Has the pandemic broken the beauty industry?

Locking the big red door of her beauty salon behind her, Jessica Earl felt heartbroken. 

Formerly a popular Cheltenham venue that was frequented largely by women celebrating birthdays and hen parties, the pandemic had put paid to its usually bustling atmosphere.

By the time the third lockdown hit and with her business unable to trade, Jessica could no longer afford the £7,000 per quarter rent.

With her business no longer viable, she would otherwise have faced eviction if she didn’t pay up. Instead, she had to make the devastating decision to make her 16 members of staff redundant.

Then, on December 29, 2021, she shut the door for good on her champagne nail bar, Earl’s and Co.

Recalling that last day in December, Jessica, 33, describes how the team sat at the bar in the shop and ‘celebrated, commiserated and cried all at the same time’ about all they had achieved and that the pandemic had forced the business to fold. 

‘It was awful. Completely heartbreaking,’ she remembers. ‘It was my identity for ten years. I was 23 when I opened it and I won awards for being the youngest woman in business in the area. It was a really amazing ride to have Earl’s and Co being such a well-known destination in town. To lose that was hugely devastating.’

Jessica explains that the pandemic also left her stressed and worried for her employees, all of whom ‘had families, had mortgages to pay, rent to pay, and vulnerable members of family at home’. 

Now, she works as a beauty therapist alone, ‘purely because of what the last few years have done’ – she says employing people right now ‘doesn’t make sense’ – and is bereft at what she has lost.

She adds: ‘The atmosphere, the building, the location, everything just worked. I miss it massively.’

There were almost 45,000 hair and beauty businesses operating in the UK in 2020. While there are no official figures yet for how many shut down during the pandemic, the survival rates for the industry was already in decline. 

A 2021 report by the National Hair and Beauty Federation identified it as one of the hardest hit by the UK’s pandemic lockdowns, with turnover falling by an average of 45% in 2020 compared to 2019. Salon capacity also fell to 70% of its pre-pandemic level due to social distancing and enforced closures.

Many beauty professionals claimed that they were victims of discrimination, as female-led industries were hit hardest by Covid. With the beauty industry 91% female and many felt they were disproportionately affected by economic ruin caused by the pandemic, as salons were unable to trade for so long.

And now that the cost of living crisis has hit, even celebrity stylist Nicky Clarke has been forced to close his flagship Mayfair salon after he said the establishment, which has been open for thirty years, was no longer viable.

Following its closure at the end of April, Nicky said in a statement: ‘The last two years have been the toughest we have experienced with Covid-enforced long-term closures, rising rates and overheads making the salon no longer economically sustainable.’

Businesses across the UK are now facing soaring energy bills and increasing rents and overhead costs. And with the public counting every penny, visits are down, meaning less cash is coming in, according to the Salon Employers Association.

Hairdressing salons pay 50% more tax than other retailers, explains Hellen Ward, association co-founder, who says the industry has seen ‘closure, after closure, after closure’ and that it needs better tax deals to stay afloat.

‘Since Covid, [the industry] was around 20% down on turnover compared to where we were in 2019. So if we weren’t having to pay VAT, we would have really been able to hold our own against this crisis. Our sector is in crisis now.

‘There has been a massive surge in self-employment. We have rent-a-chair, rent-a-treatment room, so you can’t control what days and times stylists work. When you’re running a business, it’s like trying to run a restaurant and you don’t know whether the chef is going to come or not.’

Landlords have also been ‘extremely tough’, Hellen adds, with higher bills taking their toll. One colleague has seen his lighting and heating bills increase by a worrying 400%, she says.

‘All these aspects together cause a perfect storm. And now the customer has completely changed.’

Hellen, owner of London’s Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa, says the industry average used to be a customer visit every six weeks pre-Covid; now they only come once every 15 weeks.

‘People are working from home, they are going out less. They aren’t coming in for their weekly blow dries like they used to.

‘You’ve got trends for box hair dyes which I saw during lockdown, and a lot of clients just grew out their hair and grew out their colour. You have balayage, so you don’t get any roots, and there’s no call to come into the salon to get them sorted out. So what we’re seeing is people coming in still, but they’re coming in far less often. It is extremely sad and really quite frightening.’

London-based Julia Champion, 53, admits she has significantly cut down on salon visits since the start of the pandemic, and has saved more than £2,000. She used to make regular visits, but these stopped with the first lockdown.

Julia, a talent agent and PR, says: ‘I have dyed my own hair since the pandemic which saves me about £100 a month. I used to have my hair cut about once every eight weeks, but now it’s about twice a year.

‘I used to have a root tint every five weeks and a cut every eight to 10 weeks or so. I stopped when the salons were closed and started buying hair dye from Superdrug for £6.99 and no one noticed the difference. It looks just as good to me.

‘I still splash out on blow dries for work events, but instead of going to posh, expensive West End salons, I go to the local one at the end of the road and get a blow dry for £22.’

Greta Feenan has run the Eclipse salon in Stafford since 2005. As the pandemic approached, and she had to shut her doors, she panicked.

