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Healthy Hair Aspirations Drive High-end Hair Care Sales

Prestige hair care was the only category to post growth in 2020. Now, founders and retailers weigh in on what’s driving the sales and keeping momentum high.

As the coronavirus pandemic looms, consumers are looking for health across all areas — hair, included. 

Healthy hair aspirations are causing continued sales gains in high-end hair care, even as sales across other segments, like makeup, have slumped. 

The prestige hair market was already the fastest-growing beauty category before COVID-19 hit. Left homebound, consumer interest and expectations for the category have skyrocketed. With self care in mind, shoppers are focused on new bond-building technologies and on hair growth. 

“Really, the future is bright,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president of beauty at the NPD Group, who expects the hair category’s momentum to carry through the rest of 2021. “When you look at 2020, it was a tough year for every category except hair, which grew 7 percent in a market down 19 percent.”

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At Ulta Beauty, that growth is manifesting in sales of different hair treatments, according to chief merchandising officer Monica Arnaudo. 

“We’re seeing growth in several areas, as guests engage with the hair care category in a variety of ways,” Arnaudo siad. “We’re seeing a greater adoption of more regular treatments, like hair and scalp masks, oils and serums. Some popular brands here include Briogeo and Fekkai.”

Shoppers are doubling down on basic hair care, too. “Contrary to what people might expect, our insights show that guests have been shampooing and conditioning more frequently during quarantine,” Arnaudo continued. “Our liter sales, especially jumbo size shampoos, have seen an uptick in sales.”

Briogeo founder and chief executive officer Nancy Twine said that it makes sense that shampoos, conditioners and treatments “continue to outweigh traditional styling products.” 

“There’s a fundamental shift,” Twine said. “Styling products have lost a lot of market share to cleansing, conditioning and treatment products. Consumers are realizing the results, ‘Hey, my hair feels so healthy, I don’t want to minimize that by using a bunch of hairspray, or silicone-based serums.'” 

Briogeo has garnered a cult following for Twine’s natural hair care formulations, and is sold at both Sephora and Ulta Beauty.

“Healthy hair is actually the most beautiful hair. You saw it happen with cosmetics, where you went to less use and saw that natural glow became the look that everybody was searching for,” said Melisse Shaban, founder and chief executive officer of Virtue Labs, which focuses on rebuilding hair with a protein that mimics human keratin. “That’s what’s happening with hair: how do I get the healthiest, shiny, thickest hair.”

That goal is linked with the wellness movement, especially for health-minded consumers, said Dan Langer, president of professional hair care brand R+Co. 

“The growth in hair care is really coming from self care and wellness,” Langer said. “If this year highlighted anything, it’s the profound effects of people staying home and thinking about their health. And I think that will continue.”

The idea of growing and maintaining healthy hair is a deviation from prior hair products, which have mainly focused on coating strands in order to change the look or feel of hair. Many newer products aim to work more on a cellular level to repair bonds or promote growth. 

Shaban said that when she founded her brand in 2013, a health-focused hair care brand was hard to come by. “At the end of the day, and I say this respectfully, there weren’t enormous amounts of research and development dollars spent on the technology of hair care, because mostly it wasn’t leave-on products. It was wash-off products and style products. So, you’re either coating or laying something on the hair, or you’re stripping the hair of its oils,” she said.

Hair products that focus on repair are becoming more and more sought out, experts agreed. 

Ulta Beauty has seen burgeoning interest in bond repair, according to Arnaudo. “Based on trends, I can say bond repair claims have been quite compelling and we’ve seen many more products offered in this particular space throughout the last year,” she said. “Similarly, hair loss and breakage have been a more commonly keyed in on concern, which fuels demand for products that encourage and promote hair growth.”

Interest in repair could also be caused by the use of heat tools and experimentation with hair coloring, Arnaudo added.

“The majority of hair product consumers suffer from dryness, damage and breakage of some form, contributed to through regular heat tool use,” Twine said. “It’s caused just by regular things that sometimes the consumer isn’t mindful of, like friction between the hair and a cotton pillowcase at night.”

Damaged hair simply does not look healthy, said JuE Wong, CEO of Olaplex, the original brand focused on repairing broken hair bonds. “It doesn’t look healthy, it looks dry, it does not take color well,” she said. “Whatever you do to it, it’s going to be addressing symptoms, rather than addressing the root cause, since it’s so easy to damage your hair.”

“Again, it’s like skin care — if you don’t treat the root cause of damage, you’re never going to get the best results for your hair,” Wong continued. “That’s why claims that address damage do so well. That or, if hair is dry, if your hair is breaking, there’s less shine, there’s no bounce in your hair: everything is connected. All of those are important claims to be made, and at the same time, supported.”

