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The Beauty Industry Trends That Defined 2021

Makeup made a much-anticipated comeback as a slew of new celebrities launched brands and big box retailers continued to build up their beauty departments.
Makeup sales came roaring back after years of decline, accentuated by the pandemic.
Makeup sales came roaring back after years of decline, accentuated by the pandemic. (Shutterstock)

After a year of social distancing and a lot of skin care, life (almost) went back to normal in 2021.

And with that, it was a big year for beauty. People started to wear makeup again; a slew of new celebrity brands barrelled into an already crowded market; demand for at-home manicures and the corresponding polish, treatments and tools remained high and brick-and-mortar retailers placed new emphasis on their beauty offerings.

Below, BoF breaks down the four major forces that guided the beauty industry this year.

Makeup Makes a Comeback

After a years-long makeup slump — that even predated the pandemic — experts say colour cosmetics are on the upswing. The lifting of pandemic restrictions and return to normal socialising and routines fuelled that surge, giving consumers a renewed interest in colourful lips, eyes and cheek after going so long without.

According to The NPD Group, US prestige makeup sales grew by 23 percent from January through November of this year, compared to the same period in 2020. That growth reverses pre-pandemic trends, which saw prestige makeup sales decline and the overall prestige beauty category remain flat from 2018 to 2019.

“People really need the dopamine effect of makeup,” said Sam Cheow, senior vice president and global head of makeup innovation, portfolio and product development at The Estée Lauder Companies. “In the last 12 months we all have, culturally, gone through a lot.”

Cheow added that the sub-categories “we abandoned when we stayed home,” like brows, eye shadow, blush, highlighters, eyeliner and satin finish lipsticks are experiencing strong growth.

“We went for our moisturiser, a little bit of powder and lip balm, and suddenly everything resurges,” he said.

The signs so far in 2021 are promising. But a recent surge in Covid cases could threaten makeup’s uptick if it again puts a pause on the return to “normal” life that made people want to wear makeup in the first place.

“People really need the dopamine effect of makeup.”

Beauty Retail Reimagined

The once clear delineation between where one might buy CeraVe face wash — Target or a drug store — and Tarte foundation — Sephora or Ulta — is blurring. Mass retailers are wading further into prestige beauty, thanks in large part to Kohl’s and Target debuting their Sephora and Ulta shop-in-shop concepts. Others, like Walmart and JCPenney, reimagined their beauty departments and are bringing in new direct-to-consumer lines.

After opening its first shop-in-shop in Target in August, Ulta Beauty will have 100 locations in Target stores by the end of 2021. That same month, Kohl’s opened Sephora boutiques in 70 of its doors, the beginning of a two-year rollout in 850 doors.

Not to be outdone by Target’s Ulta deal, Walmart introduced about 100 new beauty brands this year, including Uoma by Sharon C, Uoma’s new makeup line, Bubble, a Gen-Z-focused skin care line and sexual wellness label Cake, to up its beauty credibility and lure younger customers in store.

This evolution of how and where products are bought and sold is a result of consumers mixing high-end items with more affordable ones — much like they do in fashion. The pandemic only heightened these changes as it redirected many beauty purchases to “essential” retailers — big box and drug stores.

“Beauty is a battleground that a lot of retailers are trying to focus on,” Musab Balbale, vice president of beauty at Walmart, told BoF earlier this year. “We’re bringing more indie, niche brands into our stores that would probably surprise a customer five years ago.”

Celebrity and Influencer Brands

The beauty world added quite a few more famous founders to its mix this year, with a number of celebrities launching makeup, skincare and nail polish brands, both online via their own e-commerce sites and in stores like Sephora.

If executed well — think Rihanna’s Fenty or Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics — a beauty brand can be more lucrative than the acting, singing, performing or influencing gigs that once paid the bills.

“Being a founder is almost like winning an Emmy for celebrities — they have to have that title now as well,” said Chris Ventry, vice president at consulting firm SSA & Company, of the increasingly active celebrity beauty ­sector.

The concept isn’t new; it’s the rate at which celebrity brands are coming out — coupled with the incubators created solely to breed them — that has accelerated.

This year, celebrities entering the beauty industry included major names like Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston and Billie Eilish, who launched makeup, skin care, hair care and fragrance brands, respectively, this year. Influencers also got in on the trend, with TikTok superstar Addison Rae dropping a makeup brand and fragrance line. Even male celebrities hopped on board: Alex Rodriguez debuted a concealer, while Harry Styles and Machine Gun Kelly (real name Colson Baker) introduced their nail colour lines, Pleasing and UN/DN LAQR, weeks apart in late November and early December. There’s still more to come: Hailey Bieber and Scarlett Johansson announced lines that will drop next year.

“So many of these celebrities have this covetable asset called traffic,” Ventry said, meaning their passionate fan bases. As a retailer, he noted, one of the hardest things to do is get traffic — but even harder is converting that traffic into a sale, even when a celebrity has a built-in fan base.

A famous name can generate interest, as Baker and Styles proved. In the hours after UN/DN LAQR and Pleasing launched, online searches for “men’s nail polish” surged by 420 percent and 512 percent, respectively, according to data from fashion marketplace Lovethesales. For this new crop of brands, however, it remains to be seen if those searches will lead to sales.

Nails

While some may have resumed weekly manicures at the salon, plenty still prefer to paint their fingers and toes at home. Along with that rise in at-home manicures has come growing experimentation with nails, as both men and women have embraced everything from intricately painted nail art and bold colours to gradient and glitter press-ons.

Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder and chief executive of nail brand Olive & June, said sales increased by double digits this year after already growing 16 times in 2020. The brand sees continued interest in both its polish and manicure “systems” that include clippers, files, buffers, cuticle serums and “The Poppy,” a device that makes it easier to paint with your non-dominant hand.

Olive & June’s success is following industry trends. According to the NPD Group, nail products sold in the US prestige market from January through November of this year grew 14 percent over 2020, with nail polish specifically increasing 13 percent. Online, sales for anything nail related increased 12 percent from September 2020 to September 2021, with the nail category’s growth outpacing both face and lip products, according to data management platform 1010data. On TikTok, the #NailArt hashtag amassed over 17 billion views.

“[Nail products] taught people to give themselves a form of self care that lasts longer than almost anything else that they can do,” said Gibson Tuttle. “If you put makeup on, if you give yourself a blowout, even if you get a massage ... What lasts a week or two weeks? Nails.”

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