1. “Money grows on you.”
Hairdressing is often glibly described as “recession-proof” because it is one of the last expenditures consumers give up during tough economic times. People will wear old clothes but find it difficult to skimp on a good haircut, says Nick Arrojo, owner of Arrojo Studio in New York and former star of TV’s “What Not To Wear.” “It’s a very resilient industry.”
Indeed, during the height of the Great Recession, between 2008 and 2009, the number of mom-and-pop hair salons increased by nearly 8%, according to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau. And, although the U.S. economy lost 1.6 million jobs between January 2000 and March 2011, salons and spas added 75,000 jobs during the same period, according to the Professional Beauty Association, a salon and beauty industry group. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that barber, hairdresser and cosmetologist jobs will increase 13% by 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
While the industry is still growing, optimism among salon owners recently waned a bit: In the Professional Beauty Association’s third-quarter-of-2013 survey of salon and spa owners, only 46% said they expected economic conditions to improve in the following six months, the smallest proportion in two years.
But even if consumers cut back on their haircuts, they aren’t likely to stop visiting the salon altogether, says Kathryn Hawkins, a consultant for small businesses. “Someone who might have splurged on $200 hair color in the past might switch to a do-it-yourself option, but they are still likely to come in for a haircut, which most people view as an essential service.”
(This story has been updated from an earlier version.)
2. “Your hairline may be receding, but our prices aren’t...”
The Federal Reserve has worked to keep inflation low, but outgoing Chairman Ben Bernanke — who probably doesn’t need many haircuts — doesn’t seem to be having much luck with the salon industry. The average price of a haircut rose faster than inflation in 2012 and 2013. And there’s been a surge in the price of a cut at higher-end salons post-recession. The cost of a men’s haircut and blow dry jumped 46%, to $42, in 2011 from 2010, according to an online survey of salons by American Salon Magazine. A women’s cut rose 29%, to $56. In comparison, U.S. consumer prices for the same period rose only 3% overall.
What gives? Michael Duenas, CEO and founder of hairstyling service HairRoomService.com, says the costs of commercial rents and raw materials for dyes and other treatments have been increasing in recent years.
Despite the rising prices, most hairstylists aren’t raking in the dough. The average hairdresser makes an annual salary of only $22,770, including reported tips, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hairstylists also point to the rising popularity of less-lucrative “big hair” — curls and waves — over straightened styles, which can be more costly to maintain.
3. “...except when we feel like negotiating.”
Some hairdressers will advertise a high price to make them look like they’re in demand, but when pressed will charge a lower fee, industry insiders say. Even stylists that aren’t doing a brisk business may start advertising and charging higher prices to make up for low volume, Arrojo says. When it comes to styles, consumers typically believe they’re getting a better cut, from a more established stylist, when they pay more, he says.
There’s good reason to negotiate, especially in a neighborhood salon, experts say: These businesses want you to come back again and again. According to a 2011 survey by Atlanta-based direct-mailing company Welcomemat Services, hair salons are among the three kinds of local business that are most likely to get repeat customers, after pizza restaurants and car washes. And there’s plenty of money at stake: The typical female client will spend between $800 and $900 a year on cuts, styles and the occasional dye job, reports Welcomemat.
Even fancier hair salons may be willing to negotiate. Many contract with independent hairstylists who charge their own rates, then give a percentage to the salon owner, experts say. That means the stylists might have more flexibility to give a discount than those who work for salons with set prices.
Still, many salons keep strict control over their pricing. “There is room for some maneuverability from time-to-time, but we can’t do a bunch of free services,” says Carlos Rogers, owner of Hush Salon in Philadelphia. Brad Masterson, spokesman for the Professional Beauty Association, says stylists may be able to alter their prices, but says most would be put off by the notion.
4. “The hair products are the real moneymaker.”
That pyramid of shampoos, conditioners and gels most consumers must dodge before leaving the salon aren’t there for decoration — that’s where salons earn the big bucks. “It’s a big part of revenue,” says Jennifer Loprete, master colorist and creative director at Vito Mazza Salon & Spa in Woodbridge, N.J. “But it’s also about educating clients in aftercare.” Clients who buy the products, she says, are twice as likely to remain loyal customers for six years or more.
