Innovation in a time of COVID-19

by Sarah Firisen

When I was in my twenties, I didn’t own handbags, I didn’t even have a wallet, I used to stuff my keys and money into a pocket. This was easy when I had one credit card and not a lot of cash. But as I got older, I began to see the sense in carrying some kind of bag, even if I didn’t consider it a fashion choice I was interested in. At some point, I became more interested in the aesthetics of where I put my keys. I started a yearly birthday ritual of buying myself a new nice, practical but not fancy bag. It was usually black or brown so that it went with anything. Then about two years ago that changed. I started a new job, went into the office more, and traveled more. Suddenly, I was open to the possibilities of owning multiple bags, in different colors to go with different outfits. I bought my first designer bag (I was still thrifty about this and went lower end and always on sale, but even so, it was a designer bag). And before I knew it, I had developed a bit of a bag buying habit. I had 4 designer bags and was always forgetting my keys because they were never in the right bag. I was starting to worry about this new buying habit when COVID-19 hit. We went into lockdown and I never went anywhere. When I do go out these days, it’s usually low key and local. I usually don’t even bother putting makeup on let alone worrying about which bag will go with whichever casual and comfortable outfit I have on. And I’m not the only one, “ throughout lockdown, people have been finessing the minutiae of their routines — the preferred shopping route, the ideal outdoor workout — and will likely now shop with these in mind. “Functionally is going to be even more important than it ever was before…She predicts a market for inventive canvas shoppers, lined in something waterproof, or crossbody bags with adjustable straps for hiking or cycling; “geeky stuff like that.”

On one level, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this, things happen, the fashion industry responds. But if it turns out that we won’t be going back to offices, or traveling, going to the theatre, or out to bars anytime in the foreseeable future, then this will go from a retail, fashion blip to a moment primed for real innovation.

The lipstick index is “a shorthand to gauge consumer spending. When more extravagant luxuries seem out of reach, the index suggests, lipstick is an affordable treat.” Except that the lipstick index increasingly doesn’t seem to be measuring the right purchase as people aren’t buying lipsticks. The reason that lipstick sales is down are obvious: masks. But the entire beauty industry has been affected. McKinsey predicts “global beauty-industry revenues could fall 20 to 30 percent in 2020. In the United States, if there is a COVID-19 recurrence later in the year, the decline could be as much as 35 percent“. As with handbags, if we’re not going anywhere, why do we need makeup? Most cosmetic purchases used to be in-store. According to McKinsey, pre-COVID it was around 85% of all sales. I used to do most of my makeup purchases, particularly new products and shades which I wanted to test before I bought, at the Sephora next to my office. But I don’t go to the office anymore. Most people don’t. With far fewer reasons or interest in getting dressed up, my need to pop into Sephora is minimal. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. In what I’m sure is a response to this, Sephora recently announced a partnership with Instacart for same-day beauty delivery. This kind of incremental innovation, an app initially created for grocery delivery pivoting to ship same-day eye shadow, is something we’ll see more of if COVID isn’t neutralized any time soon.

“If you went to bed last night as an industrial company, you’re going to wake up this morning as a software and analytics company.” Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric famously said. Companies that can reinvent and reimagine their business models in the face of major shifts, whether they’re technological, societal or black swan global events, have usually been the corporate survivors. I have a good friend who is a designer for a sports merchandising company. As COVID shut down all sporting events, the company quickly pivoted to masks. As the months have rolled by, my friend has moved on from their early basic sports logo masks and is working to push the innovation of the product around breathability and wearability.

Less than a year ago, the idea of most people in the world wearing masks every day was absurd. And who could have ever predicted that we’d care about the feature set of masks? Having worn surgical masks for most of the lockdown, I finally decided that as my social life opens up a bit, I need something fancier. But there were things I liked about the surgical masks: I like the elastic ear straps, the metal nose bridge, the breathabilty. And in 8 short months, the brand new mask industry has evolved so much that I was able to go online and get a mask with all the features I now knew I wanted. I thought that my mask needs were over until I saw this, “The Drink Mask is a doctor-designed mask that allows you to drink through a reusable and resealable air and water-tight valve, while protecting yourself and others.” New companies and products have sprung up, existing companies have made significant pivots. If mask-wearing continues to be a need, where will this go next? I’ve seen interesting winter fashion with built-in masks. I’m sure there will be seasonally specific masks, particularly if this stretches into next summer.

There have been a lot of business models torn apart due to COVID and the ensuring economic crisis. A lot of companies that haven’t survived. But there have also been companies who’ve innovated to survive, new industries that have sprung up. According to a different McKinsey study, “ 90 percent of executives said they expect the fallout from COVID-19 to fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years, with almost as many asserting that the crisis will have a lasting impact on their customers’ needs”. As this study concludes, “Of course, seeing the opportunities emerging from this crisis is not the same as being able to seize them.” I will watch the handbag industry with interest to see if they can innovate enough to reawaken my interest.