BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- When Oprah Winfrey said during Barack Obama's acceptance speech, "I cried my eyelashes off," it was a sign of the times in more ways than one.
Forget the lipstick indicator, which is Estee Lauder Chairman Leonard Lauder's contrarian signal that when lipstick sales go up, the economy is going down: Big eyelashes are the big thing this recession. The stock market is shot, and the cosmetics market is wobbly at best, but eyelashes are in -- and robust sales of mascara and other products promising ever thicker, longer lashes are making up for weakness elsewhere in cosmetics.
Information Resources Inc. data from Deutsche Bank show mass lipstick sales have been declining at an accelerating pace this year, down 13.5% the four weeks ended Nov. 30. But eye-makeup sales have been accelerating as the year progressed, up 9.3% in November over a year ago.
It's a similar story in prestige cosmetics, where strength in mascara and related products is helping make up for weakness elsewhere, said Karen Grant, analyst with NPD Group. Mascara sales rose 4% in October even as overall prestige-makeup sales fell 4%, with the launch of oscillating mascara brushes from Lancome and Estee Lauder helping rescue what had been a "challenging year" for mascara, too.
Innovation is key
The popularity of ever thicker, longer lashes probably has more to do with fashion and improvements in technology than the gyrations of gross domestic. And the encouraging sign is that innovation can still find a foothold even in the worst of times.
Case in point is Spinlash, a mascara with a spinning applicator that promises to eliminate clumping. Having launched last spring in such stores as Target, Claire's and via direct-response TV, the product from Barbara Carey, inventor of Hairagami and more than 100 other direct-response products, appears to have stolen a march on the prestige beauty industry, much like Bare Escentuals mineral makeup and long-lasting lipstick from P&G's mass brands Max Factor and CoverGirl in years past, said beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson. She sees it as the precursor of recently launched oscillating-brush mascara.
Ms. Carey sees the growing popularity of big eyelashes and new eye-makeup products as a combination of fashion, technology and the economy. "Even if women can't go out and buy a $200 pair of shoes, they certainly have $15 to spend on this mascara to make themselves feel a little better," she said. "At different times in history, [there are] different parts of a woman's body we pay closer attention to."
Game of one-upmanship
At least for now, the eyes have it. Eyelash thickness has become to women's cosmetics what blade number has become to men's razors -- a seemingly endless source of one-upmanship.
Maybelline, its L'Oreal prestige sibling Lancome, and Avon once had mascaras promising to make lashes five to six times thicker. Procter & Gamble Co.'s CoverGirl looked to outdo them all with last year's launch of LashBlast Volume Blasting Mascara -- and with great success. CoverGirl's eye-makeup sales were up more than 20% each of the first three quarters of 2008, according to IRI data. LashBlast has become the No. 1 mascara in the mass market in dollar sales, a P&G spokeswoman said. That's something the company hopes to build on with last month's launch of CoverGirl Exact Eyelights, which promises to brighten eye color while lengthening and defining lashes.
Not to be outdone by a threat to its longstanding reign as leader in mass eye makeup, Maybelline in October launched Maybelline Colossal Volum'Express, promising nine-times-thicker lashes. That's helped push Maybelline into positive territory the past two months after two down quarters in eye-makeup sales, according to IRI data.
All about the brushes
In reality, mascara itself hasn't changed that much for decades, Ms. Grayson said. What's improved have been the brushes, largely thanks to brush suppliers developing ever-better products, she said.
While fashion may currently favor big eyelashes, women have always seen mascara as perhaps the most important thing in their cosmetics case. For one thing, surveys constantly show women rating their eyes as their best feature, Ms. Grayson said.
With prestige sales of $294 million last year, mascara passed lip color as the third best-selling makeup category for the first time ever, said NPD's Ms. Grant. But beyond that, it's the makeup product more women use than any other, and the one they'll use most frequently during the day. "So it's a critical category for a brand," she said.
An eyelash drug?
As if there weren't enough technology directed at the eyes already, there's more to come. Users of Allergan's glaucoma drug Lumigan began noticing a few years ago that it was making their eyelashes longer and thicker. Earlier this month, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended approval of the drug, now dubbed Latisse, for cosmetic applications. So the marketer of Botox may soon be peddling an eyelash drug, too.
It's hard to know whether that's good or bad for cosmetics. After all, bigger lashes could mean even more carrying capacity for mascara. Latisse's success "depends on how immediate the results are and whether women follow the discipline," Ms. Grant said. "But it's definitely something that piques the curiosity."