Online beauty sales skyrocket during COVID-19 pandemic

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Photo by Livingstone Ochieng from Pexels

By Zaria Howell and Bella Wilkes

At a time when all Americans are dealing with stress at unprecedented levels due to the novel coronavirus, consumers have been buying products that keep them distracted, entertained, and relaxed. The online beauty industry’s sales, in particular, have skyrocketed as a consequence of these coronavirus-inspired spending habits.

The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in an abrupt change in lifestyle for many Americans. All across the nation, states have issued emergency stay-at-home orders in a panicked effort to slow the spread of the disease. Those who used to learn in a classroom now turn to Zoom and those who used to work in an office now work from home, if they were able to keep their job.

According to the NPD Group, a company that analyzes and predicts market trends, there has been an increase in online beauty sales by nearly 47% in the first week of April 2020 alone. In the midst of a recession, with unemployment rates rivaling those of The Great Depression, this increase in sales of a non-essential industry is unusual.

Behavioral economist professor John Doughtery from Loyola University Maryland said that he has not studied a similar sales increase from any industry at this level before. “These trends are almost always in a local context,” Dougherty said. “As far as I can remember, there were no widespread consumer panics that looked like anything we’re seeing today.”

Dougherty attributed the trends in online beauty sales to the uncertainty consumers are facing in their lives. The ambiguity of what the future holds causes consumers to act extra risk-averse. This means that consumers will generally stock up on products, essential and non-essential, that they feel are important in order to maintain some control over their lives.

Kristina Durante, a business psychology professor from Rutgers University, specializes in consumer trends in the beauty industry. Her work studying women’s consumer habits during the Great Recession of 2008 gives her valuable insight into today’s consumer trends.

“Any sort of beauty-enhancing product is predicted to run counter-cyclical to recessions,” Durante said. “So whenever we get the news that things are bad, that there’s uncertainty and scarcity, one of the things we know is products that are foolproof are these beauty enhancement products.”
Durante believes that the combination of a pandemic and a looming recession has triggered this same unconscious fear response in consumers today, driving sales of beauty products to these especially high rates.

Kiara Blanchette, a 21-year-old beauty influencer and founder of the editorial blog Twenty Mapping, has seen first-hand these psychological motivators in her audience.

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash
“With the heightened stress, I feel like people are trying to find an outlet to release that or take care of themselves in ways that are kind of aligned with what they see on the internet or in the world,” Blanchette said.

Blanchette also believes now that people have extra time on their hands, they are interested in trying new products, switching up routines, and improving their outer appearance- all things that consumers could have been too busy to do before.

“People now have this abundance of time, and they're interested in figuring out how they can fill that time with things. So one of those things is like learning how to take care of their skin and learning how to do things that they might have felt they were too busy to do,” Blanchette said.

One product’s sales trend in particular, boxed hair dye, represents the increasing popularity of a self-care activity that consumers now want to do themselves during quarantine. Consumer research group The Nielsen Company has released data showing hair dye sales have more than doubled in April 2020.

Jenna Reichelt, a 20-year-old hairstylist from New Lenox, Illinois, explains that now that salons in the state are closed, many of her older customers have been buying box dye to cover up their greys. Reichelt also acknowledged that for many consumers, dying one’s hair is a fun activity to cure cabin fever. “Since no one is able to change what the world is going through regarding the outbreak, people start to look for things they can change and control such as their hair color,” Reichelt said. 

However, consumers are not likely acting completely unprovoked in their spending on online beauty products. Many beauty companies have been using sales tactics in order to profit off of the consumer’s emotion-driven response to buy products that will make them feel good. 

Mintel Group Ltd., a market analyzing company that projects future consumer behavior, suggested to industry experts in their April 15 press release that beauty business owners should begin to market toward beauty trends that play to consumers wearing facemasks in public more frequently. Other trends they advise beauty companies to market include eyeshadows and eyebrow pencils, sweat-proof foundation, and using facemask-clad models in order to stay relevant. 

Glossier Inc., a popular online beauty brand with millenials, has already begun to capitalize on this advice. The company marketed its latest hand cream with a video narrated by a mother checking in with her child, who she can not see during quarantine. In the ad, the mother emphasized the importance of washing one’s hands and using hand cream afterwards to lock in moisture. 

Such advertisements are direct evidence of the sort of business behavior that Kristina Durante spoke of: during times of uncertainty, companies will take advantage of emotional responses and use it as an opportunity to brand their products as an antidote. 

But, not all those involved in the beauty community have followed these trends of using the pandemic as a way to boost profit. Kiara Blanchette has taken a step back from her usual posts on beauty trends and has tried to take a more mindful approach to her content creation. 

“I'd say I personally have taken a step back from wanting to create beauty content because it just doesn't feel in touch with what's happening right now,” Blanchette said. “It mostly affects me in the sense of just trying to pivot my content to what is currently relevant.”

Although some may disagree with a company's effort to profit off of the pandemic, the recession that COVID-19 has caused has left many beauty businesses desperate as they face mass profit loss or permanent closure. 

As for when consumers can be expected to shift their spending from the beauty industry, that issue is just as uncertain as what life will look like after the coronavirus. 

“I can see a very severe recession where it takes a long time for employment to come back and things like that,” Dougherty said. “But hopefully in the long-run things will go back to normal.”

And once things go “back to normal,” whatever that looks like, Dougherty believed that consumers would feel more confident and their consumption habits will begin to reflect what they once were. 

Whatever the future holds, it is evident that the online beauty industry’s unexpected role in helping consumers navigate their mental and physical wellness during this stressful time will not be forgotten.

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College students are a demographic heavily affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Being forced to leave campus, adjusting to online classes, and receiving little to no financial compensation from neither the government nor universities has rightfully caused students high levels of stress. For this, many university students have also been buying in big to these self-care beauty trends as a distraction to these stressors. 

Vanessa Obi, a 20-year-old student from Kansas City, agrees that self-care is more important now than ever, as she uses her beauty routines as distractions from the worry that the pandemic has caused. Products like face masks and nail polish help her to stay mindful. 

“I need a lot of mindfulness because I do find myself getting really worried about the pandemic and about things that are outside of my control,” Obi said. 

Daniella Asapokhai, a19-year-old student from southern California, also has been sending more money on beauty products because of the overwhelming number of advertisements for beauty products she sees while online. Asapokhair attributed her spending to a combination of boredom, distraction, and the increase in online advertisements to these stores. 

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