Big Beauty Squeeze: inside the British beauty industry at breaking point

the beauty industry cost of living crisis
Why the UK beauty industry is at breaking pointMarinaPetti / Getty Image - Hearst Owned

When I first got my news alert about the rising cost of energy bills, it wasn’t running my laptop, or my heating, or my air fryer that first came to mind, it was my hair dryer that caused anxiety. When we learned that household energy bills were rising by 80% in October, I was panic-unplugging. But beauty salons weren’t in a position to do the same. When you consider how many hairdryers, heaters, or washing machines it takes to run a beauty salon, these hikes in bills are going to be devastating.

“We used to have at least six months of reserves for rental and utility payments, but now we’re living month to month,” says Deborah Johnson, founder of afro hair salon, SIMPLYGorgeous.

These worries for survival are echoed throughout the beauty industry, and there’s one person they’re all turning to for a solution: Rishi Sunak. Sure, since becoming Prime Minister, Sunak hasn’t been ranting about pork markets or Peppa Pig so much – an unexpected theme here – but his method for taking office was under scrutiny. The timing has coincided with energy bills and rent at all-time highs, mortgages being revoked and the highest interest rates my generation has seen in our lifetime. Basically, it’s sh*t.

As someone earning less (way less) than an MP’s 80K salary – or Sunak’s banking of a cool £730 mil – I’d be surprised if I was the only one doubting whether the Conservative boys club had my best interests at heart. But Sunak previously purported himself to be a champion of the beauty industry, which he described the “best of British business” in a speech.

Most beauty businesses (88% to be exact), are run by and made up of women. When I remember that Sunak’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, once called feminists “obnoxious bigots”, it doesn’t give me much hope that Tories will advocate for female-run businesses.

the beauty industry cost of living crisis
MarinaPetti / Getty Image - Hearst Owned

While beauty might slip down priorities when enduring the cost-of-living crisis – though the chancellor of the Exchequer was recently spotted paying £110 for a trim – it is an industry that remains a fundamental part of our economy and our lives.

Back in 2018, the sector reached a value of almost £30 billion, overtaking publishing and motor manufacturing for its contribution to the UK economy. The beauty industry was also one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, with turnover falling by 45% in 2021 according to the National Hair & Beauty Federation. If you take into account the fact that only 1% of 35,000 UK salons cater for textured and afro hair, the chances are these cuts are going to affect marginalised women the most.

“It’s definitely hard not to notice the rise in energy bills and overheads,” says Katherine Alvaro, who founded beauty salon, Skip The Filter, in 2021. “These significant price increases have put a strain on the business, which has meant we have had to increase our pricing to compensate.”

To put things into perspective, a report by The British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetics found that 94% of salon owners had seen an increase in utility rates in the past year. That’s a little more than a financial ‘pinch’.

I’ve seen some advice being given – not by the government, but by fellow beauty industry members – to cut down costs. Many have made the tough decision to hike up prices, while others opt for cost-saving tricks like using less towels per person to cut down their number of washes, or to stop offering coffees as part of their service. There’s a limit to how much of an impact switching to energy-saving light bulbs, and the other suggestions mentioned, can make to chopping energy bills though.

There’s the Energy Bill Relief Scheme designed to help businesses, but is it actually having an impact? Johnson believes it falls short: “the scheme is a welcome arm of support at this time, but with it only being available until March next year, we feel it’s not enough”.

“As a business, we heavily rely on water and electricity to administer our services. With the absence of reserves or credit, and a decline in footfall due to lack of consumer confidence in spending, having funds in place to run the business is worrying. Salons like ours are still not solvent due to everything that has happened, so an extended relief scheme and tax breaks would be a great help,” she explains.

the beauty industry cost of living crisis
MarinaPetti / Getty Image - Hearst Owned

Beauty businesses being left out in the cold – figuratively and literally – isn't new. It was among the last sectors to be unlocked during the waves of lockdown. But it did come to a head in 2020. It was even suggested that a 'treat out to help out' scheme be introduced to aid the industry. While Sunak has paid some lip service to its worth, and did not actively ridiculed it in the way some of his colleagues did, well intended speeches just don’t cut it.

