Asian immigrants opened up the world of professional nail care to new consumers, but they also triggered a steady decline of service prices. The long-term survival of the profession depends now on how well all nationalities can work together.
When Cam Hamim arrived in the, United States in 1975, she spent the first few months in her Los Angeles apartment watching TV and trying to adjust to a culture vastly different from her native Vietnam. But after, a few months, she started taking in sewing projects to help supplement her, husband’s income as a draftsman. With the family savings, she soon opened a sewing factory, then a second one, then a third. But the hours were long and the work tiring and exhausting.
Meanwhile her sister was bringing home fat paychecks from the salon where she worked as a nail technician. When Cam realized she could make better money in fewer hours doing nails, without the burden of running her own business, she sold her factory, went to nail school, and ultimately went to work doing nails.
“Nails was the thing to do then,” explains Cam’s American-born daughter Maria. “Nail salons were booming in Los Angeles: A full set was $50. Everyone in the Vietnamese community was getting into nails,” she says.
More than 20 years later, the nail profession is still a strong draw for Vietnamese immigrants, but the nail industry is vastly different from when Cam entered it in 1975. Cam and Maria Hamim now co-own four salons in Arizona. They left California in 1994 because business competition there was too stiff. Now, their salon is charging $25 for a full set, half what they were able to charge 20 years ago.
The proliferation of Vietnamese salons has affected the nail industry in a way unmatched by any other event since dental products were introduced into the nail industry. Ironically, when the first wave of Vietnamese salons began opening, they weren’t necessarily low-end or discount salons. It wasn’t until the profession began to draw huge numbers of new immigrants that the price wars now associated with Vietnamese salon competition began. But the most intense competition to Vietnamese salons is from other Vietnamese salons.
The nail industry has changed fundamentally under the influence of the business and cultural practices of Vietnamese nail professionals. The Vietnamese salon community is largely responsible for the drop in service prices and the erosion of the middle-class nail salon, but it also opened up nail care to a whole new market and brought in clients who had never taken an emery board to their nails, let alone sat down for a professional manicure.
Industry insiders estimate that Asian nail technicians, in particular Vietnamese nail technicians, make up as much as 80% of the nail technicians in California, and may account for nearly 25% of the industry nationwide. No one has precise figures on how many Vietnamese-owned salons there are or how many Vietnamese nail technicians are currently practicing, but one need only look at any busy street in Southern California and count the number of nail salons to see that Vietnamese salons are a major market force.
Consider the fact that in a 45-day period (between August 14, 1996, and September 30, 1996), examination statistics from the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology show that of the 565 people who became licensed nail technicians, 40% of them were Vietnamese. Vietnamese salons are probably the fastest-growing segment of the nail industry, but other Asian nationalities have joined it as well, including Korean (largely concentrated in the eastern states, especially in New York and New Jersey), Thai, and Filipino. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that in a 10-block area downtown, 14 of the 15 salons opened within the past year were Vietnamese-owned. The Minnesota Star Tribune reported in a recent article that Minneapolis has the fastest growing nail salon industry, fueled primarily by new Vietnamese salons. And the Los Angeles Times, which initially published the industry estimate cited earlier in this article (i.e. that 80% of California nail technicians are Vietnamese, and that 25% nationwide are Vietnamese), is already the most frequently cited source, and has actually served to validate the incredible growth of this part of the industry.
The Asian Face
Although stereotypes dominate, there is a fairly “typical” Vietnamese salon. The majority of Vietnamese salons are discount salons (which NAILS Magazine calls a salon with service prices less than one-half the national average). Most Vietnamese salons provide nail services only, and of those services, traditional liquid and powder acrylic services predominate. Although Vietnamese nail technicians are probably no worse in their compliance of sanitation standards than anyone else, they have acquired a reputation for poor sanitation. (The now infamous “chicken soup” episode of a tabloid TV show exposed a Vietnamese nail technician soaking a client’s foot just inches away from where she was making chicken soup.) Because Vietnamese salons emphasize the speed of the service, they tend to rely on electric drills, and many a horror story has been spread by a client whose natural nail bed was laid bare by a heavy-handed drill user.
Manufacturers and distributors attest that Vietnamese nail technicians, as a general rule, purchase from Vietnamese distributors and do not use most of the same name brand products found in other salons. This presents a unique opportunity for name-brand manufacturers who have yet to tap the full potential of this market segment. Interestingly, many Vietnamese nail technicians have a keener understanding of what their actual service/product costs are because they must keep such a tight cap on expenses. Most salons tend to order products in bulk, refill bottles to save on product costs, and use inexpensive generic brands of disposable items such as files.