‘The first few weeks I nearly had a meltdown,’ she remembers. ‘I had to pay my shop rent, my own expenses, my house. I cried a lot. I thought. “How can I do this?”’

Describing the worry she felt about how she was going to live and eat, Gretna, 66, says, ‘It sounds silly now, but I’ve got chickens. So I thought – at least I’ve got my chickens, and I can buy a bag of spuds so I can survive on that.’

It wasn’t until she received the Government’s top-up grant that she felt that she could relax a bit. 

Closed businesses were entitled to a one-off grant of up to £9,000 on a per-property basis. However, the amount paid to businesses varied, as payments depended on the salon’s rateable value. Most salons were eligible for £4,000 or £6,000 grants. 

‘The grant was a lifesaver,  I knew then that I could pay the shop rent,’ says Greta. ‘I paid it every month on the dot without fail. I also worked hard on my business while we were off.’

With her salon, like so many others, only open for 16 weeks out of 52, Greta, used the time to improve her establishment, working on social media, updating her website and practicing her skills on hairdresser training heads – which she lined up in rows in her dining room. She also stayed in touch with her clients, so that when she reopened her doors, they came back.

She adds: ‘We came back to so many dreadful men’s haircuts! People hadn’t been spending money, so as soon as they could come back, our books were full.’

Celebrity hair stylist James Johnson says he has seen his costs soar due to the cost of living crisis, and that he has had to work his fingers to the bone to keep up.

James has worked on X factor and has a number of celebrity clients, including Mel B, Katie Price, Gemma Collins, Abbey Clancy and Georgia Toff. He travels all around the world; it’s a glamorous life, but one that the 26-year-old says he’s worked exceptionally hard for.

‘When the pandemic hit, I was massively worried,’ he admits. ‘As stylists, we are people people. We love being around others, we love chatting and having a little gossip. To go from that to nothing, was really, really hard. It had a big impact financially and emotionally. Across the industry there was a lot of anxiety.’

Over two years on, James says that the pandemic still affects his work; he has to arrive early for shoots so people can be staggered, brushes have to be washed ‘ten times more’, everyone is more cautious, and he has to lug PPE and bottles of sanitiser everywhere he goes. 

The cost of living is now also taking its toll, with James spending more than £500 a week on fuel alone as he has to travel all over the country.

‘People just don’t have the budget, while brands don’t have as much money. We are trying to adjust and figure out how to keep on working when the money just isn’t there,’ he says.

‘Fuel is a joke. I fill my car up three times a week and it costs a bomb. That jump in cost price isn’t matched in what we charge. It is massively affecting me. We are working more and longer because we need to make up for what we are losing.

‘The other day, I got up at 4am and didn’t get in ’til 9pm,’ he adds. ‘I was at Lorraine in the morning for ITV, then did a shoot in London and then clients in the evening. That is a normal day for me now. I’m always tired and constantly have eye bags.’

James says the beauty industry is also struggling because the entry-level work is so hard.

‘I spent three years scrubbing toilets with toothbrushes as an assistant in a salon. I spent hours getting to work from Kent to London, and ending up with £60 a week because that was my job. 

‘I earned £500 a month and £440 went on my travel card coming on the train from Kent. My job was literally cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. But I knew that if you want to be the best and you want to do well, that is what you have to do.’

While James insists he loves what he does, and says it was all worth it, he does warn that to do well in styling, you have to make sacrifices – even more so now, with inflation on the rise.

According to the National Hair and Beauty Federation, businesses are experiencing a skills and recruitment crisis, with 57% of hair & beauty businesses suffering from unfilled vacancies.

‘I work seven days a week, but I love what I do. I adore the people that I work with. It becomes social,’ explains James. ‘But there are so many things I miss out on; nights out, friends’ birthdays. But the cost of living has gone up and I have to fit that work in. You’ve just got to go to work.’

However, there has been an upshot following recent events, as people are now realising that having a stylist in your home is accessible, he says.

‘Since the pandemic, people don’t want to go to salons, and I have no doubt that we will see more closing down,’ says James. ‘To have a stylist come to your house is so normal now. It’s opened up a new lease of work for stylists and beauty people, that wasn’t there before. No matter how skint they are, people still want their hair done. 

‘Everyone now wants the Kardashian’s lifestyle or multiple hairstyles for different nights out. Things are changing, because of people like Kim K. There is no hair trend for this year; there is no certain look. It’s having your hair up, then down, then short, then long. That is the trend.’

Jessica Earl says she is busy again too. She has built a thriving business – @earlsbeautyuk – and is booked up for weeks ahead. 

Gone is the big party shop. Instead she works alone doing nails, massage, facials, eyebrows and eyelashes. She says she won’t reopen her salon, but feels that despite all it’s been through, the beauty industry as a whole will come back stronger. 

‘I know from speaking from my past students and employees that everyone is feeling this pressure,’ she explains. ‘So we will increase our prices, but also increase that value. With such a low in mental health across the country, it’s our responsibility when having this one-on-one time with clients that we are doing the most we can to help them – and vice versa.’ 

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