Times are hard. Jobs are vanishing, unemployment figures are soaring and most of us have less money than ever to spend on ourselves. So how is the beauty industry faring in the age of austerity chic? A visit to the hair salon for highlights every six weeks could set you back around Dh700. For some, this may seem much more expensive and much less of a priority than it did several months ago. Similarly, does anyone really need to splurge Dh90 on a weekly French manicure? For those worrying about bank statements, it seems at first glance that beauty spending could be the first luxury to go.
But for many women in the UAE it's not as simple as cutting out regular beauty routines. Perfect nails, coiffed hair and immaculate make-up have come to be seen as the norm. Sara Abulrazak, the managing director of Sisters Beauty Lounge, a Dubai salon with two locations much loved by the Jumeirah set, agrees that many of her clients are trying to keep up their usual beauty routines. "Clients generally still have their hair, waxing and nails done since it has become a 'necessity' in this country to look presentable," she says. "These are not luxury treatments anymore."
She does, however, admit that her salons have been working harder for business in the past few months. "We've definitely increased our promotions this year, with more discounts, particularly on massages and facials, since these will always come second to the basic beauty treatments which are necessary to most people." On its website, Sisters Beauty Lounge says it caters "to the busy, modern women of Dubai who are either working career women or mothers with little time on their hands". For nail bars across the city, it's this kind of client that they face losing.
Nicola Cartwright is a classic example. A British lawyer for an American firm in Dubai, she has been based in the city for a year and says that this time six months ago she wouldn't have thought twice about booking weekly manicures and pedicures: "It was just something I did every Sunday night." Now, like many others, she is working under the threat of redundancy and trying to save every spare dirham. Sunday night salon sessions have become a rarer treat, something that she enjoys every few weeks or so. "It just started to seem so wasteful, such unnecessary spending," she explains.
In the meantime, Abulrazak says that her clients want value for money. "For a spa or salon to survive during these days, service and consistency are the most vital ingredients to customer satisfaction. "Dubai customers have always been picky and spoiled when it comes to service, and now more than ever they want the service they deserve, especially in luxury industries," she adds. Value for money is a top priority in most salons, agrees Carlo dei Tedeschi from the Maria Dowling hair salon in Dubai. It's one of the most upmarket salons in the city for people looking for a new colour or cut, but dei Tedeschi says that instead of clients cutting back on spending at the salon, they are looking at how to maximise the time and money they spend there. "There hasn't been a drop in customers, but we're taking more time to say: 'Let's look at why you've come into the salon' when they get here."
In turn, dei Tedeschi says that the clients are thinking more seriously about what style to have when they come in. "They become more discretionary at a time like this. We're spending more time talking about being able to do their hair at home, and taking extra time with blow-drying tips to make their salon visit last longer." In part, this is an attempt to not appear too extravagant by constantly going to the salon. "You don't want to be seen being frivolous," dei Tedeschi says. "But if you work in an office and still need to look groomed, you'll still go once a week but make sure that the trip is absolutely making sense. Perhaps making sure that the blow-dry lasts twice the length of time, by wearing it in a ponytail or accessorising it with a hairband."
Another area in which the salon is advising clients to be careful is with dramatic style alterations. "Ultimately no one wants a crazy hairdo which needs attention all the time," dei Tedeschi says. "So we're making sure people aren't going for crazy colour changes because it's a huge undertaking financially." An upswing in sales of the salon's hair-care range, such as brushes and straighteners, seems to be another consequence of clients' attempts to prolong hairstyles for as long as possible. "They're not going to become at-home hairdressers, but they want to make sure their hairstyle can last another 48 hours."
They're also advising clients on how to get the most out of their hair products. "People still think, for instance, that more shampoo is beneficial," he says. "But today's products are so laboratory perfect that you only need the tiniest amount. It's a small step, but it's also amazing the way you can start looking at how not to be wasteful." "The bottom line is that when there is a recession, people become more selective," he adds. "Clients might be cutting corners but not necessarily when it comes to their hair. They don't need to buy two Missoni dresses, or two Diane von Furstenberg wraps but they won't change their hair, because that's who they are."
Salon and spa owners are quick to emphasise dei Tedeschi's point that many people stick to their beauty trips because they're viewed as a fundamental part of their lives. But some argue that they also serve to boost flagging morale. "We have a nail art section and have found that business there has increased," says Sharon Moore from the Abu Dhabi-based Sharanis Spa. "I think people are trying to make themselves prettier and feel better about themselves."
More general well-being is also an increasing concern for some, especially in these stressful times. Consequently, Moore says that massages, especially of the holistic variety, have become a particularly popular treatment in her spa. "Sales of massage packages have gone up; more people are buying our Balinese, ayurvedic or Thai programmes at the moment," she says. "I think people are more focused on their wellness. Whether directly affected [by the downturn] or not, they're taking greater care of themselves so they can stay fit and well, possibly to compete against their colleagues."
It's a competition that may even lead to more serious, invasive procedures. Gail Clough, the owner of Dubai Surgery, says that the surgery's lunchtime Botox appointments are booming. "When people lose their jobs, if they're over 40, they're the first ones to come in because they want to look good before searching for another position." In comparison, other major procedures such as liposuction are currently less sought after. "January was quite a busy month because everyone comes in wanting things done after Christmas," she says, "but now instead of a two-week waiting list, we're down to four or five days and definitely in a dip."
Instead, it seems that some women may be turning to cheaper, easier ways of making themselves feel better through make-up. The lipstick index is a term coined in 2001 by Leonard Lauder, the chairman of the Estee Lauder group, after sales of lipstick shot up 11 per cent when the US economy dipped after the September 11 attacks. He argued that sales of modest beauty purchases such as lipstick soar during times of hardship because they offer a boost of happiness for little cost. As further evidence, he pointed to the Depression of the 1930s, when cosmetic sales in the US leapt more than 20 per cent.
Last month, the cosmetics giant L'Oreal posted a quarterly decline in sales and announced that year-on-year profits had tumbled by 27 per cent. Sales in its luxury products division were particularly poor, having dropped worldwide by more than six per cent. The report singled out the slow luxury product growth rate in Dubai as a particular trouble spot. "Women are not buying a mascara for Dh200 at the moment," says Haifa Addas from the Luxury Products Division of L'Oreal Middle East. "They might buy a cheaper version from Maybelline instead."
The report also stated that L'Oreal's more affordable consumer items, such as lipstick and home hair colourants, performed better. "Sales of lipstick go up and down," says Addas. "In general, people go shopping to raise their spirits, and buying make-up, and lipstick in particular, can be cheaper than anything else. "But really, I think the way to explain it is that lipstick is an impulse purchase," she adds. "You buy lipstick even if you don't need it, and at the same time it has a psychological impact."
It seems, then, that responses within the beauty industry to the financial turbulence are something of a mixed bag. While spending is unquestionably being watched carefully, it seems that many of us are still booking the odd manicure or pampering treatment, perhaps for no other reason than it allows for half an hour of escapism. It's perhaps not the moment to start experimenting with radical hair colours, and facials that necessitate gold leaf or caviar could possibly be cut back on too. But we all need a little something to cheer ourselves up at the moment. A massage or manicure could be a step in the right direction.