It’s estimated that 4,578 beauty salons were forced to shut their doors for good as a result of the pandemic. This was devastating, but it also forced some to regroup. Some salons, like London’s House of Lady Muck, pivoted from nail salon to beauty and lifestyle brand. The pinch made people get creative, and this latest crises is influencing some pivots.

Roxanne Campbell, celebrity manicurist and founder of at-home nail service, Revarnish London, had her whole life put on hold when the pandemic first made home services a no-go. “My business stopped completely. Every job I had booked in my calendar was cancelled. I couldn’t work at all,” says Campbell.

“When we went into the pandemic, I was very positive. I used the time to get creative and think outside of the box. I’ve always wanted to start a mobile nail company from the beginning of my career 16 years ago, but never felt like it was ever the right time,” she says.

She believes working remotely gave her an advantage: “I chose an at-home service because I believe this is going to be the future and there are more pros than cons. For example, the overheads are very low compared to the rent in a prime London location and it’s easier to manage. Don't get me wrong, you can make a lot of money from owning a nail salon too, but you also need to invest a lot back.”

Customers are, understandably, cutting back to relieve themselves from the financial ramifications of rising bills, which causes more of a burden. More and more, the general public is looking to cut costs and tighten belts, and going DIY on their beauty to do so – there's a steady rise in consumer spend on at-home manicure sets and press-on nails, as well as DIY haircuts.

“Some clients who would usually have their nails done every 3-4 weeks are now pushing their appointments back by 6 weeks. We’ve also seen a drop in gratuity. While the tipping is certainly not something we expect, we can see that it has reduced over the last 2-3 months,” says Alvaro.

Johnson echoes this change in customer behaviour; “we’ve definitely noticed a decline in footfall. Speaking to our clients, some of them are opting to do at-home services themselves to keep a strict eye on their own finances.”

the beauty industry cost of living crisis
MarinaPetti / Getty Image - Hearst Owned

You can’t ignore the lack of female representation in the government and the impact it has for a female-dominated industry. At the time of writing this, only 35% of MPs in the House of Commons are women – that’s also the highest it’s ever been. If you then factor in the female MPs that are from minority ethnic or low-income backgrounds, safe to say, the House of Commons certainly doesn’t accurately represent the UK population.

“As a female-centric industry, we do wonder how much our male-dominated government understands the vital services the beauty industry offers to our public and provides to our economy,” says Johnson. The fact the government let barbers open before hairdressers during the pandemic sums it up perfectly.

“I feel like the beauty industry wasn’t treated fairly. A lot of the grants and support were available to other industries, except nails and beauty. To this day I still feel like nails are not considered to be a professional job – people don't take it seriously,“ says Campbell.

The future of the beauty industry under the Conservatives is unclear. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t quite trust Rishi Sunak or the current government. I feel I speak on behalf of myself and other businesses in our loss of trust and confidence. To me, it seems that the Conservative party are only concerned about their own interests, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise,” explains Alvaro.

And Johnson believes the issue is bigger than a political party: “to be honest I’m not sure if any other government would be any different. Our current options seem like a choice of different sides of the same coin”.

One thing we can all agree on, is that change is needed. “I think the country deserves a change, regardless of my thoughts and feelings on the matter. We’ve had broken leadership for far too long and a push for an earlier general election would be an amazing step for our government in giving back control to the people, recognising that there is an issue and being accountable for it,” says Alvaro.

Rishi Sunak has been in multiple positions now in which decisions he has made have subsequently pushed the beauty industry to its breaking point. It’s time for him to take accountability. It appears that the government is expecting the beauty industry to take care of itself, leaving business owners and workers in a squeeze that's only getting tighter. There’s no denying the last few years has reflected how resilient and adaptive a female-dominated industry is, and the impact it has on the UK. The real question here is, how far do women have to be pushed before the government steps in to help?

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