The sale of hair-care products at all kinds of outlets is expected to reach nearly $12 billion by 2017, a 12% increase from 2012, according to industry research firm Euromonitor International. Hair dyes account for nearly one-quarter of that figure, it adds. What’s more, profit margins at salons were around 5.8% in 2013, up from 3.9% in 2008, according to an October 2013 report by IbisWorld. “Rising profit margins have primarily been due to increased sales of merchandise items,” the report found.
Bottles of conditioner and shampoo are obviously one way for a salon to boost the bottom line, especially when they charge more for the products than bigger retailers. But experts say there’s another reason the fancy treatments are important — when the bottles are empty, customers have extra incentive to make an appointment. Some salon products do contain a higher concentration of expensive ingredients like Vitamin B and avocado not found in typical drugstore shampoos and conditioners, the Professional Beauty Association’s Masterson says. And the steep discounts big-box stores offer do prevent salons from marking up the price significantly.
5.”A cosmetology license doesn’t always cut it.”
Cosmetology licenses are given out based on hours spent cutting hair, and in some states, a written examination. Skill, and an eye for style, are not required. “It’s a piece of paper that gives you the opportunity to practice legally, but after that, you have to find your way in the business yourself, whether it’s a $10 haircut or a fancy place,” says Rogers, the Philadelphia salon owner. That someone has a license is no guarantee they won’t mangle your hair, Masterson says: “Experience definitely weighs more over licensing.” The hours required for licensing also vary from state to state. New York requires 1,000 hours of practice, while California requires 1,600 hours. Those hours are just a fraction of what’s needed for someone to be good at styling hair, some critics contend. A licensed stylist may have no sense of the latest fashions and technologies, Rogers says.
Still, a cosmetology school graduate generally works as an assistant for one to two years, Masterson says. And getting a license also requires training in other issues like health and safety and, for barbers, the proper use of blades for shaving, he says. Some states also require hairstylists to take continuing education courses to renew their licenses every year or two. “There is a lot of passion and education to learn more about your craft,” Rogers says, “but it’s up to the individual.”
6. “We sometimes gossip about you behind your back.”
Salon chairs, like therapists couches, inspire people to open up about their personal lives. But hair stylists have no professional duty to keep your secrets. Haircuts create a false sense of intimacy, Duenas says. “I know so much stuff that I wish I never did,” he says. “One woman told me she cheated on her husband. He was in my appointment book for the following day.” According to one survey by Pivot Point, a company that creates educational products for hairstyling schools, some 52% of people have been seeing the same hairdresser for three years or more and over 38% of all respondents admitted to discussing their relationships with their hairdresser. People don’t talk to their dentist or doctor about their relationships, but they do talk to their hairstylists, experts say.
But consumers should be careful what they share. If Naz Kupelian, who owns a salon in Lexington, Mass., overhears his staff discussing a client, he tells them to stop. “Clients shouldn’t share too much with their hairdresser,” he says. “I have a policy that a client is a client, not a friend, so I don’t want my staff to socialize with clients.” But policies obviously vary. Rogers doesn’t have any hard or fast rules about his staff socializing with clients or “friending” them on Facebook. And he understands people will talk: “You can’t stop people from being human. We all have skeletons in the closet.”
Some hairstylists have even gone so far as to write cut-and-tell books. Steven Smith’s memoir, “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Hairdresser,” is full of secrets from his celebrity clients in London. Even if you’re not a star, most consumers may want to heed the advice in “Confessions of a Hairdresser: Gossip, Gossip and More Gossip!” by Robin Q. Daumit: “Beware of the stories you share with your hairdresser. You never know where they will turn up next.”
7. “You depend on us for way more than your hair.”
Hairdressers come armed with a pair of scissors and a blow dryer, but their real talents lie in how they manage their relationship with clients. Gossip aside, some 81% of people in the Pivot Point survey rated their relationship with their stylist as one of the most important reasons they choose their salon, with nearly 80% seeing the same stylist each visit. Ever since a soft-skinned Delilah bobbed Samson’s hair, hairdressers have wielded a largely unseen power. Dean Bakopoulos, social commentator and author of “My American Unhappiness,” a novel about status anxiety, masculinity and consumerism, says he once had a terrible crush on the woman who cut his hair: “I’d do whatever she told me to do. I almost left with a spiky head of blonde highlights after one visit. I’m glad she wasn’t a tattoo artist.”
