Simplehuman Is Shifting Its Focus from Trash Cans to Beauty

The "Apple of housewares" is betting big on the cosmetic accessories category with a growing line of innovative mirrors.
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The Trio. Photo: Courtesy of Simplehuman

The Trio. Photo: Courtesy of Simplehuman

When Los Angeles-based Simplehuman Founder and CEO Frank Yang decided to make a foray into the vanity mirror business, he didn't quite know what he was getting into. After dominating the kitchen category with stainless-steel trash cans, soap pumps and dish racks, he only knew which room he wanted to enter next: the bathroom. Based on research, Yang decided he and his team would tackle the mirror. "Everybody uses the mirror almost every day, just like they use the trash can every day," he explains.

The first challenge was figuring out how to actually improve upon this basic household item no one really seemed to have a major problem with, but that no one was really getting excited about, either. "I just knew we used it a lot; if we could make improvements, it would be more impactful [than something we don't use a lot], so it took us a good eight months to a year just trying to figure out what it is that we can bring that's missing," says Yang. "The team was getting frustrated because concepts ranged from a built-in clock, to USB hub, to phone dock — you name it, we had it: storage for tweezers… and nothing jumped at me as [being] really, really important."

Then one day, he was literally in the shower when he looked over and saw his mirror fogging up and it dawned on him: "I thought, wow, you can't see it. Well, maybe I should just provide the best view." he says. Then began the 10,000 hours of research by Yang and his team of professionals, engineers and supply-chain experts to determine and perfect the important components of a mirror, like curvature and light.

In addition to having the clearest glass that somehow does not fog up from the shower [I was gifted one for the purposes of reporting this story and can confirm the efficacy of this feature], the most reflective possible coating, the right curvature (which prevents any "funhouse mirror" effects), and an adjustable, cordless base, the most noticeable features of Simplehuman's growing range of mirrors are their built-in lights, which turn on via motion sensor when you approach, and turn off automatically when you retreat.

The Round. Photo: Courtesy of Simplehuman

The Round. Photo: Courtesy of Simplehuman

The sensor feature was actually an afterthought — Yang simply noticed that when people tried out the mirror they did not instinctively think to turn on a light, so he decided to remove that step — but there was a lot of focus on the light itself: First, the team had to find the right LED with the right CRI, or color rendering index. The higher the CRI, the closer it is to actual sunlight, which is what Yang and his team aimed to mimic. Then, they had to figure out how to get the light to shine forward smoothly, without creating any hot spots. The resulting proprietary technology, called Tru-Lux, has a CRI of 95 (around 25 points higher than competitors) to most accurately simulate sunlight and allow users to see even the most subtle variations in shade.

An important distinction is that Yang didn't just set out to create a flattering mirror; he set out to create an accurate one. "We're trying to make mirrors to give the most truthful view," he says. "To really apply makeup properly and to pluck eyebrows or stuff like that, natural sunlight is the best." While everyone needs a trash can, Yang realized that he couldn't just plop the mirrors into a Bed Bath & Beyond and watch the sales roll in. He had to learn how to court a specific, but massive, segment of consumers: beauty junkies.

"It was a lot of growing pains, to be honest, because we initially launched into the product thinking of it more as a functional vanity mirror, but then it has taken more of a makeup mirror slant because people just cared more about that," he says. It was consulting beauty experts that inspired Yang to focus on sunlight: "We went to different shops and talked to store clerks; we talked to people like Sephora, for example. We talked to a few makeup artists in the beginning and quickly realized that they all know sunlight is the best," he says. 

Since launching the first one in 2016, Simplehuman's sensor mirror category now encompasses around 10 SKUs, from a $100 compact version to the $400 wide-view Pro. The category has done well from the beginning — perhaps surprisingly so. Within its first two quarters on the market, the original sensor mirror became Simplehuman's number-one selling SKU by revenue in its entire product line, including trash cans. (Overall, trash cans remained the biggest part of its business as there are so many different versions.) A rep confirmed that mirror sales have experienced double-digit year-over-year growth on average, and that, as a whole, the privately-owned company brings in about $220 million in annual sales.

The Wide View Pro. Photo: Courtesy of Simplehuman

The Wide View Pro. Photo: Courtesy of Simplehuman

Most of the company's mirror sales are now driven by department stores. "We now have these mirror bars all over Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Dillard's and Macy's because I know that's where the consumers shop," he says. "We have events with them, we've done eyelash extension parties, it's totally different marketing."

Speaking of marketing, Simplehuman also seeds mirrors to influential makeup artists in retail as well as film and television. It also works with beauty influencers across platforms like YouTube and Instagram to review the products. Yang says one of the biggest things he learned about the beauty industry was the importance of word of mouth. "All the ladies at the department stores, they're really major influencers for your product," he says. "People tend to trust them."

Yang was most surprised to learn how much people are willing to invest in beauty and wellness and how desperate they are for new technology.  For the beauty-obsessed, expensive mirrors turned out to be a much easier sell than expensive trash cans.

"When we try to sell a really nice trash can for $200, people say, 'What? That's a lot of money for a trash can.' We try to sell a really really cool mirror for $250, they're like, 'Oh that's not bad,' without me saying anything," laughs Yang. "That's another thing I love about beauty."

Simplehuman isn't the only non-beauty company that's caught on to this. Google is going after the same set of consumers through a new partnership with Sephora for Google Home Hub, a new Google Assistant device: It's designed for users to play beauty tutorials hands-free so they can follow along as they do their makeup and pause or rewind with their voice.

So it's not surprising that Yang has more ambitions within the space. In January at the 2019 CES showcase, the company will unveil a new mirror with a bluetooth-enabled audio feature: The volume automatically goes down as you move closer to the mirror and up as you move further away. He feels he's only scratched the surface when it comes to vanity mirrors and already has two-to-three additional concepts in the works. 

In the two years since launching Simplehuman's first mirror, Yang also feels he's "woken up" the once-dormant mirror category. We've seen the rise of "smart mirrors" that can assess your skin health and the efficacy of the products you're using, or that are enabled with Augmented Reality technology that allows you to try on a lipstick or eyeshadow, virtually. In September, a company called Mirror debuted a full-length mirror that can stream workout videos, allowing you to see yourself and the instructor at the same time.

Yang is keeping things a little more, well, simple, but it seems we're nowhere near the limit to what technology people are willing to invest in to perfect their beauty routines. As Yang puts it, "It seems like people are craving for more technology, and better ways to get more beautiful."

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