latest proposal even suggests legislation that would make it illegal for Amazon to sell its own brands. But obviously that’s far in the future and not at all a certainty.

The number of reviews on Belei products are modest, in the teens to the upper 20s, and several are from Vine Voices, Amazon’s reviewer program (the company sends these vetted reviewers free product prior to big launches). McLaughlin notes that reviews are important for trust, and trust is important for pulling the trigger on a purchase.

On Amazon, because we have that social affirmation through reviews, we tend to see a higher trial rate especially if the price is right,” she says. Reviews are partially what drives Amazon to surface products, so for now, at least, Belei seems to be at the mercy of its own algorithm.

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