Men are quietly exploring a wider range of grooming products, but retailers are missing a trick by not adapting stores to meet their needs, says Outform’s Hannah Abbasi.

Harry Styles’ launch of a gender-neutral beauty brand at the tail end of last year has since triggered a phenomenal 393% increase in searches for ‘men’s make-up’ on global beauty platform Love the Sale. It’s no blip or anomaly – interest in men’s grooming and make-up has been quietly on the increase for some time.

According to consumer insights firm GWI, which canvassed seven core markets (France, Germany, Italy, UK and US), the number of men interested in beauty and cosmetic products had risen 3% between 2018 and Q2 2021 versus a 5% decline in interest amongst female consumers. And experts in the field estimate the revenue from global sales of men’s grooming products to nearly double the current value of US$55.5bn by 2031. On Instagram alone, there are more than 300,000 posts with hashtags such as #manskincare, and our own research finds that more than 56% of men now have a skincare regime.

The move to gender neutrality is also on the rise: skincare brands from Aesop to Ursa Major to Non Gender Specific are leading the way, opting to package and sell unisex products that focus on specific skin concerns or conditions instead. In makeup, examples include Fenty and Milk Makeup, as well as indie startups like Fluide and Jecca Blac.

With celebrity endorsement from stars like Styles, gender-neutral make-up is starting to represent a safe, inclusive space in which everyone can experiment and enjoy. Until, that is, you get to the beauty aisles in shops, where male grooming products have their own, often tiny, shelf space, dominated by stereotypically male colour palettes.

The beauty aisle can become more inclusive

It’s not surprising that when it comes to purchases, our research finds that 41% of men are more likely to buy make-up online. This is in direct contrast to an overall trend which found that in-store beats social when it comes to beauty and personal care. Six in ten (59%) of us cite it as our favourite way to shop for make-up: experiences like speaking to consultants on the shop floor influence almost four in ten (39%), and 31% say in-store digital displays are important to purchase decisions.

Clearly then, the high street is missing a trick. Despite its best efforts at inclusion, retailers are lagging when it comes to creating spaces in which all shoppers want to spend time – and money. They’re still entrenched in his-n-hers thinking, and by and large their retail spaces are continuing to reflect that.

So what’s to be done? Is there merit – and, more bluntly, money – in shifting to more inclusive beauty aisles?

According to Outform’s research, there are definitely gains to be made in shifting toward gender-neutral beauty aisles. We canvassed a representative spread of more than 2,000 global respondents, across the UK, USA and Germany, to explore how consumer habits are continuing to shift when shopping for beauty and personal care products in a post-lockdown world.

The subsequent Changing Face of Health & Beauty study found that 12% more men value sampling make-up than women. And of the two-thirds of all health and beauty consumers who have a skincare routine, men are more likely to buy products from the same brand.

Overwhelmingly, our findings across each territory – for make-up as well as skincare – showed that gender stereotypes and perceptions of masculinity are shifting, blurring the lines and driving change in the industry.

That’s not to say that creating these gender-neutral spaces is easy. Implementing layout and design changes in stand-alone stores is arguably easier to do than in concessions where the parent retailer has say and sway. Yet there are relatively quick wins to be had, and some brands are introducing these into their spaces.

It’s a perfect window for in-store tech

MAC is doing this amazingly well, embracing diverse and inclusive ways of retailing. MAC stores welcome make-up artists of all genders as part of its in-store representation mission. And with virtual try-ons and algorithm-based recommendations, the brand’s most recent Innovation Lab in New York is using the power of AI and mixed reality to provide inclusive experiences for all customers in-store.

And as well as creating environments that offer experiences (including makeovers), innovative tech is proving to be an in-store winner for brands such as Estee Lauder.

Its try-on tech in-store allows you to choose the foundation, make-up, then see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ to compare results. Using innovative tech in this sort of way in-store will help blur the lines between the online and offline retail experience, and create inclusive environments that ensure the customer journey has relevance at every touchpoint.

QR codes and interactive experiences can play a part too. While half (50%) of UK consumers cite testing beauty products in-store as a key factor before parting with their cash, there’s an argument to be made for the fact that some may not want to trial a lipstick there and then. To address the test–and-trial issue in-store, retailers can support the buying experience by employing AR try-ons.

Ultimately, personal care is just that – personal. It is no longer defined by gender, certainly not to a growing proportion of the public. With four in ten of UK 18-24 year olds considering gender-neutrality as important to purchase decisions in health and beauty, surely it’s time for the beauty aisles to ditch outmoded tropes and step up their game.