The efficacy of products that claim to promote hair health is key, experts said. 

“The product has to work,” Langer said. “Prestige customers are going to use products that are easy to understand or easy to use. It’s not the claim that builds loyalty, it’s if the product delivers. Performance claims are about, well, performance.”

Wong said that bringing meaningful advancements to the market is a winning strategy. “When it comes to technology and what it needs to be for hair care to be successful, it’s definitely about delivering on its promise and performance. So with that said, you can only meet the claims, technology, chemistry and performance if you have the science,” she said.

Shaban sees her customers researching her proprietary hero ingredient, Alpha Keratin 60ku, which fills in protein gaps in the hair strand. “At the end of the day, the customer is smart. She knows the difference between marketing jibber-jabber and really demonstrating a really good effect on the outcome of her hair,” she said.

Now, brands are revisiting stagnant categories such as hair loss for future technological improvements. “The holy grail for hair has always been hair growth. There’s a huge percentage of women with thin hair, and obviously a massive percentage of men,” said Tev Finger, founder and CEO of Luxury Brand Partners, adding he thinks the industry could see disruptive technology in the space within the next few years.

Shaban has her eyes set on the concern as well. “We’re seeing extraordinary amounts of noise and chatter around hair loss. And that’s going to be a place people like us are going to play,” she said. 

Virtue Labs’ hair loss line, Flourish, comes out later this month with two overnight treatments for women experiencing hair loss. It includes both minoxidil and proprietary technology from the brand. It will be sold as two separate regimens, each priced at $134. “All sorts of things happen to a woman over time that affects the health of the hair,” she said. “As technology gets better, we can get better at targeting her, talking directly to her and delivering the appropriate solution for her.”

Technical hair care tends to do well in online sales, which account for about 60 percent of beauty spending, according to Jensen. “Education is much easier online. You see the more technical categories doing well there. With hair, it’s easier to find something for you online, whereas a store environment might not be as easy just with the way it’s merchandised,” Jensen added.

The increasingly online environment also allows for brand storytelling and community building.

“No longer are people looking at a brand and aspiring to be like that. The brand now needs to inspire,” Wong said, noting that Olaplex has focused on creating a sense of community among its customers. 

“I know this word ‘authentic’ has been overused, but community comes from authentic brand positioning. It is a community, the community can choose to stay and choose to go, if you don’t give them a reason to stay,” Wong continued. “If there is no reason for them to be around, they’ll go look for the next best thing,” she added.

For hair health products to continue on their growth trajectory, Wong suggests hair brands continue to follow in the footsteps of skin care. 

“If you look at the foundation that has been laid out by skin care, I think taking a page from skin care — understanding what drove skin care and made it the success that it is — will be very helpful in hair,” Wong said.

The hair category following behind the skin care segment is nothing new. The skinification of hair trend, which is credited for the rise of scalp and other treatments, continues to proliferate, and experts predict it will only continue to build momentum. 

“I look at the growth in three ways: the skinification of hair, the premiumization of hair, and the ritualization of hair have all made prestige hair care a powerhouse,” Wong said.

“It’s been going on for a few years now,” Shaban said. “People are buying into the idea that you can actually improve the quality of your hair, and not just coat it. We’re not only trying to have the benefit of a style, we’re looking to improve the health of the hair,” she said. “So you’re seeing much more skin care ingredients, much more technical and science-based ingredients going into hair care.” 

As the skinification trend continues, ingredients in product formulations have come more into focus, and more brands are leaning into clean. 

For Frédéric Fekkai, more sophisticated consumers were the impetus for his namesake salon brand’s repositioning as clean and sustainable, which happened in 2019. “I say that hair care and skin care are neck-and-neck because the consumer is so educated. Today, consumers are so smart,” he said.

Fekkai opened a dialogue with his customers via the personalization quiz on his brand’s website, and is seeing just as much interest in what formulas leave out than what ingredients they feature. “All of my colleagues, all of my friends, all of the social influencers — the number one concern is what is in your product,” he said.

As with all things beauty during the COVID-19 era, there’s also the Zoom effect. People want hair that looks healthy in virtual meetings. 

“Skin care and hair care are things you focus on a lot when you are staying at home, especially when staring into a zoom camera all day,” Langer said.

“Nothing shows better than hair digitally. When you look at somebody, hair is what you remember most,” Finger said. “It could be a golden age for beauty. From the hair color side, 80 percent of women color their hair, and I think that people sitting at home looking at themselves might try some new stuff.”

For more from, see:

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