It’s an industry worth $445 billion globally. Self-taught makeup artists have amassed millions of subscribers online from content filmed in the comfort of their bedrooms. Celebrity-launched makeup brands have catapulted CEOs like Kylie Jenner into almost billionaire status and onto the cover of Forbes all before her 21st birthday. But as the shine wears off on sponsored beauty influencers and sought after cosmetic havens set up shop in our local suburbs, is the beauty business bubble about to pop?
It’s a familiar scene. An endless line of hundreds of young girls and a smattering of loyal boyfriends snake around the upper level of yet another Westfield. A countdown clock ticks over, and anticipation builds to fever pitch in a crowd that has slept overnight in a shopping centre. As the timer hits zero, confetti cannons explode while makeup artists break out into a synchronised dance.
It’s the opening of Sephora’s Westfield Chermside store, its 14th location in Australia in four years, and this type of fanfare is nothing short of normal for the international makeup juggernaut.
So how did the industry gain so many devoted beauty junkies?
While a number of factors are involved, Associate Professor and retail expert Dr Gary Mortimer, from the Queensland University of Technology, puts it down to what’s known as “the lipstick effect.” “It says that when times are tough, consumers buy nice things for themselves,” Dr Mortimer says. “It was often termed around the days of Estée Lauder, when during the war, things were tough but people would actually go out and buy a lipstick to make themselves feel good.”
In a politically charged, post-Trump era, it isn’t hard to understand why colourful shades of eyeshadow in beautiful compacts are flying off shelves. But in a defiant act against the red-capped, Make America Great Again status quo, industry insiders say they are witnessing consumers buying makeup more for its unlimited creativity, rather than out of obligation.
Mecca Maxima employee Ashlee Press joined the beauty retailer in late 2015, a time she says she feels was “right as the boom happened, where social media and self taught makeup artists were becoming more popular.”
“There has definitely been a rise in not only sales but how many people are now actually enjoying beauty products, rather than just putting it on as they felt they had to,” Press says.
In the past few years alone, larger than life drag queens with extravagant makeup styles to match have sashayed their way into living rooms around the world thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, while gender-bending influencers like makeup mogul Jeffree Star have injected viewers with a renewed vigour for self-expression.
But as Mecca Maxima and Sephora stores cement themselves into shopping centres around the country, and online sites ship products right to consumer’s doorsteps, the sudden accessibility threatens to backfire.
“The novelty and the prestige of going to one of those particular brands is reduced because they’ve become so populated,” Dr Mortimer says. “They have stores generally located in Melbourne and Sydney, but now we typically find those stores located in our outer lying suburbs.”
It’s not just the in-store experience that’s becoming threateningly humdrum. “Good beauty products are so accessible now, the exclusivity feeling has worn off and it’s not like a special club to be a part of,” Press says. “Also I think more people are coming around to the idea of being more minimalist with what they have so it’s not as crazy as it used to be.”
“Nobody needs eight mascaras.”
For one former beauty junkie in particular, the shine of the industry has worn off so much that not even the top-selling highlighter can make it glow again.
Morgan Larkin, a 19-year-old Brisbane student, launched her beauty blog Morgan Em in 2016.
After spending hours taking photos, writing posts and editing weekly content, she suddenly quit her blog earlier this year — but not before spending hundreds of dollars on the hobby.
“I can certainly say my spending habits got out of control,” Larkin says. “I felt like I had to have the newest, hot product and thought nothing of splashing the cash on it because it was a priority for me. I also felt like as a beauty blogger I was required to have the latest thing to talk about.”
“Honestly I was growing out of it,” Larkin says. “I still love makeup, it’s fun and I love playing with it. I’m just much more conscious of my choices now and buy significantly less of it, and only when I need it.”
If some consumers are actively buying less, where does that leave the thousands of social media influencers who make a living off plugging makeup online?
“I think there will always be a place for influencers as there will always be people to influence,” Press says. “But that being said I don’t think social media will be the place where this continues for much longer.”