When a financial crisis hits, there’s usually one industry that manages to thrive: makeup. The “Lipstick Index,” a moniker famously coined by The Estée Lauder Cos. former chairman Leonard Lauder way back in the early aughts, is the perceived notion that in the midst of a recession, women are more likely to treat themselves to the more financially attainable luxury of cosmetics like lipstick instead of pricier fashion and accessories.
As the U.S. stands on the precipice of what could be the biggest recession since the Great Depression, sadly that legendary idea no longer appears to ring true—according to Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor for market research firm NPD, sales in the prestige makeup category were down a whopping 46 percent in the month of March. One notable exception? Nail care.
While NPD notes that within the prestige category, sales for nail polish in March are technically down about 20 percent (that’s not bad, considering all of the other makeup categories were down by almost half each), brands like Sally Hansen, Nails Inc., and Jin Soon have all seen a surge in sales in the past few months as salons are shuttered and consumers find themselves with bare nails and plenty of time on their hands (pun intended). “We are a very hand-centric society, even in isolation," notes Celia Tombalakian, VP of Sally Hansen Global & U.S. Marketing. "We’re constantly typing and on our phones, so our hands are always front and center. We also know from prior research that women very much ritualize their self-care around nails, be it shaping or weekly color changes and this [surge] is just an extension of that.”
Nails Inc. founder Thea Green says sales for nail polish and treatments have grown astronomically—April year over year sales have seen products like the Kensington Caviar 45-Second Top Coatup a mind-boggling 5,800 percent. The website as a whole saw a 57 percent uptick in total sales from March 2020 to April 2020. “We have seen a huge increase in sales, first with gel removal because of that initial panic of ‘I’ve got to get my gels off,’ but also a huge rise in treatments because people have more time at home,” she notes.
For brands that sell in specialty and department stores, the majority of which have been shut down for the past two months, web sales have skyrocketed and have helped them at least break even despite the loss of a key revenue stream. “A large percentage of our sales moved online—since we lost over 1,000 stores globally—so basically, sales have remained consistent,” notes Deborah Lippmann, celebrity manicurist and founder of the iconic eponymous nail brand. “Our website is on fire, as well as our major retail partners [websites]. The increase started almost immediately after the mid-March shutdown.”
Mass brands like Sally Hansen, which is sold in many stores that were deemed essential businesses throughout the lockdown (drugstores, grocery stores, etc.), have also noted an uptick in sales, especially in the care category. “It’s been very interesting because one of the key things versus the last time there was a recession (in 2008) is that there’s a very big focus on treatment,” says Tombalakian. “I think what’s different overall is that we’ve had this ongoing health crisis, which has influenced economic wariness, but also from a hygiene standpoint, it’s very challenging on the hands.” This rush for DIY alternatives to professional services also differs from the 2008 crisis as salon closures weren’t a factor at that time, she says.
As far as color goes, Tombalakian notes that the brand’s Salon Gel Polish Gel Nail Color Starter Kit is seeing “unprecedented interest” due to the amount of regular salon goers who can’t get their usual gels. “Our DNA is about bringing the salon home and making beauty accessible at every price point,” she explains.
NPD’s Jensen notes that the data supports that trend category-wide. “What we’ve been seeing is a lot of strong growth in nail care and treatments. With salons closed, it seems that women are using this time to give their nails a break and repair any kind of damage they may have done from getting their nails constantly done.”
Jin Soon founder Jin Soon Choi, found herself having to ramp up manufacturing and new product creation to meet demand. “We launched the HyperCare line (HyperRepair, HyperGloss, and HyperDry) in February and it is selling so well that I am already feverishly working on replenishing the stock,” notes Choi. “It's always good to take a break from nail polish to allow your nails to heal, especially if you often get gel manicures. Perhaps that's why HyperRepair has been selling so well."
But, that’s not to say innovation isn’t also driving sales. Brands with unique offerings, like ManiMe, a direct-to-consumer start-up that offers 3D-modeled, custom-fitted, stick-on gel manicures, is uniquely positioned to capitalize on a clientele used to more durable polishes and professional designs. “I think in the past, manicurists were considered the only elegant way to get your nails done,” notes David Miro Llopis, co-founder and COO. “Consumers’ interest in ManiMe is being able to get nail art on their nails without having to go to the salon. Many consumers are saying getting their nails done [gives them] a feeling of being put together even when [they're] working from home.” The company is less than a year old, but CEO and co-founder Jooyeon Song notes that sales have doubled in the past few months.
ManiMe offers both solid colors and unique designs created by nail artist partners like Hang Nguyen and Madeline Poole. “A major source of retail is our designer-collaborated collections," reveals Song. “When these designs come out, all of their followers want them and we hear from the artists which designs were most loved,” meaning the brand knows what to increase production of and expand on in real time. For instance, the Funky French design has been a complete sell-out, so the brand is working feverishly to both restock and provide more color options, as well as launching eight brand new designs later this month.
