By Jackie Yu, President, HEH, Hair Art
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the salon and personal care industry harder than almost any other. The financial losses are said to be in the billions, and there have been staggering job losses in the industry across the board.
For those lucky enough to still have an active client list (common with hair loss experts due to skill levels and loyal client bases), you are probably noticing you can’t reliably get human hair pieces and wigs as we did before the pandemic.
It’s not just salons and stylists that have been disrupted. One of the staples for hair loss professionals, the human wig and hairpiece industry have also been hit deeply with supply chain issues and manufacturing problems along with human hair shortages.
With 40-plus years in the high-end wig and human hair piece industry based in California, I’ve seen how we arrived in this situation and what 2021 is going to look like.
North Americans love wigs! We are the world’s largest consumer, which accounts for over 62% of the global share. China is the No. 1 wig exporter. They account for more than 70% of the global supply. In 2019, China exported 67,000 tons of wig products, valued around $3.59 billion. This drastically decreased in 2020 due to the pandemic, but prices kept rising, especially the raw materials of wigs and high quality hair ventilation work., which is the process of hand weaving hair into wig caps.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, most hand-tied wigs and hairpieces were made in Qingdao City, China. An economic shift in the late ‘90s caused skilled factory labor to move to white collar jobs. This shift created a new market for North Korea. They began to take over the hand-tied wigs and hairpiece workforce.
Until the outset of Covid in early 2020, this system worked smoothly and production in this industry had matured to the point where supply and demand were in sync.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, North Korea closed its borders bringing the human hair industry to its knees. All production reverted to mainland China where the skilled hair labor were the remnants of the labor force from the 1980s and 90s, and the production became slow and expensive.
Last year, in 2020, because of this COVID-related manufacturing issue, many human hairpiece and extensions manufacturers went out of business. Some attempted to relocate to other Asian industrial centers such as Indonesia, the Philippines, or Bangladesh. Most other manufacturing centers don’t have the specially trained skilled labor required for high quality hand tied human hair products and ventilation. That is one reason why many manufacturers that can supply products are providing a lower quality product than they were before.
Stylists and retailers have noticed this trend themselves and are reporting a rise in complaints from customers.
To maintain the quality of human hair pieces, wigs and extensions, some companies have opted to pay the surcharges Chinese factories are imposing so we can maintain quality by only utilizing trained hair expert workers and having them prioritize orders.
Because the demand for human hair products remains at all-time highs, but the production force has been reduced substantially, we find that by keeping a large volume of stock pieces warehoused in the U.S. and paying the surcharges to ensure quality and being prioritized in production lines, we are able to maintain the supply our customers need.
As of February, custom pieces are still taking up to three to five times as long as pre-COVID production, so we recommend local customization of stock pieces for quick delivery. We also are working to find quality alternatives in other centers of production with high quality output as some Indonesian locations are.
This global pandemic has made our industry rethink our production, services and supply pipeline, and without great communication with our factories, a healthy highly skilled labor force and a large stock of raw materials, we’re at risk of a repeat of this issue over and over in the coming years.
Strengthening our policy of warehousing a large supply of raw materials and stock pieces in the U.S. and maintaining excellent relations and immediate communication with China has been key and will continue to be so going forward.