Although there are no statistics on it, reports that Vietnamese salons rely heavily on the use of methyl methacrylate products are not unfounded. Whether the Vietnamese salon community is wholly aware of the dangers and legalities of using MMA is unclear, especially considering the dearth of communication vehicles such as trade magazines and tradeshows that effectively reach this community.
The stereotype of the Vietnamese salon is mostly negative, but it is usually acknowledged that Vietnamese nail technicians are extremely hard-working and service-oriented, and that they have refined the art of personal care. Many Vietnamese immigrants suffered greatly under the political environment in their native country and, while they tend to do business primarily within their own networks of other Vietnamese-owned businesses, they embrace the American ideals of a free market economy.
Many industry watchers acknowledge the productive effect that the Vietnamese salon wave has had on the industry: “Vietnamese salons have revitalized the nail industry,” says Larry Gaynor, president and CEO of Nailco Salon Market-place (Farmington Hills, Mich.). “The nail industry was virtually flat for three years, and now it’s starting to grow again because of the Asian salons.”
While service prices have been driven down in areas of the country oversaturated with salons, there are more clients for those salons than ever before. Lower prices have meant greater accessibility to a service that was long considered a luxury. Manicures were once the indulgence of the pampered few; today, even teenagers on an allowance can afford to get their nails done.
As more clients become exposed to professional nail care, they in turn learn to recognize what distinguishes a good salon from a bad one, and a well-done set of nails tram a flawed one (although this is still an evolving process). As more nail technicians see their own clients drift to other salons to save money, they’ve also learned the nature of true competition, and that they have to market their own businesses better and accentuate what they do differently from other salons to stay competitive.
“With new competition, you get a lot of upset people, but we view it as positive for the industry because it will make salon owners operate more like businesspeople and learn the marketing and promotion side of the business,” reminds Gaynor.
Contrary to popular belief, Vietnamese nail technicians, by and large, are not living below the poverty line. They earn a living wage for their work, and although their prices are generally lower than average, their incomes are well within national averages. In some areas of the country, they even surpass industry averages. Granted, Vietnamese salon owners and nail technicians usually put in a work week that well exceeds 40 hours. Industry watchers estimate that Vietnamese nail technicians earn anywhere from $300 to $500 a week. Salons advertising in two Southern California Vietnamese-language community newspapers are offering up to $3,000 a month plus all expenses to nail technicians willing to relocate out of state (it seems the challenge to find high-quality nail tech¬nicians cuts across all nationalities).
Peter Ha is one Vietnamese salon owner who found his ticket to success in America was doing nails. “My wife and I came to the United States 12 years ago. I was a biologist in Vietnam, but I couldn’t go to college here because I had to support my family. I worked at a clothing factory for six months and made $2.50 an hour. My wife, who doing nails, made more than I did in tips alone,” says Ha, who came to this country for greater freedom and opportunity on Thanksgiving in 1984.
Ha’s wife, Tina, convinced him to try his hand at nails. Although it took a while for clients to accept a man doing their nails, within six months the Has had saved $10,000—enough to open their own salon. Within two years, they owned three Los Angeles salons. That was in 1986, the heyday of salons in California, but like the Hamims, the Has eventually relocated away from California in order to justify higher service prices.
“The Vietnamese want the American Dream, and the American Dream has always focused on the future,” explains Lynne Choy Uyeda, owner of Lynne Choy Uyeda & Associates in Los Angeles. Uyeda, who works with Asian business owners, says, “To them, the way to a brighter future is through economics. The fastest way to economic prosperity is to have your own business. The Vietnamese hooked onto the nail industry for example, while the Koreans went into contract sewing and grocery stores.
“Most Vietnamese immigrants are refugees, coming from a country scarred by war, devastation, and political oppression,” Uyeda continues. “The first immigrants who came in the mid-1970s after the fall of Saigon were highly educated members of the elite; many of them were unable to retrieve documents and credentials proving their past occupations, and so they had to start over here. They needed an immediate means of support for their families. The second wave of immigrants just a few years later were peasants and farmers, with largely the same goals. A first generation’s goal is usually to pave the way so their children better options. More recently, the third wave of immigrants are mostly for political prisoners and Amerasian children.” Another wave is coming, Uyeda says, mostly from refugee camps that have disbanded.
