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How Karen Grant Became the Beauty Industry's Go-to Analyst

You can call her the "trend whisperer."
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Karen Grant. Photo: NPD Group

Karen Grant. Photo: NPD Group

You may not know her name yet, but at Fashionista, we frequently encounter Karen Grant's work. As the NPD Group's beauty analyst, Grant uses a combination of everyday observation and data to report on everything from the state of the fragrance space and color cosmetics to women's buying habits — in short, the type of information that can inform brands' and retailers' business decisions.

Before she landed at NPD in 2002, Grant worked at Cartier and Dior, making her a prime role model for anyone hoping to carve out a career in the business side of the luxury industry. We hopped on the phone to get her take on merchandising John Galliano's collections, trends in skincare and how she balances gut instinct against the numbers.

What did you study in school, and how did you start your career in the luxury business?

I was very interested in biology. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and my fear was one day I might kill someone by mistake if I became a doctor. I was like, I can take that perfectionism to business and help people. That’s honestly how I ended up working on the business side. [Laughs] 

I guess my first real opportunity was with Cartier. I was working on the launch of a division that [approached] a more moderate market. When I say moderate, I mean $2,000 jewelry. I’m not talking $250. It was with the designer lines of YSL and Ferrari, actually, and I ended up meeting Paloma Picasso [the daughter of Pablo Picasso, who designed jewelry for YSL]. Everything was very interconnected, which is one thing that you’ll find in the fashion and beauty space. It’s a very small world. 

I worked with some people who were very customer-centric. They wanted, of course, to build their businesses, but they had a great sense of integrity. That stuck with me: to not just look at the quick fix to make money, but to build a business. That's the philosophy I continue to live by. It’s not just what’s happening right now, but what may happen. How does what I’m seeing translate into a bigger picture?

Where did you go after Cartier?

The first real job was Cartier, and then after that it was Paloma Picasso by Paloma Picasso, then after that, it was Dior.

I was not an analyst by trade. I did a lot of business management, sales management, importing, exporting at about the time that Dior was re-looking at its business to take it to a new level. The Dior we know today is not the Dior that was there 15 to 20 years ago. The line had been licensed out and had a lot of lower-priced lines; there were men’s Dior wallets at Walmart. When Bernard Arnault came in, they decided to end a lot of the license business — millions of dollars' worth of licenses. That’s when John Galliano came in. That revolutionized the industry. People were like, "Oh my god, that’s not a dress. This is underwear! What is he doing?" But it literally transformed everything.

We were launching a high-end line and remapping and reengineering that, which was a really exciting thing to be a part of. We launched a lot of in-store boutiques. With that, we learned how to watch the business very closely and anticipate trends and be quick to respond. When you’re working with a very creative force, he might go in a completely different direction from last season's winner. You [move] ahead with nothing in front of you.

What specifically was your role at Dior?

I was responsible for the buys and the merchandising for the U.S. boutiques. Today, it’s a different type of business. Back then, every boutique manager and regional manager would fly over to Paris and take back with them every item that was going in stores. It was a very specialized business. I don’t want to say that it’s commoditized now, but it’s a different business today. Each person was responsible for translating the vision then. It’s such a huge global entity now.

What was the relationship like between the merchandising and design teams at Dior during that time? 

We would get [a report on] the vision, and then we would have to try and explain to the French team that certain things wouldn’t work in the U.S. The communication was often to help them translate it into something that would also appeal to American shoppers. There's also a big difference between the Hawaiian market and the New York market, but we had to get the same collection and translate that to both markets, and also, to make sure it resonated with what Paris wanted to do.

I learned how to recognize that, sometimes, the designer just has an instinct, and if you’re at the forefront of the trend, it’s okay to be different. The followers want to see what’s new. The trendsetters will jump on board with the designer.

Did you grow up interested in fashion and beauty?

The funny thing is that I’m a total tomboy. I’m extremely analytical, and I have a sense of humor, but I was always around beauty. I think I was always immersed in it [through the women in my family]. And in every [company] that I worked at, there was some element of beauty. At Cartier, I wanted to get to the fragrance department. They thought I was better in the accessories area, but I was always watching what they did and asking questions about how they ran their business to try and be able to do it. Then at Paloma, they had a fragrance business through L'Oréal. At Dior, they had a beauty department that I helped to run. 

I was always watching but never able to enter the beauty space, and now I’m part of the voice of the industry. I’ve been watching it for 30 years. I come to beauty with no bias. I can look at any brand and see pluses or minuses.

When and how did you wind up at NPD Group?

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It was in 2002. Coming to NPD, I think they kind of said, "We’ll try her out." I came in very hesitant because I was used to running a business, and now I was part of an advisory group. The challenge or the opportunity [in being an analyst] is creating a voice such that the industry would find value in hearing our point of view on the trends, and working, then, with the press, and working with the manufacturing community and retailers to help create one statement on the state of the industry that they didn’t have before. I think they always had the data, and now they have the context.

