Skip to main content
BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

The Secret to Beating the Makeup Slump

Beauty retailers with sluggish colour cosmetics sales need to rethink the way they’re selling to customers who increasingly prefer skincare to makeup.
Inside a Bluemercury store | Source: Bluemercury
  • Rachel Strugatz

Welcome to BoF's Beauty Newsletter, featuring members-only analysis and the week's top news from the front lines of the global beauty business. Subscribe here.

NEW YORK, United States — Beauty brands and the stores that stock their products once dictated trends, telling shoppers what they needed. Depending on the season, this could be a glitter-infused version of an existing product for the holidays or another nude eyeshadow palette, with 12 variations of the season's hottest shade.

But the empowered customer of today has enough sparkly lip gloss and eye colour to get them through the next decade of holiday parties (not that anyone should keep any beauty product that long). They aren’t buying as many of these items as they used to, even as brands ratchet up marketing on social media to unprecedented levels. There’s been a retail role reversal: shoppers are now informing the trends.

Consumers would rather pile on skincare products to make skin so clear, poreless, even-toned, tight and luminous that they don't need makeup, and brands like Glossier are championing a beauty ideal that favours dewy, barely-there makeup. Then there are the Gen Z shoppers who just don't wear makeup, period. According to Piper Jaffray's latest survey of almost 10,000 teens, kids are spending 21 percent less on cosmetics than they did a year earlier — a nine-year low. Among upper-income female teens, 20 percent said they never wear makeup.


Beauty consumption habits have changed, and the effects are being felt industry-wide: most prestige colour brands are seeing declining sales, and influencers' YouTube tutorials are getting fewer views and affiliate sales. Retailers are missing earnings expectations. Ulta Beauty's stock hasn't recovered from its plunge in August after reporting disappointing earnings it blamed on a sluggish makeup business.

The shift from makeup to skincare doesn’t look to be letting up anytime soon, so retailers need to change the way they sell beauty to survive. A good place to start would be consolidating existing colour lines, ramping up skin-care assortments and updating store layouts. A more discerning approach when it comes to influencer lines could help retailers identify which labels have longevity and which are one-hit wonders. Just because a YouTuber has nine million followers doesn’t mean they can translate initial buzz around their new palette into loyal customers who will keep coming back for more.

In the nearer term, stores might start to look different. Today, if you walk into the Sephora in SoHo, splashy colour brands like Pat McGrath Labs, Huda Beauty or Charlotte Tilbury welcome visitors, with the majority of skincare labels arranged towards the back. A greater emphasis on skin-care items, including more prominent placement in stores, can give a boost to an already fast-growing category.

We definitely don't play in the Fenty, Kylie Cosmetics type world.

It’s too early to tell which stores will win in the new, skincare obsessed world. It could be the existing giants, Sephora and Ulta, if they successfully reimagine their stores, or smaller speciality players like Bluemercury. The retailers worth watching are the ones that already prioritise skin. Sephora and Ulta declined to comment.

Credo Beauty, a clean-only specialty retailer with nine US locations, said skincare drives "the majority of the business.” Bluemercury and Dermstore have traditionally made skincare their hero categories. Dermstore, acquired by Target in 2013, is an e-commerce site that has set itself apart by selling a vast assortment of clinical skincare. Bluemercury, acquired by Macy’s in 2015 for $210 million, counts its private-label M-61 skincare range as the bestselling brand in its nearly 200 stores.

Bluemercury has another secret: it’s found a way to weave its “skin-care heritage” into other categories, including colour and hair lines with skin-care properties and ingredients.

“We’re seeing growth in makeup – where our understanding is that no one else is,” said Emma Dee, Bluemercury’s vice president of merchandising. Dee said skincare makes up the largest portion of Bluemercury’s sales, besting colour, the second-biggest category, by about 10 percentage points.

Another tip: steering clear of influencer-founded colour brands. Bluemercury works with influencers on marketing campaigns, but doesn’t sell their products, Dee said.


When we're prospecting brands, one of our questions is always, 'What is your innovation pipeline?'

“We definitely don’t play in the Fenty, Kylie Cosmetics type world,” she said. “When we’re prospecting brands, one of our questions is always, ‘What is your innovation pipeline?’ We’re always interested in bringing in brands that have one or two heroes [products] that speak to a trend, but we want to see that longevity in the partnership.”

In the long run, giving stores a skin-care friendly remodel won’t be enough to combat “some very big disruptive forces,” including advances in biotechnology, said Brian Doyle, managing director of Accenture’s Connected Product Innovation practice. He predicts advancements in regenerative medicine “are probably going to render many categories or products obsolete.”

But in the meantime, while serums and eye cream are still very much in demand, retailers should probably get a head start by playing up their skincare offerings.


Nordstrom's New York Store will offer a lot of services. The new flagship, which opens Oct. 24, covers two levels, one of which is dedicated to 110 services like Botox and LED facial treatments.

Billion-dollar beauty deals might be over. Or at least far and few between, with the exception of legacy assets such as Revlon.

Futuredew is here. Glossier's oil-serum hybrid is the brand's newest way for customers to get that dewy, "Glossier Skin."

Inside Deciem's comeback. After a tumultuous year, Chief Executive Nicola Kilner is gearing up to open a 70,000-square-foot Toronto headquarters.


S.C. Johnson is angling to get into beauty. The owner of Raid and Windex recently acquired sun care line Sun Bum and men's skin care brand Oars + Alps.

"Plastic surgery doll" Instagram accounts are on the rise. There is a growing number of "Sx pages" that document cosmetic procedures, but accounts are taking more rigorous measures to remain private.

Doing makeup on dead people isn't much different than a living person. A funeral director shares tips on post-death makeup, which including the use of an airbrush kit for a "more natural look."

© 2024 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

More from Beauty
Analysis and advice on the fast-evolving beauty business.

The Important Message Behind ‘So Many Dicks’

A genius marketing campaign from E.l.f. Beauty this week emphasised how diversity, equity and inclusion efforts can be done at the highest levels — and what the barriers are to making substantial progress.

view more

Subscribe to the BoF Daily Digest

The essential daily round-up of fashion news, analysis, and breaking news alerts.

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
The Business of Beauty Global Forum
© 2024 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Cookie Policy and Accessibility Statement.
The Business of Beauty Global Forum