What Our Covid-19 Beauty Buys Tell Us About The National Mood

By Lisa Niven-Phillips

It was hand sanitisers, soaps and hand creams that were stripped from beauty retailers’ shelves first when Covid-19 arrived in the UK. Then lockdown hit, and the forced closure of salons, spas and services saw us turning to long-ignored stores of boxed hair dye, swapping fringe-trimming tips, and getting to grips with DIY waxing kits for the first time since our teenage years. The effects of the pandemic on the beauty market have been deep and wide-ranging, positive and negative, and our lockdown purchasing habits offer a fascinating insight into our national psyche at this strange juncture in history. 

With salons suddenly out of bounds, it’s no surprise that the home haircare category has seen a huge boost. Online retailer Cult Beauty’s sales of hair masks and scalp care were 373 per cent higher this May than last, while “hair dye” was the most-searched product on the Boots website earlier that same month. (Boots also saw a 4,000 per cent rise in searches for hair clippers – no surprise when you consider that freshly-shorn isolation selfies have been shared by everyone from David Beckham to Tallulah Willis to Taron Egerton.)

“The huge boost to the sector is obviously partly because of the practicality – with the salon closed, you have no choice – but most of us now based at home also have more time on our hands,” says Joanna Rogers, trading director and vice president of beauty at Boots. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens with those consumers who’ve been successful in dyeing their own hair once salons reopen, bearing in mind that this was a declining category before. You can get really great results from a kit, particularly on darker hair.”

There’s the pampering aspect too: more opportunity to play around with time-consuming treatments encourages an at-home spa set-up, and allows us to indulge in forms of self-care that suddenly feel achievable. If you join your work Zoom call without your video camera on, who’s to know you’re wearing a hair mask, face mask and under-eye gel patches? Many point to the so-called “lipstick index” – a term used to describe the rise in make-up sales during times of financial difficulty as an affordable form of feel-good luxury – when crises hit, but this time around it’s skincare and haircare that have emerged as our chosen forms of mood-boosting beauty. Boots.com has seen facial skincare sales almost quadruple during lockdown, with one bottle of its new No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate selling every two seconds the day of its May launch. Cult Beauty’s skincare sales have risen 157 per cent year on year, with interest in clinic-grade masks spiking by 346 per cent, while John Lewis has seen a notable rise in sales of vitamin C products – 248 per cent since last year – as customers seek out glow-boosting treatments.

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Lockdown has seen us doubling down on self-care rituals, and sent the already booming wellness category stratospheric. In April, amidst the government’s most stringent social-distancing measures, Aromatherapy Associates saw a 480 per cent boost in sales compared to 2019, with a particular focus on products designed to help with sleep, stress and anxiety, as well as hand care and home fragrance – a telling snapshot of lockdown life. Significantly, in the week of Boris Johnson’s March 23 address to the nation, the brand’s bestsellers were the De-Stress Collection and the Support Breathe Collection, the former of which is marketed as a way to “take a moment away from daily chaos”.

Then, of course, there’s the Zoom effect on beauty. With many of us pivoting to remote working during lockdown, we’ve had to embrace from-the-shoulders-up visibility, able to hide un-pedicured feet and bristly legs, but seeing our faces close-up – often harshly-lit and from dodgy angles – several times daily. Whilst overall make-up sales might not have seen the same uplift as hair, skin and wellbeing, key spikes within the category demonstrate a move towards subtle beauty boosts. John Lewis has seen sales of highlighters and bronzers rise 133 per cent and 165 per cent respectively during lockdown, whilst Boots saw searches for “eye brow tint” on its site increase by 10,000 per cent as our sudden need to be constantly onscreen collided cruelly with the closure of brow-grooming services. “I need only look to my own approach to understand it – for the first two weeks of lockdown I thought ‘great, no make-up!’ But then I slowly got back into a more minimal make-up routine,” admits Rogers.

And it isn’t just make-up. At Cult Beauty, self-tan sales are up 295 per cent on last year, with founder Alexia Inge noting a move towards “controllable self tan” in the form of booster drops, gradual tans and hybrid products – Tan Luxe’s brilliant Super Glow Hyaluronic Self-Tan Serum is a notable bestseller.

