The professional beauty industry, traditionally dominated by independent professionals and artists, is under threat from monopolization by a small number of companies. By 2017, 7 companies owned 182 beauty brands, a testament to the regression of the professional beauty space.
Professional beauty is a sector that no one really understands unless they are part of our tribe. It’s always been the most challenging channel of beauty landscape to enter. As a brand, if you have what it takes to get into the channel, it’s the perfect place to begin, because there is nothing like having the endorsement of credible professionals who roll up their sleeves each and every day to bring happiness and beauty to consumers one service at a time.
To understand how this sector works, you must have a degree in psychology, or at least have taken some courses. All joking aside, whether you are talking skin, nails, grooming, or hair, the pro space, with the exception of inexpensive chain salons, is dominated and governed by small communities spread across the country. But this is changing, as professional brands, once the pillars of the channel, are attacked by consolidation from conglomerates coming in and destroying this society.
Think of the movie Mad Max where a civilization collapsed and was brought to its knees—what has happened to the pro channel is similar. The acquisition of countless professional brands and the consolidation of the entire distribution system ignited a fire which shook the industry at its core. This creates a vicious cycle, as the salon and spa industry were already hurting due to lack of innovation and deficiency in standards in the national cosmetology system.
Cosmetology schools, where the foundations of the industry are built, produced a workforce held to state-specific standards and regulations which, as a whole, were and still are held to outdated benchmarks set decades prior.
This domino effect created an imbalance, as salons went from being exposed to the latest information and innovation through various vehicles delivered by their distributors’ education departments, to receiving deal sheets and flyers focusing on discounted offers.
Education in the beauty industry was undermined by the theory of how many people or likes a certain personality or celebrity has on Instagram, not to how credible a source or how much real-life experience the influencer actually has amassed. And if this weren’t enough, both salons and spas suddenly had the flashing sirens of Amazon in their rearview mirrors offering the potential of supplemental income through their retail departments.
Although these shifts have been profitable for the big conglomerates, private equity, and the like, they have created a divide within the communities of practitioners, artists, and service providers, who have lost all faith and trust in the professional beauty industry. Very similar to what’s happening with our country’s political system.
The professional beauty industry is still a powerful force. Nothing has changed except the landscape, the expectations, and the outlook. Unless you understand how to navigate through these waters, there is the risk of being thrown into the Bermuda Triangle of pro beauty. From the outside looking in it looks easy because of the low barriers to entry; yet, once you enter, good luck unless you are a part of the tribe—there are unforeseen booby traps around each corner.
When I was a young kid, my mother did everything she could to expose me to the beauty business. She helped me discover and understand the service side of the business, the vital correlations it imparted as it related to influencing innovative product development. She did this, believe it or not, by making me stand at a shampoo basin every day after karate practice to wash hair. Her philosophy was that I was going to learn and understand hair, scalp, textures, even conditions of the skin, while appreciating the concept of overall beauty. She also made me play the role of janitor within the salons and spas; she told me that this is where I was going to learn about retail—go figure.
One of my favorite chores at the salon was to clean, organize, and stock the retail shelves. My early days in the salon made for uncomfortable circumstances while working in a female-dominated space. All I wanted to do was to be outside with all the other kids playing football. However, I became obsessed with the product shelves—besides being a safe and comforting place, it became a play area where I would always get to work with the latest and greatest products while creating my own mental lab.
It was a time when inspiration came through the products, via performance, packaging and, most importantly, a personality. There was Sebastian, which was run by the most innovative ownership group in the history of hair care. There was KMS who, as a group, were never afraid to push the envelope. Paul Mitchell was more than just a black-and-white bottle—it was a story that created a foundation. There were Trevor Sorbie and Irwin Rusk, whose product lines provided tools that created the perception, for both artists and consumers, that hair could be styled as an art form. Joico, which is now a hodgepodge of whatever sells, really pushed the envelope when it came to treating hair—even their packaging back then was innovative. I can go on about how cool Aveda, Jingles, and Toni & Guy were as they showed us how to create a culture. When it came to the skin, Dermalogica was where most of us got our start in skincare along with the lines that were being imported from Europe. One thing was sure—every product performed and did precisely what it said it was going to do.
These brands were owned and managed by real collectives—families, and founders with credibility, not private equity firms and boards of directors. There were real hands-on people managing expectations, which led to so many innovations; they were not paper pushers limited to a lack of creativity. Even the education brands offered was legitimate. You would learn from an instructor with real-life experience and run back to your salon, inspired to recreate what you had just discovered.
So, what happened? Let’s rewind and do a quick review. Back then there were over 500 to 600 distributors; now there might be a total of seven. There were no monopolies so, therefore, it was easier to find your groove as you searched for answers and quality. You were not marketed to recommendations based on likes and popularity; instead, word of mouth would spread as real, sound practitioners would act as the tipping point for products and brands. There was also a clear class system, based on high-end, mid-range, and express salons. Today you have the high end, the low end, and professionals shoved into suites because of a combination of an unbalanced economy, and state laws and regulations which work against small businesses.
What regressed the pro space? How did it turn into an unwitting group of pissed-off professionals that then ended up like a group of humanoid creatures resembling the White Walkers from Game of Thrones? The pro tribe sits and gazes at what the industry has to say while making diabolical wagers against any and all outsiders.
Instead of cultivating and advancing the industry through a focus on independent business owners and artists, the balance of power has shifted to bankers and conglomerates who are creating a state of regression while developing casualties of circumstance.
The shelves have become overassorted, the brands have lost their luster, and the people that once made them relevant and inspired us all have been replaced by numbers, projections, and assumptions tied to digital influencers and temporary public figures who lack any credibility. Families have been forced to sell their businesses due to threats from bigger companies.
Exploitation of the beauty industry at the hands of private equity, venture capital, and conglomerates alike has put our community in a dangerous position, disconnecting originality from innovation, education from individual growth—all wounding the beauty professional, who delivers an inferior product to the consumer, who then ends up paying the price.
Photo: Henry & Co via Unsplash