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Why Business Is Booming for Nail Care Brand Olive & June, Despite Salon Closures in 2020

"Our goal was to democratize the salon manicure, and we've done it," said founder Sarah Gibson Tuttle.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Sarah Gibson Tuttle noticed a disparity in the nail care industry.

“In Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, people were getting their nails done 40 times a year, but we have this big gap of behavior outside of these main cities,” said the founder of nail business Olive & June (named after her great-grandmother and grandmother).

“You had people across the country getting their nails done three times a year,” she went on, over the phone. “And when they were trying at-home products, they were stumbling. They were super flustered with the experience.”

In the spring of 2019, while managing her three L.A.-based salons, Tuttle launched a direct-to-consumer at-home nail care system online at oliveandjune.com to address the paradox. It was a prescient move. When the impact of COVID-19 was felt a year later and nail salons shut down nationwide — including her own — Olive & June was well positioned to withstand the crisis. It’s partly thanks to Tuttle’s self-described obsession with her consumers and anticipating their needs. She’s constantly imagining ways of improving nail care.

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“I’m obsessed with the community,” she said. Her core buyer is 25 to 45 years old, followed by Gen Z (18- to 24-year-olds), the fastest growing segment for the brand. “I answer every DM on my Instagram. We read every email.”

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That approach is paying off.

Olive & June grew 1,500 percent in 2020, 16 times year-over-year. And at Target Corp., its retail partner, sales are up 782 percent year-over-year.

While focused on innovation, Tuttle worked to bring salon-quality results to consumers at home by offering easy-to-use, proprietary tools and long-lasting formulas (“seven-plus days”) in sleek packaging at a mass price point. The online kits, which are customizable, facilitate at-home manicures and pedicures with products that include a nail strengthener, ridge filler, heel balm, serums, dry drops and “The Poppy,” a $16 nail polish handle that helps to stabilize non-dominant hands. The polishes, which come in a wide range of colors, are vegan, cruelty-free and nontoxic, according to Olive & June, which lists ingredients on its website for transparency.

“Everything is new, different and nothing is white-labeled,” said Tuttle.

One “mani system” (priced starting at $50 for six tools, a polish remover pot, top coat and one polish color, a $69 value) is sold every two-and-a-half minutes, she added.

Olive & June
A look at the Olive & June “mani system.” Courtesy

“I partnered with industrial designers, engineers, manicurists,” she said of the development process. “We did a ton of polls on Instagram and our social, and I learned every pain point there was in doing your own nails at home.”

Once customers try the at-home system, “they go from doing their nails three times a year to 36 times a year,” she added.

Education has been key, she emphasized. Along with brochures and YouTube tutorials, Olive & June has been producing a free, seven-day boot camp live on Instagram, as well as hourlong, master classes on Zoom every week for every experience level and topic, from cuticle care to nail art. At this point, the brand has taught over one million people how to paint their own nails, said Tuttle.

Ninety-eight percent of “people feel better when their nails are painted,” yet only 12 percent “know how to do it,” she added. “Nails is a pretty unique industry. Historically, it’s been 90 percent professional and 10 percent at home. And when you think about other beauty categories, it’s usually 60 percent at home [and] 40 percent in salon, if you’re in hair. Or it’s 99 percent at home [and] one percent in salon, if you’re in makeup. So, this is a really low percentage at home, but the interest is there.”

Nail care, following hair coloring, was the leading category in beauty in 2020. Nail products showed double-digit growth last year, according to data (ending the week of Dec. 27) from Chicago-based market research firm IRI, with artificial nails up 40.2 percent, while nail treatment grew 18.6 percent, and nail polish went up 14.5 percent.

Global market research company TechNavio — while taking into account the impact of COVID-19 — anticipates the nail care products market to grow $2.40 billion by 2025, attributing the increase to availability of nontoxic products, expansion of distribution channels and “growing customer engagement” on digital platforms. Last year amid COVID-19, the company valued the U.S. market at $10.23 billion in 2019.

Sarah Gibson Tuttle
Olive & June founder Sarah Gibson Tuttle. Courtesy

“Nails is a super-hot category,” said Tuttle.

While growing the brand, the founder established a membership program with special perks like discounts and free shipping. She’s constantly engaged with her consumers, releasing seasonal nail polish collections based on feedback; Olive & June’s new summer line — seven bright, neon colors like “Lime Fizz” and “Blueberry Smash” at $8 each — is out now.

“The brand was really founded on me being a best friend to everyone who walked in our salon,” Tuttle said. “I ran the front desk for a really long time. I was obsessed with picking people’s colors and making people feel good about their nail experience. That’s where it started.”

Tuttle opened her flagship in Beverly Hills in late 2013, followed by locations in Pasadena and Santa Monica. She had moved from New York City, where she had a much different profession, immersed in finance with 10 years of experience as an equity sales trader at J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley. In L.A., she hoped to bring a luxury nail service at a more affordable price.

“I have always loved client service, customer experience,” Tuttle said of similarities between the jobs.

Olive & June
Olive & June’s summer 2021 release features neon colors and nail stickers. Courtesy

The most difficult part of 2020 was having to close the doors of her salons, she added: “Not only do I love that salon experience and our manicurists, our clients, but we were really excited to roll out a pretty unique, in-real-life experience with our products that was going to be a bit of hybrid full-service and Apple Genius Bar models, so that we could teach people one-on-one how to use their mani and pedi systems. It’s been pretty unfortunate not knowing when we’ll be able to roll out that amazing concept.”

Is she planning on reopening?

“I miss in-real-life so very much, and it’s definitely on our radar,” she said. “We just want to create the best possible in-real-life experience for our community. We are continuing to concept what that would look like.”

While living in L.A. with her family, including a six-year-old daughter, she continues to engage with her community online. It’s fulfilling, she said, to see nails become a significant part of consumers’ self-care routine.

“Taking care of your nails has become more similar to taking care of your skin, taking a bath,” she added. “It’s therapeutic. It’s calming.…Our goal was to democratize the salon manicure, and we’ve done it.”