While their backgrounds are diverse, their goals are not. First and foremost, Vietnamese immigrants are trying to survive, to provide for themselves and their family. The Vietnamese have a strong sense of family, putting the needs of the family over those of the individual. When someone opens a salon, the entire weight of the family is pitched behind its success—with wives, husbands, sons, and daughters, as well as sisters and uncles and mothers and fathers, and even cousins, working to help build the business. Besides the sense of family, it’s also a matter of economics— the more family members working in the salon, the more income that remains in the family.
Family is exactly what brought Trang Nguyen, a well-known competitor and owner of four upscale nail salons in Florida, into the nail industry. Nguyen moved to the United States with his family when he was 16. His family opened a beauty school in Westminster, Calif., where Nguyen worked while going to college. After graduating, he returned to work in the school with plans to move on when he found another job, but it wasn’t long before he started doing nails himself. He attended the family school to get his license.
After working in a salon for a few years, Nguyen opened his own salon with his family’s help. After a few years, however, Nguyen left California, leaving his salon to his family. “I sold the salons to my relatives who were working with me because they needed a career. At that time I was helping run the school anyway. Then my wife and I moved to Florida to open a new salon. My family wouldn’t have been happy if I had opened a new salon in California that would compete against them,” he explains.
Salon ownership is the ultimate goal of most Vietnamese nail technicians, says Uyeda, and the dream of owning their own business. She continues, “With business ownership, Asian immigrants know they are in control. It’s almost a religion to them.” Pauline Herr, director and instructor at Bonsoir World Nail Academy in Tempe, Ariz., says her students tell her they got into nails because it was something they could learn quickly and make money at. “But I think as they get into it they see it differently because they’re working very hard to learn and I don’t think they would be if it was just a job.”
Dan Hoang, editor of Saigon Nails magazine, a Westchester, Cailf.-based trade journal for Vietnamese nail technicians, agrees: “They hear from a friend or a relative that nails is a better job than assembly work, but later on it becomes a career because there’s so much opportunity.”
But Minh Naht Trieu, Nguyen’s cousin and an instructor at Asian American International Beauty College in Westminster, Calif., says it really depends on the individual. “I have known people who’ve worked in this field for 20 years and others who see it just as a step toward their future.
“Some people, especially the younger ones, do manicuring part-time while they try to learn another skill or while they go to college. They can do that. The older people who have families to take care of take it more seriously and work hard to save money and open a salon so they can be an entrepreneur.”
Elaine Ho-Wan, an industry consultant who specializes in the Vietnamese salon community, takes a harsher view, saying most Vietnamese, especially the salon owners, do not view nails as a profession. And that, she says, is the root of all problems.
“Because of that they do not follow all the rules set for the profession. They need to understand that if they violate the rules, the public may not view nails as a profession. They are degrading the respect and reputation for the industry. We need to educate them or we will continue to have a battle between them and the rest of the industry. This is unfortunate because through their speed and pricing they’ve opened up a whole new market of people who get their nails done.”
Money, prestige, and power—those are the key reasons Vietnamese technicians aspire to own their own salon, says Ho-Wan. In that sense, they’re not so different from anyone else in the industry.
High Volume + Low Prices = American Dream
Although the first wave of Vietnamese salons were not low-price salons, as more Vietnamese salons entered the market, pricing became the dominant marketing strategy they employed to win market share. They did not focus on client amenities or unique services, they focused entirely on having the lowest prices. Well-proven in the hair industry (Supercuts and Fantastic Sam’s, for example), these “assembly line” service centers carved out a niche. However, that niche was soon populated by so many other Vietnamese salons that it began an all-out price war.
“Vietnamese salons market themselves with high-volume, quick-turn around services at great prices for medium-income customers,” says Ho-Wan. “They cater to American clients, and these clients appreciate speed. People don’t have time to waste. They want a full set in 45 minutes or an hour.”
Sue Glickman, a Houston-based master distributor servicing primarily Vietnamese salons, says the success story is simple: “[Vietnamese nail technicians] are good and they’re fast. They don’t talk to their customers, but their customers don’t care because they’re getting what they want. The technician zips you through and gets you out. You don’t get good service, but the price is good. So as long as you have beautiful nails, why should you care?”
Whether the formula is as simple as that and whether the service is universally good is a matter of opinion. By and large Vietnamese salons don’t invest in fancy furniture, exotic beverages, or other experience-enhancing amenities, and clients don’t expect that. But what has happened in markets like California is that prices have been driven down so low that few salons can survive, and fewer still can eke out a respectable profit. It isn’t difficult to find a salon charging $8 or less for a fill.
