Big disasters lead to fast change.
In normal times, change is ever-present in the background. It hums along steadily, but slowly. While innovation & information drive change forward, established habits & behavior create an inertial force that drag it back. But time after time, when societies face a crisis, this inertial force is overcome. Unprecedented events lead to new fears, which in turn lead to alterations in habits. These new habits then remain. 9/11 changed the way we travel. Forever.
Humanity is facing one such global crisis today. The COVID-19 virus is sweeping through the world, putting countries, societies & communities under tremendous pressure. There are government-enforced lockdowns in many places, and social distancing, a phrase that we probably never encountered till a few months back, is now widely accepted as the most effective way to control the spread of the virus.
This crisis will pass. Maybe in a few months. Maybe in a year. Maybe longer. The virus may linger. But the crisis will pass. It will, however, leave behind a legacy – new methods of working, new patterns of consumption, and in fact, new ways of interacting with fellow people.
The beauty & wellness industry is one sector that is bound to experience a tectonic transformation. The services that this industry provides are personal & physical in nature. The very basis of spas and salons is touch. And touch is becoming a bad word today.
This does not mean that the industry will wither away.
Beauty & wellness will continue to thrive because people will still need to “feel good”. A new hairstyle, or a relaxing massage is more than just a physical makeover. It is a means to become more confident, feel better about oneself, and get empowered to take on the world. This need will never go away. Habits like working from home, may initially “liberate” people from grooming and dressing up. But once the novelty wears off, they will realize that looking & feeling good has an inexorable link to how they perform.
And while home self-care may become more popular, nothing can replace the power of the practitioners. Stylists, therapists and masseuses are deeply committed people. They empathize with the customer, 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 feel good.
The beauty & wellness industry will therefore 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 vulnerable we are to infectious diseases. Globalization and inter-continental travel have resulted in a smaller and more connected planet. Great for humans, but, unfortunately, good for viruses too. Superior healthcare may mitigate mortality, but the threat remains. The ever-present anxiety thus created, will make people far more concerned and conscious about health & sanitation. Whether it is washing hands more often, or cleaning surfaces more frequently, there will be an enhanced awareness of healthy practices. This “health pressure” will affect the way people interact with retail spaces too, especially the ones that involve 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 to people. What happens when we start looking at every stranger as a potential infector? What happens when we suspect every surface of being contaminated? It is unlikely that we will all sink into some dystopian isolation, but the fact remains that everyone will try to play it safe. Social distancing is here to stay. This caution will extend to physical surfaces too. Do I want to press that elevator button? The reluctance to avoid unnecessary contact will lead to a completely different set of expectations from salons & spas. Not just in the processes followed, but also in the visible display & overt exhibition of sanitation. Masks & gloves may become the new uniform. It’s not just about being clean. It is about being seen as clean.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, a realization that food-hygiene, or the lack of it, can cause diseases, led to restaurants being more stringently monitored. Not just in the quality of their food, but also the cleanliness of the premises, and the “healthiness” of their processes. Society is now arriving at a similar realization that the very act of touching can spread diseases. And society acts through “regulatory pressure”. Increased consumer expectations & anxieties may 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 pressures may challenge the very viability of some beauty & wellness brands. This could be termed “economic pressure”. New expectations from consumers, the need for visible standards, and the increased cost of compliance may make it very difficult for single outlets to thrive. There’s a good chance that they could lose out to multi-outlet, multi-location chains. Large chains, be it in food, hospitality or travel, are sometimes perceived to lack individuality, but they always emanate a reassuring aura of efficiency and predictability. Plus, they can better 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 within the umbrella of a national chain.
The four pressures just described do pose a significant challenge to the beauty & wellness industry, but on the other hand, the industry does have a powerful force to counteract on these pressures – Technology.
Cloud-based, always-on, device-independent software has already transformed many other industries like transportation, media and communication. While the beauty & wellness industry has been gradually migrating to such platforms over the last decade, the current crisis may be the catalyst to accelerate this adoption.
Many of the new customer & societal expectations can be best met with technology. Online bookings, self-check-ins, automatic payments, and many such features serve to eliminate unnecessary touch-interactions. For example, the days of salons being a social hangout may be numbered. People will come in for a haircut, but they would not be comfortable waiting in a lobby with other guests. Smart booking algorithms that optimize appointments and ensure minimal wait time can tackle this. Even the very 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 – a sort of “hygiene theatre”. Like do away with magazines, and instead provide digital content that people can access on their own phones. Or put up screens with a health-checklist that shows, for instance, when the chair was sanitized last.
Technology will allow these new standards to be exhibited not just in the outlet, but outside the visit too. Like sending personalized communication to customers. Even referrals & ratings will move beyond just the quality of the stylist. It would have to encompass the cleanliness & sanitation of the experience. This may become an important driver to attract new customers.
Of course, the fundamental service of a haircut or a massage will still involve touch, but the very efficiency of all the other processes will reassure the customer on the safety and hygiene of the outlet.
The rapid adoption of technology will not only be powered by customer need, but also by business ability. The consolidation of the industry into larger chains would mean that there is greater buying power for high-end technology. Digitization will move from being “nice to have” to “must have” because consolidation & centralization will throw up new requirements of brand unification, process-standardization and data-management that only technology can meet.
So, what we will have after the COVID-19 crisis is probably a stronger and fitter beauty & wellness industry. That uses 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, but sometimes the change is for the better.
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