Given how reliant health and beauty retailing is on tactility, test and trial, it’s unsurprising that the onset of the global pandemic has thrown the sector into disarray.

At the beginning of 2020, the beauty industry had an estimated global value of £599.5 billion, with the wellness sector coming in at £3.6 trillion, according to Euromonitor. Fast-forward to today and peoples changing needs have forced brands, formulators and laboratories to rethink the way they do things to better serve their customers in the “new abnormal”.

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As physical stores reopened, a changed reality has begun, with basic protocols like social distancing, hand sanitising stations and one-way aisles taking precedence. Despite their best efforts to retain the sense of luxury and calm, for many people shopping for health and beauty products in-store just isn’t the same, and this is calling into question the purpose of the physical store and pushing brands into the digital realm.

Kate Shepherd, co-founder The Future Collective
Kate Shepherd, co-founder The Future Collective

Ultimately, the battle isn’t so much for the consumers attention, it’s an attempt to gain their trust. Because trust has always been a fundamental factor in our skincare and beauty selections. Often described as ‘hope in a jar’ we buy into new formulations and brands hoping it does what it says on the tin.

In recent years, the arrival of evermore inclusive, exploratory and discovery-centric ‘beauty playgrounds’ meant that this leap of faith was becoming a thing of the past, as shoppers were able to test and try products and to feel certain of their selections in-store.

So where does that leave us today, given that it’s no longer safe to shop in this way?

Recent research suggests that in our search for certainty and proof, many of us are turning to tried and trusted brands and products. Sales figures from the beauty houses and brands mark a return to revisiting old favourites from heritage brands, and honing down the beauty cabinet to contain a new definition of “essentials”.

There is also a clear trend towards hero products, and those that are very much trusted and proven investment purchases. Not only is the pandemic having an impact on the products we are buying, but it’s also having an impact on the way we’re shopping and making our selections too.

As a much more considered mentality takes hold. How can beauty brands and retailers find new ways to instil trust in the minds of consumers?

Trusted Safe Havens

Cutting edge cleanliness has become a top commodity and critical concern as ‘safety is the new luxury’.

Enhanced hygiene and cleaning practises are high on the agenda for health and beauty retailers post-covid. Brands must reposition engagement strategies to offer reassurance and resilience to nervous customers seeking transparent safe havens that support their health and wellbeing.

While low-touch retail is likely to remain a priority for some time, retailers will still need to follow hygiene protocol, but look to avoid shop fit-outs that feel cold and sterile, presenting an interesting design challenge.

Surface treatments have come in for particular scrutiny during the pandemic with the need to select new antimicrobial surfaces and materials. Equally, air quality will also be a key factor, with a focus on advanced filtration systems designed to protect shoppers against airborne pollutants.

Leading the way are brands like luxury gym, Third Space, who have traded complimentary refreshments for thermal cameras that scan your core body temperature on the way in. They’ve even installed air systems integrated with bipolar ionisation technology to maximise fresh air and top of the range virucidal to obliterate germs.

It’s interesting to note that this new obsession with hygiene is naturally filtrating through to the products people are purchasing too. In a recent article published in the Financial Times it was reported that “Clean beauty will evolve to mean ‘safe beauty’”. As a result, science-led beauty brands and products will see increased demand. As Cult Beauty’s Alexia Inge wrote in her recent report: “Ecover out the window, Domestos in.”  The arrival of coronavirus will further push the notion that natural isn’t always better, especially when it comes to ingredient safety and shelf life.

Trusted advice and guidance

Many cautious shoppers are still too nervous to head in-store to receive beauty advice, consultations and guidance. They are, however, keen to connect with brands digitally instead.

With new habits adopted during the lockdown, our homes have taken on a very different role, becoming a new realm of customer experience, with our mobiles and laptops replacing treatment rooms and beauty counters.

With a multitude of different technologies at their fingertips, the most progressive brands and retailers are embracing this new approach with force.

Social media has quickly become an invaluable way of sharing guidance and advice. Brands and beauty experts alike have been making themselves more available and gaining the trust of their customers and followers through Instagram Lives and chats where they’ve been able to respond directly to questions.

Stepping up to meet demand for expert DIY advice and virtual connection, the global haircare brand Aveda created a series of videos on Instagram, sharing tips on everything from setting textured hair to styling grown-out haircuts – and views have increased over 200 per cent since the launch.

Beauty retail

Meanwhile, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty turned to TikTok to keep its mostly Gen Z customers engaged, setting up an account where a select group of influencers would post brand-related content and make-up tutorials. According to the Financial Times, the #fentybeautyhouse hashtag had 86.2m views on TikTok in August 2020.

During this period, bespoke beauty advice began to take the form of virtual consultations. Fast becoming the go-to way for brands and retailers to deliver one-to-one guidance.

In beauty retailing, this has become the natural way forward as they attempt to cater for consumers who are reticent to test and try make-up in-store. Companies like Guerlain, Caudalie, Deciem and Clinique have been offering virtual one-on-one consultations with their experts and counter staff through Zoom and Skype.