Nails Inc. is also seeing the financial benefits with more innovation-driven products. Earlier this year the company launched two thermochromatic colors (read: temperature-reactive, color-changing polish), just in time for everyone to be endlessly washing their hands. “As you wash your hands, you’re seeing that instant color change, which is really fun and playful—and we all need something fun right now,” says Green. Customers have been clamoring for more shades and many have mentioned that it’s been helpful in getting their kids to wash their hands more often because they love to watch the colors change.
More so than any other companies, salon brands have had to make a major pivot as their businesses (and main source of revenue) were forced to close. Many have gone all in on at-home kits to bring a little bit of the salon experience home. Some, like Olive & June, were already set up with sets that made it easier for women to DIY. “Our Studio and Everything Boxes are outperforming because people want an all-in one solution,” says founder and CEO Sarah Gibson Tuttle. “They're looking for us to take the guesswork out of what you need to get the perfect salon manicure at home.” If even the most curated at-home nail kit won't steady shaky hands, more customers are flocking to realistic-looking press-ons without their weekly nail appointments—Rebecca Minkoff x imPRESS features an array of minimalistic nail art, while Gel X Nails offers gel press-ons that last much longer than traditional counterparts. For custom options, manicurists like Gracie J have started creating custom press-ons available for purchase off their Instagram, offering new limited-edition designs weekly. The options for creating pro-looking manicures at home are endless, regardless of your skill level.
Gel Removal and Care
Gel removal was a driving force of the initial uptick in sales, with the majority of our experts noting that customer engagement at first was around gels and the damage they do to the nails. “People have been resorting to a lot of different things to remove gels from their nails and it can be extremely humbling how brittle your nails are," says Tombalakian. Brands quickly responded, tapping their experts to create content and promote products to help customers in gel-removal panic mode.
“Our community was fast to ask for help with gel and dip removal during the first few weeks of the stay at home order,” notes Rebecca Brown, Director of Influencer Marketing for OPI. “We quickly created step-by-step tutorials and blog content to help them remove their old manicure properly and safely at home.” Top sellers for OPI include strengthening treatment line Nail Envy to “strengthen and lengthen brittle nails,” followed closely by the Infinite Shine ProStay Gloss, which creates an extra shiny finish, similar to that of gels.
Salons like Sundays and Paintbox found other ways to diversify revenue streams by offering online courses to help clients learn manicure basics and nail art from their expert technicians. “Our mission is to help clients take care of themselves in the studio or at home, so we launched virtual manicure classes, including private ones so that clients can get one-on-one attention,” explains Amy Ling Lin, CEO and founder of Sundays nail studios. They offer five classes that range from $15 for public courses to $45 for private sessions.
Paintbox recently launched “virtual manicure parties” that allow you to remotely gather a group of friends via Zoom for a manicure lesson with a Paintbox pro. Prices vary based on the size of your group, with $35 per person for up to six guests, $30 per person for seven to 10, or $28 per person for 11+. These types of online services work double-duty by keeping staff employed and bringing in much-needed profits that don’t rely solely on retail sales. As Ling Lin notes, “Our classes provide additional income to out-of-work specialists—we actually pay them a higher hourly rate to operate the virtual classes. Plus, there’s the added benefit of flexible hours and being able to work from home. Clients are also invited to tip via Venmo @dear_sundays, by mentioning the name of the specialist they work with.”
Olive & June also got in on the class action with Mani Bootcamp—a free web tutorial that shows you the basics of creating a salon-quality manicure at home. “We currently go live every Monday for Mani 101 so that we have a consistent time every week where anyone can join us to learn all the basics,” explains Gibson Tuttle. “In addition, I go live every Saturday to solve questions in real time with members of our community who call in. It's so fun to see that everyone is turning into a mani pro!"
The Future of Nail Salons
Every brand we interviewed has extended plans to keep catering to the at-home consumer, be it with IGTV tutorials to new DIY-friendly products, mostly because the future of nails salons are so uncertain. Lippmann believes that despite lockdowns lifting, we won’t be seeing an immediate rush back to salons. “This summer there will be some reluctance to head back to the salon to see if the infection rate goes up or down with this virus. The experience in the salon is going to lose a lot of intimacy, with the manicurist having to wear gloves and both the manicurist and the client wearing masks, a plexiglass shield between them, etc.” She adds, “The salons [that are open] might be busy, but remember there will be fewer salons; like restaurants [many] of them won’t survive being closed for two or three months.”
From her vantage point, Jensen isn’t totally convinced that this at-home boom is going to be the new norm: “While different parts of the country are shut down, this positive trend will continue, but we believe that these huge increases we are seeing in the nail category will subside once stay-at-home orders are lifted.” However, as some of the hardest hit places are urban areas like New York and San Francisco (and big coastal cities represent almost 30 percent of total prestige beauty sales), it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be before consumers feel comfortable returning to nail salons. Until that time, it looks like at-home mani/pedis are going to be the only form of nail pampering we get for the foreseeable future. Luckily there are plenty of options to keep us occupied and our nails looking at least semi-pro.