Below the Surface: Resiliency in the Beauty Industry Post-COVID and Beyond

Always Open: Bergmeyer takes a deep dive into the future of the beauty industry
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Project photo: Lord + Taylor in Ridge Hill, NY

It’s been four months since The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. What followed was a worldwide quarantine, bringing the economy to a near standstill and shutting down all non-essential businesses in an effort to slow the spread. No longer having the luxury of a quick run to the store, people now focused their attention online for their shopping experiences. Beauty retailers weren’t seen as essentials to be kept open, but the truth of the matter is, they’re the most essential of the non-necessities. Tapping into our human need for esteem, beauty is more than just presenting a pretty face; it is inextricably tied to our psychological needs.

In the carefree world pre-COVID, the beauty industry was compelling, inviting, and thriving! Two of the largest beauty retailers, Sephora and Ulta, had a combined sales growth of 150% in the last 5 years online alone. This boost was further enhanced by the in-store experience where being pampered with a makeover from a sales associate was a regular occurrence and a sure-fire way to close a sale. Most shoppers didn’t think twice tapping their finger into an eye shadow sample and swiping it across their lid; exploring colors and textures at their own leisure or with guidance from a trained beauty expert. Our current situation now begs the question: is the in-store beauty trial experience a thing of the past?

The plot-twist no one saw coming is that the beauty industry has been hit hard by the pandemic for many reasons. The fast-paced, trend-setting environment has seen manufacturing slow-downs due to factory closures, public safety concerns, and a backslide against sustainability efforts with the rapid increase of pre-packaged samples. While these issues may have been softly lurking under the surface pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has been a vehicle to bring these concerns to the shopper’s attention at a faster rate. The question now is, what can be done about them? How do we use COVID-19 as the impetus to pivot and set the standard of best practices in the beauty industry moving forward? What are the best practices, and how do they impact the customer’s experience? As we look ahead to what is known as the “new normal”, we see it taking shape in two phases – the short term and the long term.

The near future: New customer expectations
In the short term, new basic standards for building confidence in the cautious consumer have emerged based on their new expectations for in-person retail. These typical expectations are hygiene guidelines for store experiences across the board. In a time of uncertainty, retailers are focusing on what they can control about the shoppers' visit. Starting behind the scenes with the employees themselves, the usual procedures in place are:

  • Employee wellness tests per shift
  • Staggered breaks so employees aren’t overcrowding breakrooms
  • Alternative work hours to help those using public transportation avoid rush-hour commutes
  • Mandatory face coverings
  • Additional breaks scattered throughout their shift for increased hand washing

These five strategies are in place for their safety, as well as, the customer's safety. The same concept applies to the customer policies listed below.

  • In-store occupancy limitations for physical distancing
  • Mandatory face-coverings in-store
  • Hand sanitizing/washing upon entering and exiting the store
  • Elimination of self-serve testing
  • Minimal or no contact payment options at checkout plus plexiglass barriers
  • New store hours to allow for additional cleaning throughout the day

These new policies protect the basic safety needs of the customers and employees and, provide actionable, quick solutions to restore customer confidence and allow businesses to re-open.

However, what the beauty industry desperately needs is a creative point of view to push past merely re-opening and develop comprehensive solutions that address the exposed underlying issues. Using the short-term solutions as a springboard, we see four categories of opportunities to create longer-term comprehensive shifts to the in-store beauty experience.

Communication drives trust
Like all good relationships, communication is the foundation of a future together. No matter where you sit on the scale of cautious to carefree customer, you want, need, and deserve to be informed of the store’s stance on a post-COVID experience and it begins online. A customer’s first impression of the beauty retailer will significantly impact their decision to venture in-store. All information about what the shopper can expect to encounter in person should be easy to find, descriptive, and accurate. It must communicate all details from new store hours to products available and all COVID procedures in place. This basic building block of trust will psychologically reassure even the most cautious customers, but it must continue clearly, visibly, and consistently through in-store signage, graphics, and wayfinding.

Distinct customer journeys: Fulfilment, education, & browsing
Understanding where the customer stands in the realm between cautious and carefree, and acclimating the shopping experience to meet their needs is a must. For all in-store visits, the customer may start with a luxury cleansing ritual as they enter the space. A cautious experience for a customer seeking product fulfillment who is not comfortable browsing should include clear and safe options to engage with the store environment with minimal physical contact. This could be achieved through mobile ordering paired with a dedicated contact-less in-store pick-up zone.

For a customer who desires assistance and product education, the experience might begin through a pre-scheduled consultation. This personalized meeting is the most customizable option; allowing the shopper to minimize or maximize contact with a sales associate. It also allows the sales associate to curate a selection of individual samples for a safer beauty trial experience in a physically distanced beauty alcove pre-set for their specific appointment.

Finally, the browsing experience may shift in that stores will be stocked with single-use samples, rather than the communal samples which we experienced pre-COVID-19, and the fulfillment process may occur back of house once individual projects are selected through a digital shopping cart.

Adaptability above all
Adaptability will be highly valued, as we continue to deploy health-responsive elements within our store environments. Technology and wayfinding can be used to identify new social standards and explain store engagement guidelines appropriate to each brand. Physical barriers and space planning will also work hand-in-hand, coordinating with the different versions of the customer journey. One could imagine deploying additional components to aid with wayfinding and physical distancing, not only in times of escalation and de-escalation of COVID-19 but also during outbreaks of the seasonal flu or other health events.

Sustainable packaging is the future
One could imagine that with an increase of single-use pre-packaged product testing comes the decline of the brand’s sustainable footprint. This impact is twofold; it creates more packaging waste and is an additional strain on manufacturing. According to The Benchmarking Company, 44% of Sephora customers took their time sampling products pre-COVID. In other words, for every 25 shoppers, 11 of them will sample products. Compound this statistic by the number of shoppers and the 2,600 Sephora stores worldwide and the need to produce pre-packaged samples to replace the previously used communal sampling program starts to add up. Even with the rise of digital makeovers - color, texture, smell, opacity, coverage, and shimmer can only truly be felt in a sample. This identifies a need to design for a sustainable, hygienic, reusable packaging alternative. Without this development, manufacturing will continue to fall behind due to an increase in production and the single-use containers will end up in landfills.

These long-term concepts are the keys to resiliency in a post-COVID beauty world and beyond. They not only improve the beauty industry’s current climate, but they address long-held underlying opportunities for improvement. The investment in re-conceiving the in-store beauty experience will allow beauty retailers the opportunity to re-connect with their customers as they meet their needs in a more targeted, sustainable, and adaptable way than ever before. The future will require real-time problem solving and experimentation, and we at Bergmeyer look forward to tackling this challenge.

For more insight about the beauty industry in the time of COVID-19, listen to Shop! Association's "Defining the “Next” Normal – Episode #6: An Introspective Look at the Cosmetics Industry During the Time of COVID-19," featuring Bergmeyer's Vice President, Rachel Zsembery.

"As consumers and social and travel plans have gone by the wayside and work has been mainly online, beauty brands have had to quickly redirect their efforts to show how their products are still relevant. Now, with the majority of the country beginning the phases of reopening, there are many issues that are coming into play on how to ensure the health and safety of the customers in-store. The cosmetics industry has always relied on makeup professionals applying makeup as a way to guide customers through their purchases. This is something that is sure to change for the foreseeable future. Listen as our panelists discuss the changes they have seen and how brands, retailers and their suppliers can adjust to these changes."