ahhhhh! i love lipstick.
Hard Times, but Your Lips Look Great
LAST month, Betsy Stein made a beeline for Bloomingdale’s to buy a shirt, but the Nanette Lepore top she found was $280. Ms. Stein, 33, a business manager for a classical music composer in Manhattan, told herself that in the current economic climate, she shouldn’t charge it.
Annie Tritt for The New York Times
“With the scare of the downturn,” she said, “I decided to cut back on my shopaholic problem and exercise some restraint.”
But the next day at Sephora, she made a substitute purchase. “I could buy one or two lipsticks for about $40,” she said. “That’s far less than $280.”
Ms. Stein’s rationale for buying lipstick echoes a theory once proposed by Leonard Lauder, the chairman of Estée Lauder Companies.
After the terrorist attacks of 2001 deflated the economy, Mr. Lauder noticed that his company was selling more lipstick than usual. He hypothesized that lipstick purchases are a way to gauge the economy. When it’s shaky, he said, sales increase as women boost their mood with inexpensive lipstick purchases instead of $500 slingbacks.
Beauty brands remain true believers in the theory, even though in the last few years the lipstick market has fallen on hard times as its glistening cousin, lip gloss, has had robust sales.
With the specter of another recession, brands like Clinique and DuWop Cosmetics are preparing for a big year in lip color, for two reasons.
First, they would like to see a return to lipstick, which usually costs slightly more than gloss. Second, the companies believe that in down times women will continue to splurge on lip lacquer even as they make do with last season’s dress.
But do economists, and not just companies that need to move a lot of lip color, believe that lipstick sales could skyrocket as the economy tanks? And what’s the draw of lipstick in particular for women worried about having to pay as much for gas as they would a handbag?
Not only is the lipstick theory plausible, “it’s perfectly consistent with all kinds of economic theory,” said Richard DeKaser, the chief economist with National City Corporation, a financial holding company and bank in Cleveland.
Three sorts of products sell robustly during tough times, said Lou Crandall, the chief economist at Wrightson ICAP, an independent research firm.
The first is what economists call traditional inferior goods, what people have to buy when they can no longer afford their favorites. If you’re a salmon lover eating tuna casserole, you’re chewing on inferior goods.
Lipsticks aren’t inferior goods, economists say, but they could be small indulgences, an inexpensive treat meant to substitute for a bigger-ticket item. Or lipsticks could also be morale boosters, like Charlie Chaplin films were during the Depression. A warm shade that perfectly matches your skin tone might make you forget how far your 401(k) has tanked.
Although this relationship exists, Mr. Lauder was wrong about one thing: counting lipstick purchases won’t confirm whether we’re in a recession. “It doesn’t surprise me that lipstick sales go up,” Mr. Crandall said, “but if I had to choose my top economic indicators to take to a desert island with me, I’m not sure it would make my top 20.”
Not the least because lipstick sales aren’t exactly economic indicators used by the news media.
“ABC News samples consumer confidence every week,” Mr. Crandall said. “We don’t have lipstick sales on a weekly basis. This is because they are more granular. The smaller the economic data becomes, the more volatile it tends to be, and the harder it is to extract the underlying signal.”
Indeed, lipstick sales for the first 12 weeks of this year ending March 23 don’t validate the lipstick theory. Sales of lipstick in supermarkets and drugstores have decreased 3.3 percent compared with the same time period in 2007, according to Information Resources Inc., a market research firm that tracks sales of mass consumer products. Sales of lipstick are also down 13 percent in department stores from the same quarter last year, said Karen Grant, the senior beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. But the actual decline, Ms. Grant cautioned, is slightly lower because more weeks were counted in 2007 than this year.Still, old hunches die hard. Banking on an economic downturn, Cristina Bartolucci, the creative director of DuWop Cosmetics, introduced Prime Venom, her first matte plumper designed to be worn under lipstick. “One of the main reasons we came up with this product is that we’re in a recession, or a difficult time with the war,” she said. “You always think of the classic lipstick and stockings doing well in wartime.”
Annie Tritt for The New York Times
Annie Tritt for The New York Times
Prime Venom is the same formula as the company’s 1999 best seller, Lip Venom, which claims to inflate your pout without collagen shots. In the last month, Ms. Bartolucci said, Prime Venom’s sales have been double that of the original Lip Venom.
This spring, for the first time, Marissa Shipman, the chief executive of the Balm, a lip gloss brand, included lipsticks in her line. She hopes that Mr. Lauder’s theory will pan out for her. For their initial order, retailers like Sephora have ordered twice the amount of the lipstick as they did the glosses she started selling in 2003, Ms. Shipman said. She doesn’t have qualms about profiting in an economic downturn, because she’s glad she can provide something for $16 that makes women feel good. “I would feel more guilty if I were taking $400 from someone,” she said.
Ms. Grant suggested beauty companies are engaging in some wishful thinking hoping that if they promote a new wave of lipsticks then customers will come. “The early adopters of trend are getting onto the lipstick bandwagon and are seeing increases in lipstick sales,” she said. “But it’s not an overall trend. This is more like a gut feel, like when you say it’s time for skirts to come back.”
In the last four years, gloss has increased its market share by 2.5 percent, while lipstick has lost 5.8 percent, according to Information Resources. So to lure gloss-happy customers back to lipstick (which tends to cost more), brands are aping the charms of lip gloss.
Last fall, Estée Lauder reformulated its Signature Lipstick by using a blend of oils that had been typically reserved for glosses, and it eliminated the harsher beeswax smell in favor of a subtle fig and vanilla scent.
This fall, Clinique plans to add eight shades to its Colour Surge Butter Shine Lipstick line, which is a mashup of lipstick and gloss. “It’s a bridge, for when she wants a more grown-up look,” said Janet Pardo, the senior vice president for global product development at Clinique. “We’re transitioning people from gloss into that hybrid place.”
Any woman with a few lines around her lips should be reaching for moist — not matte — lipsticks, said Kriss Soterion, the makeup artist who worked with Hillary Clinton before a New Hampshire debate last year. “No matter how you cut it,” she said, “dewy looks young.”
April Lane Benson, a psychologist in Manhattan who works with compulsive spenders, said there are two reasons why women would want lip color more than other affordable pleasures. Lipstick can be applied as many times a day as you’d like. “It’s very primal,” Dr. Benson said. “The mouth is an organ of so much pleasure. Kissing is what you do with your lips.”
Lipstick also helps a woman look poised, even when her bank account is overdrawn. “When women use lipstick in times of stress,” Dr. Benson said, “they’re doing it to put forward an image that they are more alive and more vibrant, and not as down in the mouth. It’s part of the uniform of desirability and attractiveness. A shirt or a cup of gelato is much farther removed from that.”
Melissa McQueeney, 34, a fifth-grade teacher in Shelton, Conn., refuses to stop buying lipstick, even though her bills have increased considerably in the last year, mostly because of rising gas prices. Her fiancé has a 70-mile commute.
“It’s how I freshen up,” she said. “It makes me feel feminine, even if I’m in sweats and sneakers.” Last month, at a Sephora outpost, she chose a $6 gloss over one for $25, and held it up triumphantly as she walked to the register. “I didn’t even try it on,” she said. “I’m just splurging.”