“While the explosion in online beauty consultations was born out of necessity, the boost in sales means most brands will continue doing them in a post-crisis world.’ (WWD)

Not only is this approach providing much-needed guidance and support for customers, but it’s also elevating the role of sales associates and igniting a new-found passion for their role. It’s also sparked a greater sense of familiarity and trust as sales associates transform into supportive friends, rather than simply purveyors of goods or guidance.

Having now explored the art of the possible, it’s likely that these virtual services will continue to be offered and enhanced for the convenience of customers well beyond Coronavirus.

Trusted test & trial

According to a recent study from Meiyume, customers are four times more likely to buy a product when they interact with or test it. However, the unhygienic nature of beauty testers has become impossible to ignore during the pandemic.

Testers and samples naturally remain off-limits and 78% of women no longer feel safe testing and trying beauty products in-store. Early research suggests that it’s likely that people’s attitudes towards hygiene and safety will be etched on our psyche for many years to come. Even when it’s safe to do so, people are unlikely to return to the methods of test and trial we once had no reticence about.

From a design perspective, there is a need to explore entirely new ways to help people to experiment with products to find the perfect match in colour, consistency and tone.  A growing number of brands and retailers across the globe are turning to technology to salvage try-before-you-buy beauty. The outbreak has encouraged – if not forced – shoppers to virtually try on products. And having got used to this tech, it’s likely it will stay with people and become mainstream.

In the longer-term, the answer to zero-touch retail is likely to lie in digital technologies, like augmented reality, which is becoming increasingly accessible to brands and consumers alike. Given that 68% of consumers globally are comfortable with augmented reality technology when considering making a purchase (McKinsey, 2020), there is an opportunity to consider how AR and VR can heighten the experience and enhance product immersion, trial and selection.

Beauty retail

Discovery and sample sets from companies like Sephora and UK retailer Next have also become more prevalent since the pandemic hit and are likely to continue throughout the reopening period, according to Edited research analyst Heather Ibberson.

Beauty product developers are now rushing to find solves in packaging and product ingredients that will allow for sampling to continue in stores.

Meiyume has created a motion-activated product sampler that can dispense liquids like perfume or foundation into a customer’s hand without them having to touch anything, a design which will roll into undisclosed retailers over the next few months. The company is also experimenting with antimicrobial packaging and ingredients that could potentially lessen the risk of Covid-19’s spread as well as self-cleaning dispensers.

Trusted Beauty Community

In their search for trusted advice and guidance, shoppers tend to trust one-another far more than brands and retailers.

Peer-to-peer reviews and suggestions shared amongst like-minded beauty communities remain the most powerful source of information of all. Innovations such as the Beauty Buddy app are harnessing the potential of beauty communities to support unbiased product selection and choice, helping customers to look behind the marketing messages to hear stories of product proof.

Social media platforms have broken down geographical barriers to allow like-minded online communities to come together and amplify their voices at lightning speed. Research from artificial intelligence (AI) software company Yonder revealed that just 10% of internet subcultures on platforms, like Reddit, wield the influence to drive more than 70% of online narratives.

“Identifying collective customer behaviours through commerce data will be particularly powerful in fostering communities of brand superfans to deliver customer experience they will love.” Laura Ewing, Trends & Cultural Intelligence expert

Understanding the nuances of the online behaviours and conversations of niche digital communities through AI will be game-changing for brands and retailers. Retail spend on AI is forecast to grow from $2 billion in 2018 to $7.3 billion by 2022, according to Juniper Research.

Beauty retail reset

How can we build trust with beauty consumers in a post-pandemic world?

There is no doubt that digital technology is helping us all to shop for health and beauty products in new ways. Whether it’s trusted advice we are searching for, or peace of mind that the product is right for our individual needs, there are more options and opportunities available to us digitally than we have ever had at our fingertips before.

“The virus has accelerated progress in the health and beauty industry by years. It’s been a total reset.” (Financial Times, 2020)

As 5G prepares for global roll-out by 2021, the world is going to experience connectivity like never before. It’s likely that even in our post-pandemic world many of these digital advances will remain.

Consumer sentiment research suggests that people will continue to demand far more with 72% of consumers now eager to buy from digitally innovative retailers (Growcode). But all of this emphasis on digital technologies leaves us at The Future Collective thinking about those who still prefer analogue interactions and human connection. How can we build trust with people who yearn for this old-school type of engagement and interaction? What will our beauty halls and beauty stores become, post-pandemic? How will our attitudes to hygiene evolve when it’s completely safe to shop again? And, most importantly, how will all of these changes impact your brand?

Much of this will depend on the age of your customer. And this might not be as cut and dried as you think. For example, it’s younger Generation Z consumers who are missing physical retailing most of all – with 90 percent of Gen Z, the most online generation, preferring to shop for beauty products in stores.

We’ve been delving deeply into all of these questions and more. Our designers and creative thinkers at The Future Collective have been exploring many ways that the beauty retailing environment must adapt and evolve to help people to shop in new ways.

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