“I think some people are trying stuff out for the first time, experimenting from the safety of their homes, but also it’s that low-maintenance lift – a product like that gives you an overall boost,” she tells us. After all, nobody wants to show up on Zoom looking like they’ve made too much effort. “But also, we’ve all been staring at our own faces for three months. You start analysing bits that might previously have slightly annoyed you, but that now you’re reminded of every time you log on.” No wonder then that the site has seen a sales boom in high-tech beauty tools like the Dr Dennis Gross SpectraLite Mask, Dermaflash, and Déesse LED Mask, in the absence of tweakments.

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Fortunately though, lockdown hasn’t turned us into complete narcissists. In fact, a lot of independent British brands have seen increased sales, with consumers adopting the same “shop local” approach they’ve taken for food when it comes to their beauty purchases in an effort to do good.

“We’ve noticed a lot of new customers, many local to east London where we’re based,” says Micaela Nisbet, founder of Neighbourhood Botanicals. “A huge positive of everyone being at home is thinking about where our ‘stuff’ actually comes from. We’re buying from local grocers and butchers and getting produce boxes from farms through our neighbourhood restaurants. It seems like there’s been a huge knock-on boost for independent brands.” And crucially, many smaller businesses can continue operating in a crisis, due to simpler business models. “Everything is manufactured and fulfilled in-house, so we were able to keep our lab functional and website open,” she adds.

Inge has also noticed a rise in support for the smaller brands that Cult Beauty has always curated and promoted. “I think there’s a collective understanding that as consumers you’re essentially voting to support brands – your money is your ballot,” she says. “People are looking for something on a human scale that they can connect with.”

With lockdown measures easing and shops preparing to reopen, the question is whether we’ll sustain any of these new beauty purchasing habits. One aspect of Covid-19’s impact which Inge believes will continue to shape the industry is our newfound focus on hygiene. “We’ve become clean freaks and there’s no going back from that habit, really. I think customers will still want natural products as much as possible, but with what I call the ‘guard dogs’ of synthetics to protect the formula and protect the user,” she says. “I can imagine that there will be packaging changes too – pumps over jars – but then that’s completely counter to the whole eco revolution! We’ll be a very conflicted consumer class after all this.”

There’s the question of whether we’ll return to physical stores with quite the same zeal, too, amidst uncertainty about a coronavirus vaccine. Cult Beauty, Boots.com and Johnlewis.com have all, unsurprisingly, seen an uptick in new customers, with firmly bricks-and-mortar shoppers forced online by the measures. In an industry renowned for its testers and tutorials, services and samples, could this crisis move more consumers into the digital zone? “Our customers engage with beauty in multiple ways across multiple channels, so I hope to see even more of that,” says Rogers. “We want to continue to offer beauty in the safest way, so we’ll be doing online consultations and having fewer people in store at one time, with extra hygiene measures to ensure the in-store experience is the safest on the high street.”

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John Lewis has already taken some of the more interactive elements of its beauty hall experience online, and plans to launch a new beauty tech category later this year to encourage at-home facials for customers missing their regular treatments. “We’ve adapted a lot of our in-store services to be virtual, and at the beginning of May launched our first virtual beauty masterclasses weekend,” says John Lewis beauty buyer Amelia Kendrick. “The weekend was hugely successful and we are now looking into how we can provide weekly virtual beauty services that are educational and relevant for our customers.”

Some will flock to beauty counters as soon as they reopen, while others may have made the shift to at-home LED masks and nightly doses of retinol already. Some of us will be block-booking fortnightly manicures in advance, while others might cancel their colourists altogether, having found great results in at-home hair dyeing kits. But one thing that’s certain is that, even in a time of crisis, many of us have found solace in the mood-lifting power of an indulgent body oil, a glow-boosting bronzer or even a slash of bold red lipstick, invisible to others under a protective face mask. The pandemic has made us question several aspects of our pre-lockdown lives, but when it comes to the role of beauty in making us feel good, we might just conclude that it’s more important than we ever previously understood.


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