Fast beauty: The need for speed

The need for speed: is the beauty industry learning from fast fashion?

In the last decade, fast fashion has reshaped the way the industry does business. A huge dose of pace has been injected into the production cycle, taking fashion to consumers more quickly than ever before. There are now indications that the beauty sector is following in its (speedy) footsteps.

When leading style icons such as Michelle Obama or Kate Middleton are proudly photographed in dresses from chains such as H&M or Zara, it’s clear that the fashion industry has undergone a profound transformation. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Jackie Onassis or Audrey Hepburn comfortably stepping out in an A-line skirt from such an easily accessible (and affordable) high-street store in decades gone by.

The fact that some of our A-listers are happy to embrace everday chic goes to show just how much the concept of fast fashion has become the norm in 21st-century popular culture. Now, some commentators are pointing out that sectors of the beauty industry are beginning to adopt similar models by focusing on a much faster speed-to-market, and therefore creating a greater responsiveness to changing trends.

In a recent interview, Maureen Mullen, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of business intelligence firm L2inc, talked about the adoption of a “fast beauty” approach by pioneering mass-market brands such as Nyx and Anastasia. The key advantage in this industry is, she suggests, an enhanced ability to respond to what products customers are searching for. “A lot of the indies… have done a fantastic job of capitalising on trends around brow, and also a lot of the contouring space,” she says.

e.l.f. Beauty (which stands for eyes, lips and face) is one such innovator that is helping to shake up the market. Bringing out new items on a weekly basis, most of which retail at $6 or less, its focus on both speed-to-market and affordability has clear echoes of the fast fashion approach. And the setup is paying dividends. In 2015, e.l.f. Beauty reported a 43% increase in retail sales growth, and continues to outperform industry predictions, according to a report by CNBC earlier this year.

The world of tomorrow

In our “always online” world, the beauty industry is starting to respond to the understanding that pace is the name of the game for a generation of millennials who have grown up with a whole world of consumer choice never more than a click away. In July this year, online beauty retailer Feelunique launched a subscription delivery service which, for £8.95 a year, entitles customers to unlimited next-day delivery of their favourite brands. Commenting on the new service – one which is already used by fashion retailers such as Selfridges and Asos, Joel Palis, CEO of Feelunique, said: “In a world where rapid fulfilment is pivotal to successful online retail — and free and fast delivery services are increasingly being offered by world-leading e-tailers — Feelunique is thrilled to be Europe’s first pure play online beauty store to offer unlimited next-day delivery.”

Nevertheless, while there are some obvious parallels between fast fashion and the newly developing fast beauty sector, certain key differences should be noted. First and foremost, even while it may have its foot on the gas, the beauty industry is never likely to operate at quite the breakneck speed of some apparel manufacturers and retailers. Cosmetics are subject to much stricter safety regulations and approval processes than are necessary for clothing items. The “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” turnaround from drawing-board to shopping is simply impossible to repeat in the much-strictured beauty industry. As mentioned earlier in this article, e.l.f. Beauty is an emerging fast beauty favourite among consumers and investors alike. As reported by CNBC, e.l.f. takes around 27 weeks to bring new products to market. This may seem slow by fashion standards, but is significantly faster than the two- or three-year lifecycle seen in more traditional industry models.

However, this longer timeframe does not necessarily negate the ability to be responsive. As Maureen Mullen points out, it’s often about making the most of assets that are already available. “Independent of getting product to market faster, there’s a lot you can do with the positioning of your product portfolio,” she says. Because when it comes to getting to the line first, tactics can be as important as speed.