How the Pandemic Is Reshaping the Professional Beauty Industry

Beauty salons and spas have had their toughest year yet, with over two million professionals affected by the pandemic, but many businesses have risen to the challenge (and beyond). Complete shutdowns, as well as restrictions on reopening, have taken their toll, with a third of salons and spas stating they are at risk of permanently closing. Global revenue is predicted to decline between 20-35%. WGSN predicts that DIY treatments will remain popular for the next three years “as higher costs for professional services, fears of close physical contact and hygiene concerns will see people forgo salons in favor of at-home products.” 

Sally Beauty recently launched a DIY University channel offering cut, color, and styling tips. With manicure set sales increasing by 800% and hair dye sales by 92%, consumers obviously don’t mind taking matters into their own hands. 47% state that they will continue at-home treatments after lockdown ends. Nonetheless, the uplifting power of an excellent haircut, expert facial, or a relaxing massage during turbulent times is not to be underestimated. Daily Zoom calls also means that despite staying at home, beauty maintenance and appearance remain important. “People are paying much more attention to how they are seeing themselves on camera, especially for work,” Suelyn Farel, CEO of the Julien Farel Group, explains. “You want to feel good, you want to look good, but there is something about having a professional give you the confidence, something new and fresh, and getting that little bit of joy back.” 

Governments may have deemed hair salons and beauty spas “nonessential,” but for the millions of individuals who have made the pursuit their passion and livelihood, this decision couldn’t be further from the truth. Additionally, the excellent hygiene and safety standards upheld by salons means they have a minor COVID transmission rate of 0.05% (in comparison, the total number of cases reported in EU food packaging facilities was 3,856), making the work environment far safer than most. Starring by Ted Gibson, the world’s first smart tech-powered venue, has individual, semi-private service clouds with 8.5 feet distance between salon chairs; Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa follows a strict protocol that includes temperature-taking, pre-appointment booking forms, and putting the client’s belongings in single-use plastic bags when they enter the salon.

Despite these measures, more hands-on services such as facials and massages have seen fewer customers return. “I have tremendous concern because aesthetics and massage are such high-touch services. It has reduced significantly across the country,” Farel adds. For every customer that feels comfortable walking into a COVID-secure salon, there is one who is still fearful of the experience, which will remain one of the most intimidating hurdles for the near future. 37% of consumers said they prefer getting professional beauty treatments, but feel safer doing them at home. “The biggest challenge now is not so much the capacity, but more about consumer confidence and awareness,” Starring co-founder Jason Backe explains.

From online retail and content creation to donation platforms, diversification has been key to survival. Gibson and Backe launched their product line exclusively with Amazon, and offer express checkout and home delivery for care and styling products via QR code scanning in their salon. Many clients had to resort to at-home measures, following YouTube tutorials or Instagram Live videos, and both Farel and Gibson supported them through the pandemic, from advising on DIY bang trims and drugstore hair dye selections to local salon referrals if they were unable to travel.

While the likes of Coty, Aveda, and Henkel have all donated to COVID relief-related causes and set up financial support opportunities, beauty service individuals have had to unify in order to keep each other afloat. Skincare guru Caroline Hirons co-founded the initiative Beauty Backed to encourage consumers to book future appointments, buy gift vouchers, and purchase products through their local spas and salons, as well as raise funds for struggling businesses (nearly £600,000 to date). 

Passionate about “creating a unified voice in beauty,” Gibson and Backe started the Worth Up Alliance, a nonprofit which offers mentoring, start-up capital grants, and education to other beauty entrepreneurs. They also broke lockdown rules in August in opposition to government guidelines. “As leaders in this business, it was really important to take a stand. We had the opportunity to make a difference, not only for our own business, but businesses all around the state of California,” Gibson explains. It’s a move the industry as well as individuals applauded. “Clients were coming and supporting us, saying ‘you were doing the right thing, it’s ridiculous that people can go to a restaurant but can’t get their hair cut,’” Backe adds.

A human touch and connection, as well as high-caliber creativity and craftsmanship, had always been important, but in 2020 it’s become imperative. “The hairdresser of today is more educated than ever. You can get a great cut and color anywhere. If a client is going to leave her house she needs to have an exceptional experience,” Gibson explains. Just as DIY and the salon experience are decidedly different, so too has the salon clientele divided into those looking for low-maintenance options and others who fully embrace the creative possibilities of cut, color, and more. In an age where George Clooney has admitted to cutting his own hair for nearly three decades using the infomercial hair-trimmer-meets-vacuum-cleaner, Flowbee, the hair-styling profession (and beauty services overall) will need to enhance their offerings to a level that at-home services can’t replicate.

“I would suggest that fellow salon owners focus on more difficult services such as chemical straightening, extensions, and multi-dimensional hair color,” Backe proclaims. “Expand the list of services that you provide to things that are really important to be done in a controlled environment.” While Gibson acknowledges that the pandemic has been horrible, he also sees an opportunity for positive change. “If we can keep our mindsets in thinking about the future possibilities, after it’s over or as we live with it, it can only be glorious,” he states. “It’s about raising the artistry and giving the consumer something to look forward to.” Farel remains equally optimistic. “The service industry is not going to close anytime soon. There will be less lower-level beauty in the next couple of years, but the better service businesses will survive and thrive,” she says. “These are challenging times we are trying to navigate and a little bit of beauty goes a long way.”

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