Seen Skin in Melbourne

Melbourne endured one of the longest pandemic lockdowns in the world last year. The state and city have just come out of their latest one (the 4th!), and beauty businesses are finally allowed to operate again, including things like makeup and facial treatments. But they’ve been doing it tough with the repeated, sudden circuit-breaker lockdowns. This last one was particularly hard on many as it was the first without JobKeeper financial support available.

2020 statistics on the beauty industry were pretty dire, and although 2021 is looking up (and placing like the US are experiencing exponential demand for beauty treatments like waxing, tanning, injectables and more), plenty in the beauty industry are still feeling the aftershocks of repeat lockdowns and disrupted business operations thanks to the pandemic. So how have beauty businesses been doing on the ground? We spoke to a few to find out.

How have lockdowns affected Victorian beauty businesses?

Revenue has been inconsistent at best and businesses have had a hard time finding talent. There’s a skills shortage nationwide and plenty of businesses don’t have the funds to employ a full roster of staff when they don’t know if and when they’ll have to close for an indeterminate amount of time again. Jazmin Camilleri of Seen Skin in Prahan says “We are certainly operating in a different environment now. The ups and downs are bigger. When we’re busy, we are flat out, and then it stops. We’ve also experienced a harder time recruiting in the current climate, which means operating with a smaller team than we would like. There have been positives too. It’s given us space to make some changes to our direction, and it’s challenged me as a business owner to stay light on my feet. Every lockdown gets easier. You become more agile and also better at predicting the waves. You have no other choice. If you own a service-based business in Melbourne you need to factor lockdowns into your strategy – at least for 2021.”

Many said the toughest part of the lockdowns was the lack of time to prepare for them and the lack of a sense of control over one’s own operations. Meg Baker of The Peach Club Cosmetic Tattoo says the hardest part is no advanced notice. “More notice would be ideal, but that’s an impossible situation. The immediacy of the lockdowns is the hardest part. We are usually booked out 4-5 months in advance, so when our clients that have waited so long already have to reschedule their booking, it’s a really difficult conversation to have. Even though everyone knows it’s well out of our control.”

Expert skin therapist April Brodie (the only one in Australia trained by Cecily Braden in Gua Sha) has a Melbourne-based facial studio and the structure of her business has changed dramatically due to the pandemic. Brodie says it’s been hard for her and her team. “There have been moments when I felt like the world was against me. One of the Team had to sell her house, others decided that they should change industry… I sobbed with despair and then realised it was not just me or my world that was affected.”  She says there hasn’t been just one hardest part and it’s affected everyone in the business. It was hard “Seeing one of my team lose her home, helping their mental and emotional health.”

Camilleri says “It can be incredibly hard to keep momentum, both in business activities and with our client’s skin journeys. Keeping the enthusiasm of my team has previously been difficult too, and they have some anxiety when we come out of a lockdown because we are so busy for period. But overall we are adjusting and adapting better each time.” Baker says the hardest parts of the circuit-breakder lockdown process for her business have been “rescheduling clients (some of them multiple times now) and also continuing to pay rent on a premise we legally cannot enter for months at a time.”

How clients are reacting

But all maintained an upbeat attitude about the situation and say that although client behaviour has changed due to the pandemic, bookings are generally up and they can keep their doors open, although they all agreed a that more financial support from the government and more consultation by the government with beauty industry is paramount (“financial support and perhaps more consulting with different industry about what they need,” says Baker).

Camilleri has noticed that “Melbourne is becoming less reactive to each lockdown which is good (less panic), so there isn’t that rush to buy product on day one, or book in as soon as we open.” She has noticed that although there isn’t a rush to book, that clients are still rebooking nonetheless. “We’ve found that most clients are really keen to book in following a lockdown as they need some relief from their skin condition, or they are looking for some post lockdown me time, or they are chasing some form of “normality’. The key so far has been to maintain engagement during the lockdown so the hustle is less when we reopen,” says Camilleri.

How businesses have changed the way they operate

And plenty of Victorian beauty businesses have also changed the way they take bookings and do business thanks to the pandemic and changing client behaviour. Baker says “We have already stopped taking appointments so far in advance compared to what we had done previously through 2018-right up until the first lockdown in March 2020. We also started keeping certain amounts of time blocked out each month to allow for any snap shorter lockdowns so that our clients aren’t having to wait so long for their new appointment or we aren’t having to work ridiculous overtime to accommodate the lockdown affected appointments. After the second longer lockdown in the second half of 2020, we worked 10-12 hours days for 6 or 7 days a week right up until the end of the year and that is something I wish to never repeat again.”

Camilleri has actually scaled back Saturday appointments because more clients are booking mid-week thanks to things like more flexible working arrangements. “A lot of our clients are now working from home and are also busy on the weekends with social events. Both of those factors have seen a swing to busier weekdays and less Saturday demand, and we’ve seen this as an opportunity to limit Saturday appointments to once a month and offer more appointments after hours on weekdays. Then there are smaller things such as an increase in late cancellations due to “covid like symptoms” where typically a client would forfeit a deposit, we now just have to roll with it.”

Brodie says she’s been fighting to simply get people to listen to the industry, “fighting to be heard during our long Melbourne lockdown. We had the idea to start the #savevictoriansalons movement, with Danielle Hughs, [because we] felt like nobody was listening during our long lockdown.”

There’s also the possibility that businesses are going to be more fluid with where and when they operate. Brodie sees her business dropping into other cities and countries in the future, instead of relying on a Melbourne-only customer base. “I see myself working in multiple cities and countries,” she says. “My clinic will remain and we have some exciting plans and ideas that have nearly come to fruition.”  

What beauty businesses are doing to stay positive and afloat

Like most businesses we’ve spoken to around the country, the ones in Victoria realised early on in the pandemic the value of budgeting for closures and keeping a lean operation. They’ve also been wading through the paperwork to gain access to the various relief programs and grants available, says Brodie, who has been fighting for rental assistance on their Melbourne premise. Camilleri says “Since the first lockdown I’ve been focused on reducing our liabilities and increasing our cash reserves. All businesses should have a buffer for the “what if”, and after our first lockdown my aim was to increase that reserve by another few months. I also had loans from my fit out in 2019, plus an equipment loan, so I retired two of those last year, and have reduced the others.”

And of course they switched up their offerings in a way that clients could still shop and consult from home. “We also increased our skincare offering as we were quite exposed by having one with the amount of out of stocks that were occurring, and we also faced brand restrictions by not being allowed to have an online order portal,” says Camilleri. And Baker makes sure she and her team are always available to connect with clients across all platforms. “We keep in touch via email mainly, but also DM’s on Instagram to a lesser extent. As soon as the Victorian Government confirm a reopening date we go all guns blazing on the emails to make sure we are contacting the lockdown affected clients as quickly as possible.”

Brodie says one of the positive takeaways from Melbournes lockdowns, for her at least, is “realising that, at 55 years old, you can still always reinvent yourself. I had time to work and explore projects that I had only dreamed about or put on the backburner.” 

Read about how beauty businesses around the country are handling lockdowns here.

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