India’s beauty salons battle haircut delivery services

India updates

India’s beauty salons, already battered by the country’s devastating second Covid-19 wave, are now dealing with a related setback: customers who are increasingly finding alternatives to venturing out in a pandemic.

Independent owners are finding it hard to come up with rent and pay salaries as fewer clients walk through their doors. “There’s hardly any business now,” said Malti Chauhan, 45, who runs a one-room salon in New Delhi. Before the pandemic, Chauhan was used to earning over 50,000 rupees a month ($684), but she now makes do with less than half of that.

India’s salons are mostly small, owned by individuals and often not officially registered. Together, they form a sector that is reportedly worth 100bn rupees.

“This industry has suffered a great deal because it is based on ‘personal touch’, which is what is being avoided now due to the virus,” said Chauhan, who had to lay off her sole part-time assistant. “Now, I get only a handful of customers and try to run the salon single-handedly, though it may not be long before I’m forced [to] shut the business altogether.”

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The situation set in along with the deadly second wave of coronavirus infections in April and May, forcing salons, spas and even outdoor facilities to close. On August 24, the country’s cumulative infections stood at 32.6m, with 436,861 fatalities.

But daily case numbers are now on the decline, which has allowed businesses in most parts of the country to almost get back to normal. At the height of its second Covid-19 wave in May, India was seeing more than 400,000 confirmed daily infections — far higher than the 97,000 per day peak in September 2020 — but numbers have dropped sharply in recent weeks and remain below 50,000 a day.

But there has been little relief for salons or for their former workers, many of whom are now looking for jobs in other fields.

One of the sector’s castoffs is Zaid Khan, 30, who is the only breadwinner for an extended family that includes his parents, wife, two small children and two brothers in college. “I was working in a top-notch salon in Delhi, where I was being paid 80,000 rupees a month,” Khan said, adding that he now tries to make ends meet by freelancing.

“The salon, which was situated in a prime locality in the national capital where the rental was close to a million rupees per month, wasn’t making enough money to meet all overhead expenses, including our salaries, and was forced to shut down,” he said.

Beauty shops still scraping by now face a new challenge: increasingly popular start-ups that offer at home treatments.

“I haven’t been to a salon since the pandemic began last year,” said Shashi Sharma, 51, a schoolteacher who now prefers to call a beautician to her residence through home services platform Urban Company. “A salon at home is a safer and cheaper option.”

Sharma said she used to pay over 2,000 rupees for a facial pre-Covid, but now she enjoys the same service at home for 600 rupees.

Deepa Prasad is among those who have joined the ranks of beauticians-to-go. “The workflow here depends on customer feedback,” said Prasad, a 31-year-old mother of a 9-year-old boy. A single negative comment about her work on social media, she said, could cause her to lose clients.

While delivery salon treatments are now favoured, the broader beauty and personal care market, which includes cosmetics and products related to skin and hair care, is also growing.

According to Statista, the overall market is worth $26.85bn and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 8.5 per cent from 2021 to 2025. The largest segment is personal care at $12.26bn.

By way of comparison, the US beauty and personal care market is the world’s largest, generating $82.3bn a year, Statista data show.

Nykaa, a major online beauty and personal care product provider that is also India’s only profitable unicorn, or start-up valued at more than $1bn, recently filed a draft red-herring prospectus for an initial public offering and plans to raise 5.25bn rupees through a fresh share issue.

For younger consumers, Nykaa has emerged as a one-stop shop that meets nearly all of their needs for beauty and personal care goods. “Since the pandemic struck, I’ve relied mostly on online shopping for cosmetics and other personal care products,” said Sonakshi, a 22-year-old New Delhi college student. She added that she made most of her purchases from Nykaa because it offered a variety of international brands.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on August 29 2021. ©2021 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved

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