“Many nail salon owners are leaving California because the prices have been driven too far down. They just can’t afford to have salons there anymore. Everyone is looking for a way out to another state,” says Ho-Wan.
Will rock-bottom prices follow as these immigrants now immigrate to other states to start afresh and, they hope, launch businesses in areas not yet accustomed to cheap fills? “The Vietnamese community has learned a lot from what happened in California,” contends Hoang. “The low prices ... everyone has to avoid letting prices get that low. The prices in California are so low salons have to add services to raise the prices. They are getting the message and are starting to offer a variety of services.”
Some Vietnamese salon owners are changing their pricing philosophy. “When I opened my first salons, I charged a lot less than I do now,” says My Kieu Huynh, owner of three Mimi’s Salons in Fairfax, Va., McClain, Va., and Olney, Md. “They were inexpensive to open, about $10,000, and I catered to lower-income clients. But it was a headache. We charged a lot less so we had to rush from client to client and other salons would just keep pulling the price down. We got tired of it.”
So Huynh repositioned her salons by moving to higher income areas and opening higher end salons with nicer fixtures and furnishings. Now her technicians charge $42 for a full set and $25 for a fill. Huynh recognized, as many low-priced salons have had to, that she had to change the atmosphere of the salon in order to justify her prices. And when she did that, her business metamorphosed, starting out as mainstream, going discount, then back to mainstream—and profitable—once again.
“Now in my salons the technicians have to spend an hour with the client. If they finish in less time, they have to give the client an extra massage and spend time talking to her,” she says.
Huynh, too, feels the heat from discount salons, saying new clients are harder to come by. At Peter’s Nails in Kensington, Md., Ha says his salon has lost about 20% of its clientele because of discount salons opening nearby. Both Huynh and Ha have resisted so far the temptation to lower their prices to compete. Maria Hamim doesn’t see an end to the deep discounting, however, by other salons. “I think here in Arizona it will be like Los Angeles all over again. I think it will take a while, but that’s where it’s headed,” she says.
A proliferation of discount salons near his two Dallas-based Nails Now! salons caused owner Ira Bloom to re-evaluate his own competitive advantage, which had always been competitive prices. Nails Now!, which charges $25 for a full set and $18 for a fill, is facing competitors who charge just $12 for a fill.
“When we first opened we were price competitive, but that’s not a valid edge anymore. I had to ask myself: ‘What is Nails Now!?’,” he says.
Many salon owners have found that they have simply had to sit down and redefine what they want to be in today’s highly price-conscious marketplace. If they simply cannot compete with the majority of the salons in their area that offer deeply discounted services or extremely fast services, they must decide what advantage they do have to offer. Not all salon owners will decide that they can compete, and some opt to get out of the industry altogether.
Part two of “Asian Influence” will run in the April 1997 issue.
“Why I Want to Be a Nail Technician”
Why are so many Asian immigrants getting their nail technician’s license? NAILS asked Asian students in the first graduating class of the Bonsoir World Nail Academy in Tempe, Ariz., to explain why they chose nails as their new career.
Hoang Tran: I want to teach nails in the future. If something happens to my present job, I can have this to help me. I will try to save money and in the future I can open my own shop. First thing is to get my license. Jobs doing nails are easy to find and when my company lays me off I don’t want to go to unemployment; I wanwant to keep working and working.
Jenny Grieco: I chose this field with the hopes of becoming a great nail technician. Although this is a temporary field for me (as far as I can see), I will be the best I can be. I enjoy being with people and have great satisfaction when my finished product is admired. Although I will move on to other things, I will continue to learn new techniques and grow with the field. I hope to acquire and maintain a loyal clientele.
Quy Tran: I was disappointed with my job as an electronics technician. I was laid off from one job to another and I have not achieved my financial goals. My wife has been a nail technician for a few years and everything seems to be easy for her so I decided to follow her path.
Thu N. Upshur: I like to work with the public. I look forward to meeting new people and the challenge of meeting the expectations of women who are looking for a service and a technician they can count on. Also, I would like the chance to own my own business in the future and achieve financial security.
Thu N. Vo: This is one of the fastest-growing, most creative and high paying careers. In cosmetology the work is relaxed and comfortable. I will become a salon owner.
READ PART 2 OF OUR SERIES HERE.