Where should beauty brands be pivoting?

Demand has tumbled, but home sampling and skincare could reach consumers that are still open to trying new routines.


Lipstick and foundation have been reduced to special occasions during COVID, but consumers are still bringing certain new products into their beauty routines if brands can reach them in the right environment.

Those are among the findings by brand community building platform Butterly and review website ChickAdvisor, which in July conducted a survey of 5,000 respondents from Canada, the U.S. and U.K. about their beauty routines during the pandemic, getting a pulse on a sector that’s been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

Among the survey’s findings is that 38% of respondents are prioritizing skincare as the area in which they are spending the most, followed by haircare (24%) and makeup (15%).

Some major companies have already noticed these headwinds: after Shiseido reported its biggest loss in two decades ($208 million for the year), the company announced it is making becoming a “premium skin beauty” company a key priority. It aims to grow skincare from 60% of its sales in 2019 to 80% by 2023, achieving market leadership by 2030. It plans to do this by expanding Gen Z-targerted premium brand Drunk Elephant – which it acquired late last year – into Europe, Asia, Mexico and Brazil over the next two years, accelerating its previous plans, and bring sustainable Japanese brand Baum to China next year. It also announced a new joint venture with beauty equipment company Ya-man to create skincare devices, expected to launch in October.

Mascara is the number one daily use cosmetic – for 12% of consumers, followed by lip balm, lipstick and lip gloss. Eyeliner and foundation are still being used on a daily basis by 8% of respondents. Consumers are still planning to wear lipstick at least occasionally, but 42% of respondents are restricting the wearing of lipstick to special occasions, while 12% have abandoned it altogether, saying they “don’t see the point” while staying at home or wearing a mask.

While respondents are lukewarm when it comes to lipstick application, cosmetics brands can at least take comfort from the fact that 47% of respondents are still trying new products; 41% haven’t tried anything new during the pandemic, but are still open to it. A major change is where they are trying out these new products, with 74% of consumers saying they would “definitely” sample products at home. In-store sampling is off the table right now, but if they were able to, only 2% would prefer sampling in-store, while 21% would be open to both.

Despite that, 54% of respondents are still buying the majority of their makeup in-store, helping it hold on to its slight edge over online shopping. However, online channels still have a major impact on all purchase decisions, with 89% of shoppers consulting online reviews prior to product purchase.

Experts have suggested that continuing the push behind virtual, AR-powered try-on tools that have been led by beauty giants like L’Oreal and Estee Lauder would be beneficial in a no-touch retail world. But in a category where sampling is the fourth-biggest driver of purchases, taking a more DTC approach like the Birchboxes and Stellars of the world would do a better job of replicating the in-store experience, especially for products like those in skincare that are more about feel than looks. Earlier this month, fashion magazine Marie Claire launched Beauty Drawer, a free sampling company in the U.K. that not only sends products directly to subscribers, but also offers advertising, content and social integrations.

Major beauty brands have struggled during to the pandemic, due to a mix of retail disruption and a drop in demand as people spend more time at home or having their faces covered. Today, Estee Lauder announced a Q4 loss of $462 million and says it plans to shed as many as 2,000 jobs globally and shutter between 10% and 15% of its stores. Sector leader L’Oréal is also announcing steep sales declines, though it remains upbeat thanks to demand beginning to rebound in China.