The “lipstick index” was a term coined by former Estee Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder after the global recession in 2001. Lauder noticed that women were substituting costlier luxury items for more affordable indulgences like lipstick. Since then, lipstick sales have become a barometer of consumer confidence: upticks in sales generally correspond with economic downturns.
“When things get tough, women buy lipstick,” Lauder said at the time.
And consumers in China are buying lipstick in bulk. According to Pinduoduo, the e-commerce site, they are the bestselling product in the beauty category on the platform.
For many consumers, not being able to try make-up on before purchase has been a deterrent to online sales, however. “I haven’t tried this lipstick shade before: I don’t know if it will suit my skin tone,” Zhu Tingting, told China Youth Daily. “Even though I have watched influencers try lipstick on livestreams, I don’t know if I can trust them.” (See WiC491 for more on local preferences for shades based on skin tone.)
While bricks-and-mortar stores generally allow customers to try on cosmetics before purchase, it is not an option for online purchases. But new applications in technology are starting to solve some of the problem with the help of ‘virtual mirrors’ in mobile apps. Augmented reality (AR) technology now offers the chance to test make-up so that people can try different products and choose what works best for them.
The technology isn’t especially new. Back in 2014, French cosmetics giant L’Oreal was the first to release the Make-up Genius app, which relies on facial mapping technology to transform smartphone cameras into virtual mirrors where consumers can put on the product in real time.
The AR make-up market is becoming increasingly competitive. Megvii, the leading facial recognition firm in China, launched FaceStyle last month, deploying colour data from client brands to help consumers try on make-up products. Users can also upload pictures of their faces onto the app to allow for analysis of skin texture and tone, with subsequent recommendations on skincare products to buy.
Megvii told National Business Daily that e-commerce platforms were seeing sales of beauty products increase by as much as 30% when FaceStyle was activated. Clients include domestic skincare label Unifon and cosmetics maker NOISY Beauty, as well as a handful of e-commerce sites, says 36Kr.
Megvii faces competition from Meitu, a company with a reputation for ‘beautifying’ filters on its early smartphone ranges. Its selfie-editing app now offers a virtual make-up system called Cosmetic Promotion Assistant too. The service, which is free of charge for client brands, generates virtual make-up effects for potential customers in less than a minute, says Meitu.
E-commerce firms, many of which count beauty sales as a significant part of their sales, have also joined the fray. In 2019 Alibaba invested in Taiwanese augmented reality start-up Perfect Corp, which has developed YouCam Make-up. More recently, the e-commerce giant unveiled QueenPro, a mirror-like application that offers skin condition assessments, as well as make-up recommendations (from products on Tmall, of course), based on user’s images.
Tencent also has its virtual cosmetics system FaceMake-up. Unlike the Meitu and Megvii offerings, consumers have to upload their own photos into the system to see the virtual effects of the lipsticks and other products.
But will consumers bite? Many still seem to prefer the more traditional ways of testing out the cosmetics. After trying on a new lipstick via a virtual mirror at a bricks-and-mortar store at the beginning of this year, one shopper told China Youth Daily: “It is like looking at myself through a Meitu filter. It’s not bad but I still want to try on the lipstick to see how it feels on the lips”. And as yet, no smartphone is able to solve that particular conundrum.
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