Passersby couldn't help but stop and watch Marvin Kilgore one recent Saturday morning as he filled a vending machine in the Gallery with packages of human hair.
And there was a lot of head shaking in disbelief.
They had never seen anything like this before.
Buying bundles of hair - also called tracks - to sew in to one's own hair for a long-as-Beyoncé mane is far from new. My very unscientific assessment: Three out of four women in the Gallery with beyond-shoulder-length hair likely have receipts for them.
It's just that buying human hair in the same manner as one purchases, say, a Diet Coke, is, well . . . curious.
Innovative, yes. But curious.
"It just came to me one night," said Kilgore, 30, an entrepreneur and former Olney High School basketball star. "I just thought, 'Why not?' What's to stop this from working?' "
In the last month Kilgore has leased 40 vending machines for $130 a month to sell mostly virgin Asian, Indian, and Brazilian hair under his private label, La Beauté Sans Limite. (That's Boundless Beauty in French.)
Kilgore's vending machine in the Gallery - in front of MAC Cosmetics' pop-up near Jefferson Station - has been up and running for a little more than a week.
So far, six bundles have been sold of the brown (1) and dark brown (1B) hair ranging in length from 12 inches (to the shoulder) to 34 inches (to the waist). Prices range from $65 to $200 per pack (women need at least three packs for a whole head), and the machine takes credit and debit cards only.
Within the next few weeks, he plans to install machines in the Cherry Hill and King of Prussia malls. Ultimately he would like to bring the vending operation to shopping centers in New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida.
From a business perspective, Kilgore, who is African American, is poised to disrupt the hair industry, much as University of Pennsylvania graduates and Warby Parker founders helped us rethink how we buy eyeglasses.
For decades, tracks were sold at beauty-supply stores, most of which were owned and operated by Asians, because they had the overseas connections to buy hair and hair-care products.
But in the last five years, the number of luxury-item vending machines has been growing - especially in Japan, where there is one vending machine for every 23 people. The mostly credit card-only sales cut down on retailers' overhead and give consumers instant gratification.
Vending machines in Los Angeles dispense caviar, and at New York's Hudson Hotel, one sells
Comme des Garçons wallets, Nixon watches, and Ray-Ban sunglasses. In Las Vegas, a woman teetering in too-high heels can find relief at a machine that vends ballet flats, and in the gambling town's Golden Nugget Hotel, you can buy gold.
"People are increasingly time-poor," said Ajay Joshi, head of media and technology solutions at Tensator, a tech company based in Milton Keynes, England.
"Not only do [the machines] react quickly to trends in the marketplace, they also provide services." Joshi was referring to a not-yet-on-the-market automated kiosk that will paint your nails for $20. "It's about providing convenience for lifestyles that are demanding 24-hour availability."
Black women are expected to spend $774 million on hair-care products in 2014, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm. According to the same study, four out of 10 women wear a weave, wig, or extensions in their hair.
Kilgore is clearly going where the money is.
While I applaud Kilgore's hustle, I can't help but think it's disturbing that the market to buy Brazilian hair in the black community is as vast as it is for potato chips.
And it's sad that women, especially black women, are so eager for hair-on-demand that they would be willing to drop a month's rent into a vending machine.
"I see so many young women who are almost, well, addicted to this long, straight hair," said Lori Tharps, coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and a Temple University professor of journalism. "They haven't gotten to the point that they are doing it because they like it, but there is a sense of 'I'm not attractive. I'm not worthy. I'm less than if I wear my own hair.' "
My reservations aside, Kilgore's business acumen is undeniable.
After graduating from the University of Texas, El Paso in 2008, he played basketball (as a point guard) in Israel, France, and Brazil. He returned home in 2012 and started working with his cousin selling private-label hair in Northeast Philly.
The business relationship ended after six months, but Kilgore made overseas connections and created the brand La Beauté Sans Limite, selling it from his black Camry at the Broad Street subway stops at Windrim and Wyoming Streets.
Business was good - Kilgore could make about $2,000 to $3,000 in sales in a good week. But after 10 months, he "got tired of selling hair out of the trunk," he said. "I had to think of a way to solve the distribution problem."
So he researched vending machines and applied for a loan. He is still working out the kinks of his business, one of which is access. The tangle-free hair is good quality, but it's locked behind a case. Shoppers can't touch it. And that sensory experience is key in the hair industry.
"It's really nice hair," said Pam Jones, 24, who works at Net Kids in the Gallery, and got a sample feel. "But I'm not sure if I would have bought it without touching it."
A few minutes later, Jones added: "Maybe I would, especially if the hair stores were closed, and I needed to get my hair done. Yeah, I'd get it."