Zoe Azpurua, a 20-year-old college student in Miami, is prepping for a post-pandemic life, buying Harry Styles concert tickets and planning a beach vacation to Puerto Rico. But there’s one old routine she’s thinking about leaving behind entirely: wearing a face full of makeup.
After a year of lockdown, Azpurua wears almost no makeup at all. And as she gears up to resume a more social life, she’s not sure if she will replenish her beauty bag.
“I had acne as a teenager so covering my face was something I always did, but I’ve gotten so used to not wearing heavy makeup every day,” Azpurua said.
Like Azpurua, consumers are reconsidering beauty routines as the world opens up. Some experts believe the coming return to normalcy will see consumers flocking to stores to “revenge shop.” The phenomenon that benefitted brands like Hermès, which saw one store reportedly make $2.7 million in sales on the day it reopened in China last April, according to Women’s Wear Daily.
But beauty’s path will likely be more complicated. The industry was hurting before Covid, with consumers prioritising skin care over cosmetics. This led to a drop in makeup sales in 2019 as consumers flocked to skin care, which the pandemic accelerated. Now, routines have been pared down, and people are still trading colour cosmetics for serums and cleansers. Decreased socialising also exacerbated the pre-pandemic trend of the ‘no-makeup makeup’ look.
“With the right Zoom lighting, you don’t need much makeup,” said Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director at Allure.
Beauty brands must now cater to shoppers who’ve altered their routines for good and may be slow to return to colour cosmetics.
2020 was a tumultuous year for beauty. The industry generated sales of $16 billion in 2020, down 19 percent from 2019, according to market research firm NPD Group. Makeup sales particularly suffered, down 34 percent.
“The category is very tied to user experiences, like going out to dinner, going on a date, going to a wedding, but people had nowhere to go,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at NPD.
Certain products saw a bigger hit. Lipstick sales were down 49 percent in 2020, thanks to the introduction of mandatory face masks. Natalie Mackey, the founder of beauty brand Winky Lux, said sales of its best-selling lipstick were down 23 percent, and a new lip gloss failed to gain momentum.
“Lip, which is our heritage, was way down,” she said. “We had to pivot our marketing dollars to mask-up [products]. We shifted to start advertising eye and skin care ... to match what we knew the consumer was shopping for at the time.”
The makeup products that did sell were largely in the “no-makeup makeup” category, referring to a more subtle, natural look. Tinted moisturisers and setting powders were popular, according to NPD, and it’s a trend that may last: Kandice Hansen, senior beauty buyer at Revolve, said most of Revolve’s customers were interested in natural makeup before the pandemic, but now are fully subscribed to it.
Customers are continuing with a pared-back routine, which is why we’re seeing more cream products outperform.
“Customers are continuing with a paired-back routine, which is why we’re seeing more cream products outperform,” Hansen said. “The dewy skin look is very relevant.”
Meanwhile, brands that sold both colour cosmetics and skin care found shoppers choosing the latter. Winky Lux, for example, introduced skin care in January 2021; Mackey said it now represents a quarter of the company’s sales.
“Skin care went gangbusters all year, commerce and content-wise, and is still performing,” said Bailly. ”Everyone has been taking the time to do more elaborate routines and I think that will continue post-pandemic.”
The no-makeup makeup look versus colour cosmetics
The outlook for beauty in 2021 is more hopeful. Already, in cities that are opening up, like Dallas and Houston, the decline in makeup sales has decreased from 35 percent to 28 percent, according to NPD.
But what products shoppers will buy this year is still to be determined. Some entrepreneurs are banking on the ‘no makeup makeup’ look, like Tisha Thompson, the founder of LYS Beauty, who launched the brand in February with products catered to it: serum foundations, primers, matte bronzers, and setting powers, all in natural tones. The line recently became a bestseller at Sephora.
“Strategically, we think the fresh, simplistic look will reign supreme,” Thompson said, adding that it would be a while before her line extends to lipstick or other colour cosmetics.
Beauty brand Morphe, known for its artistry palettes, is also investing in ‘no-makeup makeup.’ It debuted a new line last summer, Morphe 2, that features skin tints and brow gels.
“We definitely saw a shifting preference across the industry to natural and lighter looks, as consumers worked from home,” said Kate Mercier, vice president of global marketing at Forma Brands, Morphe’s parent company.
Others, however, are betting the pendulum will swing the opposite way, bringing back the products that went unused in 2020.
“People are going to be leaning back into colour, and embrace fun experimentation,” said Bailly. “I think the buying will shift right out of the gate. They want to mark this new chapter with colour.”
Winky Lux is anticipating the return of colour cosmetics, with plans to release more colourful eyeshadows over the summer, and “sparkly, intense makeup” during the holiday season.
People are going to be leaning back into colour, and embrace fun experimentation.
“We will still have a place for the no-makeup customers, but we think the mood will change,” Mackey said. “Right now, self-care means jade rollers and a bathtub. In a year from now, it will mean getting dolled up to go out in a sequin top.”
Selling beauty in 2021
To get ready for the future, brands need to prepare for both scenarios, according to Jensen.
“There’s going to be two consumers that come out of this: one that went without makeup for a year and won’t want to buy much more,” she said. “And then there’s the one who is ready to party, and they will want a full face.”
But to sell colour cosmetics in 2021, strategies will need to shift. Sharon Chuter, the founder and CEO of Uoma Beauty, said her company is treating colour cosmetics as collectable items, with specialised packaging and a story behind it. The brand recently released a collection for the film Coming 2 America, which includes bright eyeshadow palettes. There are plans for more collectable items later this year.
“I know a lot of people are not going to buy makeup now because money is not where it used to be, and they have traded down for masstige [beauty products],” Chuter said. “But if you can make each item feel collectable, they will feel special.”
Morphe’s strategy includes focusing on products that serve multiple purposes, like an eye shadow that can be used as highlighter and a blush that also functions as lip gloss.
“It’s the blending of skincare and makeup, and the intersection of products that do more,” she said. “There are some customers that love spending 45 minutes doing their makeup, but our data has shown that there are others that want less steps.”
Digital will continue to be a force in beauty, too. Last year, beauty e-commerce saw a huge spike, but even now, as stores reopen, Mercier said it was important to continue focusing on digital content.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm from shoppers for Instagram Lives, Reels and IGTV and we aren’t going to take that part away,” she said. “One of the benefits of the pandemic was that beauty became easy to shop for online, so we need to focus on making that experience seamless.”
Mackey said that digital content and influencer marketing will also play a role in embracing colour cosmetics once again: “If we’re transitioning back to colour [cosmetics], we need to have education that focuses on that emphasis.”
The continued digital emphasis will help recapture shoppers like Azpurua. The other week, she contemplated visiting the Sephora inside her local mall but ended up shopping online instead.
“I got used to shopping in my pyjamas,” she said. “It feels like a hassle now to go into stores.”