C.O. Bigelow, Manhattan’s oldest pharmacy and a must-see for anyone visiting the city, experienced a spectrum of trends and buying patterns among its consumer base during the pandemic. Here, third-generation owner Ian Ginsberg talks about what sold during 2020 (hello hair treatments), and the return of sun care, color cosmetics and buying in-store.

Beauty News: Overall, what were consumers buying during the pandemic? And what are they looking for now that restrictions have all but dissolved?
Ian Ginsburg: Of course, in the beginning there was a frenzy of consumption in all categories, I suspect for fear of lockdowns and the comfort of stocking up on essentials. There was an evolution over time as the reality and perceptions of the pandemic grew stronger. Consumers decided that they would take this time to re-evaluate and take better care of themselves starting with skin care and then bath and body, wellness, etc. We also saw a rise in nail, hair treatments, brow kits, face masks, bath soaks and anything you could do at home that would give you peace. Home fragrance (candles, diffusers, room sprays) had immense growth and that was to be expected, but we were surprised about personal fragrance as that grew as well. We all saw massive declines in color cosmetics.

I haven’t seen a massive shift in the last five months as it’s a little too soon, but we are seeing a return to color cosmetics. All of the other categories remain consistent. As we’re in the northeast and the weather is warming up, in the last few weeks we have experienced a boom in sun care. People are outside more and while they’re not taking big vacations they are starting to travel a little bit and I suspect to more ‘resort-type’ locales. We’ll get a better view of changes with a few more months of selling.

BN: Did consumers turn to brands they knew as opposed to discovering new brands (since she couldn’t go in-store)?
IG: While we did our best to try and promote some newness throughout, we had varying success. As the consumer spent more and more time online they were bombarded with brands reaching them on every social channel. I can’t comment on how successful many of those brands were, but it seemed that there were some new brands—DTC brands—that appeared that had some good results. We found that for a period of time consumers were looking only for value. I suspect there was some trial and discovery but with so much uncertainty, value and familiarity was winning the war.

BN: What about DIY, like nail and hair treatments?
IG: Polishes, hand and nail treatments, nail tools all did well. Nail performed fairly well, but I suspect the lower priced segment in other retailers performed better. While I believe there was more color experimentation, there was more a comfort level at the lower price point. The massive success of brands such as Olaplex is all you need to know about the growth of hair treatments during the pandemic.

BN: Overall, how would you describe your consumer during the past 17 months?
IG: We went from a complete frenzy in March, April, May and June, to a slower pace in the following months. Many brands, I believe, panicked and began to sell product at value and she followed them. She was a little bit frugal in the basic categories and enjoyed a lot of benefit there. It wasn’t a one size fits all scenario. At the same time you can look at the success of a brand such as Augustinus Bader and see that she was pretty indulgent, too. We all believe that COVID was the great accelerator and many of the themes and shifts witnessed throughout the pandemic were probably happening anyway. Channels have merged and she is now purchasing across the board—indulgent in some categories and segments, and frugal in others.

Be sure to attend CEW’s July 13 Beauty Creators Finalists Reveal, where for the first time an entire (virtual) event will be dedicated to sharing this year’s Finalists in 29 categories. Join the beauty industry next month to hear who the finalists are, and to learn from industry experts about 2020’s highlights. Click here to register for the event.