There’s a serious side to these relationships as well. Stylists are in a powerful position when it comes to recognizing problems like domestic abuse, depression or even skin cancer, says Keith Anderson, assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University. In a 2009 study which he co-authored, Anderson found that 80% of stylists said their elderly clients shared their problems and 85% of hairstylists described their relationships with older clients as close or very close. “They can recognize signs of distress and point clients in the right direction for help,” he says. Already, national campaigns like “Cut it Out ” aim to help stylists be on the look-out for signs of domestic abuse and provide helplines like the Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE. Hairdressers are not under any obligation to report cases of suspected domestic abuse, but Anderson says experienced stylists get to know their clients and learn how to quietly broach the subject with customers and point them toward relevant organizations.
8.”We’re not sorry for the delay.”
There’s a reason why the salon is stocked with the latest edition of Vogue. Hairstylists — keen to squeeze in as many customers as possible — frequently run late. The trick for many busy hairdressers is to make customers wait — without them realizing they’re waiting. When hairstylists offer an extra special shampoo or conditioning treatment that lasts 30 minutes or more, it may well be because the salon is backed up, Loprete says. “Conditioners are used commonly in that fashion,” she says. “There will be no love lost by giving a healthy dose of vitamins for your hair.” However, other stylists may overbook on purpose in an effort to make more money and then juggle clients and make people wait, she says. Loprete says she tries to be conscious of people’s time. Any wait time over 15 or 20 minutes is unacceptable, she says.
Consumers are not prepared to sit around all afternoon: A survey by Toa Technologies, which produces mobile workforce management software, found that around one in four Americans lost wages waiting for appointments. “In focus group after focus group, we hear that today’s busy singles and families alike are stressed out, exhausted and short on time,” says Rhoda Olsen, CEO of salon chain Great Clips.
9. “We screw up.”
Good hairdressers are trained to keep a poker face, experts say, whenever the stylist’s and client’s eyes meet in the mirror. You won’t know from their expression that they’ve just given you asymmetrical bangs or used a blonde dye that’s too brassy, Kupelian says. If the color goes awry, stylists will “do their best to fix it in the backwash,” Arrojo says — the final wash before the customer leaves the salon. Color and hairstyling gone wrong can be an especially expensive mistake. The good news: It’s not permanent. For their part, hairdressers say they try to keep their clients happy — even if that includes a free cut. In most cases, Masterson says, the stylist will offer to fix the cut or color at no additional charge. “About 99% of the time, I will make the time to see clients again and fix their hair for them,” Duenas says. On top of that, some salons offer free follow-ups for clients who decide days later that they don’t like their new look.
10. “We’ll get very sensitive if you stray.”
Hairdressers admit they take client defections personally. They “are very sensitive and very competitive,” Kupelian says.
In 2012, one hairstylist in Atlanta became so upset when a client went to a competitor that he got himself thrown in jail. Stylist Corwin Pledger became upset when his client, Neffe, the sister of R&B star Keyshia Cole, headed over to the J. Spot salon for a new do. Derek J., who owns J. Spot and appears on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” accused Pledger of marching over to his salon and shooting a bullet into his wooden floor. Pledger was convicted of aggravated assault, reckless conduct and possession of a firearm and, in August 2012 , was sentenced to six months in prison, plus four years and six months on probation by Fulton County Superior Court. Pledger is back practicing hairdressing and has his own salon in Austell, Ga. “I’ve been doing hair for 14 years,” he says. “If anything, my business increased.”
Of course, this is an extreme example of how things could go wrong; typically, customers quietly change salons with little fanfare. Kupelian says he has an open policy at his salon, where clients can move among stylists: “Clients disappear and come back.” Rogers encourages his staff not to take it personally if customers do try out a rival and wants his clients to feel free to come back after going elsewhere. At some salons, he says, “It’s very common for a stylist to look like a deer in the headlights when they see their client go somewhere else.” Bakopoulos, for one, understands why someone would seek out a second opinion. “Bad haircuts — and I’ve had my fair share of them — can really depress you,” he says. “When you’re walking around like you’re sporting a crooked toupee, like some drunken game show host, you feel totally powerless.”
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