What areas of the business did you cover when you first arrived to NPD?

I was more in the skincare area first, and the first major project was helping to define what anti-aging products are, because that was just beginning to emerge. I think what brought me attention was that I was probably the first to call out the doctor brands, which were the big news at the time. NPD reported on the big brands only, but there were natural brands, designer brands, artisanal brands. That was the big newsmaker, which I think helped establish my voice in terms of why people should listen to us.

I went from skincare, which was the most complex area at that time, to the total beauty business. Nothing at the time was as complex as skincare, so I had that experience, and I'd worked in makeup at Dior and fragrance at Paloma.

What's your process for watching for trends?

Some of the questions I get are from the press. I use other people’s questions. I read a lot — all the papers, journals, magazines — to see what people are promoting. It depends on the projects I’m working on and the time of the year. I also observe a lot. I went to the mall to get my iPad fixed, and I talked to people there. I’m that crazy lady asking in the department store, "Do you find people walk past your counter?" The number one thing is that I’m extremely curious. I have two millennials [at home], and I’ll look at what they’re talking about. I ask a lot of questions. I read a lot. 

I’m always working in one sense. I'm not the kind of analyst who just reads reports. I think that’s possibly one of the things that differentiates me as an analyst. I’m always observing the bigger world and then using the data to refine my gut and to educate my gut and say something. 

What are the big ways in which the beauty business has changed since you got into it?

I think what’s happened today is that it’s very difficult to say that there’s one trend. What we try to look at is, for example, a trend might come from Instagram, it could be coming from a blogger, anything. Where we used to have the colors or trends for the season, it’s very hard today to say that there is one trend, because there are multiple voices. So you might have dark lips and light lips, you might have so many things.

Beauty has become like a lake: you go underneath and there’s so much life happening. In the fragrance area, men’s eau de parfums are up something like 30 to 40 percent, but fragrance on a whole only grew 2 percent. So you dig under the surface. You have to mine information more than you used to.

It seems like it would be nearly impossible to make a blanket statement about how a particular business is doing.

You can definitely make the blanket statement, but the challenge is that you miss the big story. My objective is to help the industry look at those trends in a broader context and to really see which ones are valid. The first question I have is, is this healthy or not? Is it real or is it a bubble? That’s part of the analysis that takes a long time. You have to flip it and peel it away and slice it up a few different ways.

What are some examples of movements in the categories that you look at?

We’ve seen for a while that makeup and skincare are very interrelated. We’re seeing people use makeup to accomplish skincare benefits, [meaning] they’re using makeup to affect the appearance of skincare benefits. They may use concealers to look young, create more radiance, more contour, a chiseled face. I think that has been a big shift. I also think the big beauty thing that’s going on at this moment is that brands that are subject matter experts, that focus on one micro area, are trusted by consumers for that. I think 15 years ago, smaller brands needed to fight to get attention, and today I think the consumer is literally seeking out the smaller brands and the bigger brands have to say, "Wait a minute. We’re still here." 

We're often talking about Korean skincare in the office. What have you seen in the way of international beauty trends catching on in the U.S., or vice versa?

Definitely, the Asian market has been the most vibrant in driving the key trends in skincare and even in makeup. There have been a few different shifts. We had oils and naturals, which have come out of South America and North Africa. In fragrances, we’re seeing that European brands are really driving the trends. They’re at the top of the list; there are very few American brands. I think maybe the old fashioned element and the education around fragrance has shifted. I think in makeup, the focus is still very much on America. But within the U.S. we’ve seen a lot of West Coasters have a big influence on the growth. We’re not seeing one part of the world affecting every category.

It also seems that, with YouTube tutorials and the Internet in general, people might be coming to buy beauty products with more pre-existing knowledge about them.

We do see that people are influenced by things like product reviews or awards and stuff like that. But I think marketing is still very important. With the Internet, they are definitely doing their own research and going in with a clear sense of what kind of product they want to buy. But at the time of purchase, that’s where the deal is done. They plan the type of item, but not where they buy it from. Whoever will deliver the right message for that person will win.

What areas of the industry you most interested to follow this year? 

I’m watching to see how things are shaping up. One the things I watch is an expression I kind of coined, which is "color moves." It was all the nail, then it went to the lips, then I saw it in eyeliner. Where does color move to now? Or is it going to go into a very neutral look? We’ve had a few years of vibrant color. I’m trying to anticipate where it’s going. And a big thing I’m watching is skincare. It’s the first year that we saw skincare not do as well, so I’m looking to see what will happen with skincare. Will it kick back up again or is it going to continue as it is? Is makeup going to take over for skincare?