NEW DELHI -- India's beauty salons, already battered by the country's devastating second COVID wave, are now dealing with a related setback: customers who are increasingly finding alternatives to venturing out in a pandemic.
Independent owners are finding it hard to come up with rent and pay salaries as fewer clients walk through their doors. "There's hardly any business now," said Malti Chauhan, 45, who runs a one-room salon in New Delhi. Before the pandemic, Chauhan was used to earning over 50,000 rupees a month ($678); she now makes do with less than 50% of that.
India's salons are mostly small, owned by individuals and often not officially registered. Together, they form a sector that is reportedly worth 100 billion rupees.
"This industry has suffered a great deal because it is based on 'personal touch,' which is what is being avoided now due to the virus," said Chauhan, who had to lay off her lone part-time assistant. "Now, I get only a handful of customers and try to run the salon single-handedly, though it may not be long before I'm forced [to] shut the business altogether."
The situation set in along with the deadly second wave of coronavirus infections in April and May, forcing salons, spas and even outdoor facilities to close. As of Friday, the country's cumulative infections stood at 32.6 million, with 436,861 fatalities.
But daily case numbers are now on the decline, which has allowed businesses in most parts of the country to nearly get back to normal. At the height of its second COVID wave in May, India was seeing over 400,000 confirmed daily infections -- far higher than the 97,000 per day peak last September -- but numbers have dropped sharply in recent weeks and remain below 50,000 a day.
This is not the case for salons or for their former workers, many of whom are now looking for jobs in other fields.
One of the sector's castoffs is Zaid Khan, 30, who is the sole breadwinner for an extended family that includes his parents, wife, two small children and two brothers in college. "I was working in a top-notch salon in Delhi, where I was being paid 80,000 rupees a month," Khan said, adding that he now tries to make ends meet by freelancing.
"The salon, which was situated in a prime locality in the national capital where the rental was close to a million rupees per month, wasn't making enough money to meet all overhead expenses, including our salaries, and was forced to shut down," he said.
Beauty shops still scratching by now face a new challenge: increasingly popular startups that offer at-home treatments.
"I haven't been to a salon since the pandemic began last year," said Shashi Sharma, 51, a schoolteacher who now prefers to hail a beautician to her residence through home services platform Urban Company. "A salon at home is a safer and cheaper option."
Sharma said she used to pay over 2,000 rupees for a facial pre-COVID but now enjoys the same service at home for 600 rupees.
Deepa Prasad is among those who have joined the ranks of beauticians-to-go. "The workflow here depends on customer feedback," said Prasad, a 31-year-old mother of a 9-year-old boy. A single negative comment about her work on social media, she said, could cause her to lose clients.
While delivery salon treatments are now favored, the broader beauty and personal care market, which includes cosmetics and products related to skin and hair care, is also growing.
According to Statista, the encompassing market is worth $26.85 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 8.51% from 2021 to 2025. The largest segment is personal care, at $12.26 billion.
By way of comparison, the U.S. beauty and personal care market is the world's largest, generating $82.3 billion a year, Statista data shows.
Nykaa -- a major online beauty and personal care product provider that is also India's only profitable unicorn, or startup valued at more than $1 billion -- recently filed a draft red-herring prospectus for an initial public offering and plans to raise 5.25 billion rupees through a fresh share issue.
For younger consumers, Nykaa has emerged as a one-stop shop that meets almost all their needs for beauty and personal care goods. "Since the pandemic struck, I've relied mostly on online shopping for cosmetics and other personal care products," said Sonakshi, a 22-year-old New Delhi college student. "I do most of my purchases from Nykaa" because it offers a variety of international brands.