It’s a theory that’s been widely attributed to Leonard Lauder, heir to the Esteé Lauder cosmetics empire–“the lipstick index”. The index describes the trend of rising cosmetics sales (of lipsticks, originally) that happen during precarious economic downturns.
The origin of the index came about in 2001 when the US was caught in the throes of a semi-global recession. Lauder noticed that, despite falling sales in other sectors, lipstick and other cosmetics sales were thriving. He theorized that “lipstick sales and the health of the economy were in inverse proportion to one another,” meaning that as the economy worsens, your favorite beauty products are more likely to sell out.
Americans in recent months have been spending less and less on a variety of leisure buys; these include home goods, travel, eating out, and even apparel. Stores have taken notice of these downward trends and have enacted a slew of pullbacks–but not on makeup, which has seen sales skyrocket in 2022.
Among the big-name stores that highlighted strong sales of beauty products in their fiscal second-quarter earnings recently were Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Nordstrom. Ulta Beauty–which beats Sephora as the nation’s biggest beauty retailer–reported a 17% spike in overall sales in its most recent quarter when compared to the same period in 2021. Walmart, too, has seen emptier makeup, hair, and skin product shelves compared to last year.
“At times when discretionary income is scarce and splurging on expensive non-essential goods is not an option, buying lipstick could be a way of escapism,” writes Natallia Bambiza, a beauty analyst and director at market research firm NPD Group. It certainly makes sense to see that when consumers feel a lack of control in their daily lives and the world at large, they resort to controlling and enjoying what they can; one of the easiest ways to do that is by playing with one’s appearance.
Though the lipstick index theory has not always held its weight since its conception in the early aughts, it has been reliable enough for beauty analysts to refer to it when the trend happens. Makeup may not solve everything, but for millions, it’s an indulgence that’s easy to come by when the going gets rough.