The need will remain, but the interface will change.
Big disasters lead to fast change.
In normal times, change is ever-present inthe background. It hums along steadily, but slowly. While innovation &information drive change forward, established habits & behavior create aninertial force that drag it back. But time after time, when societies face acrisis, this inertial force is overcome. Unprecedented events lead to newfears, which in turn lead to alterations in habits. These new habits thenremain. 9/11 changed the way we travel. Forever.
Humanity is facing one such global crisistoday. The COVID-19 virus is sweeping through the world, putting countries,societies & communities under tremendous pressure. There aregovernment-enforced lockdowns in many places, and social distancing, a phrasethat we probably never encountered till a few months back, is now widelyaccepted as the most effective way to control the spread of the virus.
This crisis will pass. Maybe in a fewmonths. Maybe in a year. Maybe longer. The virus may linger. But the crisiswill pass. It will, however, leave behind a legacy – new methods of working,new patterns of consumption, and in fact, new ways of interacting with fellowpeople.
The beauty & wellness industry is onesector that is bound to experience a tectonic transformation. The services thatthis industry provides are personal & physical in nature. The very basis ofspas and salons is touch. And touch is becoming a bad word today.
This does not mean that the industry willwither away.
Beauty & wellness will continue tothrive because people will still need to “feel good”. A new hairstyle, or arelaxing massage is more than just a physical makeover. It is a means to becomemore confident, feel better about oneself, and get empowered to take on theworld. This need will never go away. Habits like working from home, mayinitially “liberate” people from grooming and dressing up. But once the noveltywears off, they will realize that looking & feeling good has an inexorablelink to how they perform.
And while home self-care may become morepopular, nothing can replace the power of the practitioners. Stylists,therapists and masseuses are deeply committed people. They empathize with thecustomer, and revel in their happiness. They know how to make people feel good,they want to make people feel good, and they will be needed for people to feelgood.
The beauty & wellness industry willtherefore continue to connect passionate practitioners and committed customers.It is the interface between them that will change.
This change will be driven by four pressures – health, society, regulatory and economy. And enabled by one force – technology.
Coronavirus is teaching us how vulnerablewe are to infectious diseases. Globalization and inter-continental travel haveresulted in a smaller and more connected planet. Great for humans, but,unfortunately, good for viruses too. Superior healthcare may mitigatemortality, but the threat remains. The ever-present anxiety thus created, willmake people far more concerned and conscious about health & sanitation. Whetherit is washing hands more often, or cleaning surfaces more frequently, therewill be an enhanced awareness of healthy practices. This “health pressure” willaffect the way people interact with retail spaces too, especially the ones thatinvolve physical contact. Like salons and spas.
Increased health-consciousness will fuel“social pressure”. The urban agglomerations of today are global melting-pots.Packed crowds are a way of life, and there is non-stop physical proximity topeople. What happens when we start looking at every stranger as a potentialinfector? What happens when we suspect every surface of being contaminated? Itis unlikely that we will all sink into some dystopian isolation, but the factremains that everyone will try to play it safe. Social distancing is here tostay. This caution will extend to physical surfaces too. Do I want to pressthat elevator button? The reluctance to avoid unnecessary contact will lead toa completely different set of expectations from salons & spas. Not just inthe processes followed, but also in the visible display & overt exhibitionof sanitation. Masks & gloves may become the new uniform. It’s not justabout being clean. It is about being seen as clean.
In the first few decades of the 20thcentury, a realization that food-hygiene, or the lack of it, can causediseases, led to restaurants being more stringently monitored. Not just in thequality of their food, but also the cleanliness of the premises, and the“healthiness” of their processes. Society is now arriving at a similarrealization that the very act of touching can spread diseases. And society actsthrough “regulatory pressure”. Increased consumer expectations & anxietiesmay lead to city-councils imposing higher standards on the beauty &wellness industry. This could vary in strictness from self-regulation &guidelines to even inspections & classification.
A combination of the above three pressuresmay challenge the very viability of some beauty & wellness brands. Thiscould be termed “economic pressure”. New expectations from consumers, the needfor visible standards, and the increased cost of compliance may make it verydifficult for single outlets to thrive. There’s a good chance that they couldlose out to multi-outlet, multi-location chains. Large chains, be it in food,hospitality or travel, are sometimes perceived to lack individuality, but theyalways emanate a reassuring aura of efficiency and predictability. Plus, they canbetter afford the compliance costs of improved processes and higher standards.So, we could see a move from stand-alone operations to big national brands.Even the individual artist may find greater security and acceptability withinthe umbrella of a national chain.
ThePower of Technology
The four pressures just described do posea significant challenge to the beauty & wellness industry, but on the otherhand, the industry does have a powerful force to counteract on these pressures– Technology.
Cloud-based, always-on, device-independentsoftware has already transformed many other industries like transportation,media and communication. While the beauty & wellness industry has beengradually migrating to such platforms over the last decade, the current crisismay be the catalyst to accelerate this adoption.
Many of the new customer & societalexpectations can be best met with technology. Online bookings, self-check-ins,automatic payments, and many such features serve to eliminate unnecessarytouch-interactions. For example, the days of salons being a social hangout maybe numbered. People will come in for a haircut, but they would not becomfortable waiting in a lobby with other guests. Smart booking algorithms thatoptimize appointments and ensure minimal wait time can tackle this. Even thevery act of handing over a credit card to someone may induce discomfort.Whereas technology allows automatic payments a la Uber.
Over and above the processes followed,stores will also need to visibly exhibit their improved health standards – asort of “hygiene theatre”. Like do away with magazines, and instead providedigital content that people can access on their own phones. Or put up screenswith a health-checklist that shows, for instance, when the chair was sanitizedlast.
Technology will allow these new standardsto be exhibited not just in the outlet, but outside the visit too. Like sendingpersonalized communication to customers. Even referrals & ratings will movebeyond just the quality of the stylist. It would have to encompass thecleanliness & sanitation of the experience. This may become an importantdriver to attract new customers.
Of course, the fundamental service of ahaircut or a massage will still involve touch, but the very efficiency of all theother processes will reassure the customer on the safety and hygiene of theoutlet.
The rapid adoption of technology will notonly be powered by customer need, but also by business ability. Theconsolidation of the industry into larger chains would mean that there isgreater buying power for high-end technology. Digitization will move from being“nice to have” to “must have” because consolidation & centralization willthrow up new requirements of brand unification, process-standardization and data-managementthat only technology can meet.
So, what we will have after the COVID-19crisis is probably a stronger and fitter beauty & wellness industry. Thatuses cutting-edge technology to meet the new expectations of people &communities, while retaining its core of empathy and caring.
Big disasters lead to fast change, butsometimes the change is for the better.