A new breed of nail salons is popping up in trendy neighborhoods across the country. Offering great services at affordable prices is the key business strategy for owners of these boutique nail salons. And consumers are undeniably drawn to these hip locations. What could be better than reasonably priced cuteness?
The idea of a “boutique hotel,” “boutique law firm,” “boutique record label,” or “boutique ad agency” brings to mind a certain type of business establishment — one that is manageably small, highly specialized, distinctive, and personalized. These days, it’s grand to be small.
There’s a new trend on the nail horizon and it’s being driven by stylish, fashion-conscious consumers who like the high life without necessarily paying the price for it.
While the trend began several years ago when salons like Mani Pedi in San Francisco and Nail Bar in Chicago opened their doors to the hip and trendy crowds who loved the prices of discount nail salons but were growing queasy about salon sanitation, it’s only in the last year or so that we’ve seen the influence this new breed of nail salon has on our industry.
Just when people seem to think the mid-level salon is going away, the influx of these salons proves otherwise. These “boutique nail salons” fit in somewhere between the discount corner salon and the high-end day spa, combining elements from both — lower prices with a higher-end environment. And while most of these salons are standalone and individually owned, there are several common denominators for what makes a boutique nail salon.
The starting point for what makes a salon “boutique” is that it’s a small business offering specialized services and products. Most of these salons are offering a variety of signature manicure and pedicure options, often with names that help the customer remember that salon. There’s the Quickie Hand Job at Nail Bar Chicago and the Simply Mani at Lush Life Nail Bar in San Francisco. At Varnish in Los Angeles, artificial nail services are called Are Those Real?, Wrapper’s Delight, and You Be Gelin’ are listed under “Fakin’ It” on the menu.
Cute kitschy service names work, but definitely aren’t necessary. The main idea is that these salons are offering more than just your run-of-the-mill services, and clients at these boutique nail salons have more choices than most. They can get a Solar Therapy pedicure at Lush or an Anti-Age Spot manicure at Nail Bar Chicago. Moms-to-be can get a Preggie Pedi at Varnish or guys can get the Man-i-cure. In addition to nail services, these salons may also offer waxing or massage.
Many of these salons tend to do more business in the natural nail care area. But that doesn’t mean enhancements have been left out of the equation. Most of these salons include enhancement services as well.
“Our most popular service is our mani/pedi combo,” says Kim McIntyre, owner of Varnish in Los Angeles. “But enhancements are becoming more and more popular.”
Products are another area where the boutique nail salon differentiates itself from the competition. They tend to use products from professional nail care manufacturers combined with new and trendy retail lines. The mix proves popular with clients who demand name brands and quality and appreciate professional recommendations from their nail technician.
Retail is big at boutique nail salons. Offering of-the-minute beauty products and accessories for sale, these owners often put an emphasis on retail and dedicate a significant portion of the salon to selling retail. And they tell me that some people come in off the street just to buy something they noticed on display.
The hallmark of a boutique nail salon is middle-of-the-road service prices — not too cheap, not too expensive. Pricing at these salons hovers around the national average service price — manicures for around $15, pedicures for around $30, and acrylic full sets for around $40.
“We are inexpensive, but definitely pricier than the average corner shop,” says Anne Freeman, owner of Teashi in San Francisco, whose salon has been open since November of last year. “We don’t try to compete with spas. We cater to ladies who don’t have the time or money for a day spa, but still expect a quality service.”
Kelly Hensley, owner of Mani Pedi Beach House and Bungalow in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, was one of the first to actualize the lower pricing, higher-end atmosphere salon four years ago.
“I really wanted to open a new kind of place to have your nails done where the atmosphere was clean and appealing like a spa, but it wouldn’t have ‘special-occasion’ pricing where you’d only be able to afford to come on your wedding day.”
Both Mani Pedi Beach House and Bungalow (open for four years) and Nail Bar Chicago (open for five years) have been so successful that both owners have opened additional locations.
Stylish, hip, trendy, and fun are all words that are often associated with these boutique salons.
“I also wanted to create a hip environment for the style- and fashion-conscious crowds in San Francisco,” says Isabelle Quesada, owner of Lush Life Nail Bar in San Francisco. The salon’s high-ceilinged space has white walls and floors with accents of hot pink and lime green. “It’s fresh and bright.”
Likewise, Mani Pedi’s two beach house-style locations are bright and fresh, with yellow walls, hardwood floors, cushy window seats, and fresh cut flowers. Like many salons in this category, its comfort leads to the salon becoming a gathering place for clients.
Says Freeman of her Asian-French styled salon, “I wanted to open a place that was, charming, cute, cool, and super clean. Really what I wanted was a place where I would want to go and hang out with my pals.”
McIntyre describes the decor at Varnish as “modern, clean, bright, and fun.” The space is primarily white with red accents. “I feel like our salon is different because we have a fun, hip, unisex environment,” she says.
Resembling more a bar or chic clothing boutique than your typical salon, these boutique nail salons definitely go with a look that is modern, neat, and cool.
Most of these owners agreed that location was an important factor in their salon’s success. And two things that top the list for prime location are high foot traffic and young, stylish areas.
Nail Bar Chicago has three locations in Chicago and one in Evanston, Ill. Owner Theodora Koutsougeras, says she chose areas that are primarily, “young, vibrant sections of the city with plenty of foot traffic.”
“We are in a very affluent and hip area of San Francisco called Cow Hollow near Union Street and the Marina,” says Quesada. “We are surrounded by many unique high-end boutiques, spas, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.”
The other two San Francisco salon owners we talked to also chose hip, stylish areas to place their locations. Hensley’s two salons are located directly across the street from each other in the family neighborhood of Potrero Hill. And Teashi is located in trendy Russian Hill. “It’s filled with working guys and girls enjoying our street for all it has to offer,” says Freeman. “We’ve got great restaurants and shops, as well as a gym with 3,000 members right next door.”
A location within a popular shopping neighborhood is key to attracting new customers. “We are in the heart of West Hollywood on Melrose Ave., which is known for its trendsetting shops, styles, and fashions,” says McIntyre, who owns the salon with her sister. “We picked this area to attract the type of clientele that wants things on the cutting-edge.”
So just who are the clients who go to boutique nail salons? Anyone who wants a quality nail service, but doesn’t want to pay spa prices. As McIntyre so eloquently puts it, “Our clientele ranges from actors, musicians, men, housewives, children, the young and hip, and everyone in between!”
Adds Hensley, “I would describe our clients as women aged 28-50, wearing blue jeans, ponytails, and flip flops — while carrying a very expensive handbag.”
“I think a lot of salons want to cater to younger crowds who are more inclined to spend on items such as a spa-type pedicure or a retail impulse purchase,” says Quesada. “It takes a global look at how you deliver your services to cater to that crowd. That segment of the market is demanding (they know what good service is), well-informed (surfing the web all the time and aware of the risks of an ‘unsanitary cheap pedicure’), fashion conscious (they demand trendy, unique brands), and they expect more than just getting their nails done (salons benefit from offering waxing, makeup, trendy flip flops, and the beauty editors’ latest favorite things).”
You know the type we’re taking about — the woman who buys the latest bag at Neiman Marcus but shops for t-shirts at Target. Just because they have money to spend doesn’t mean they aren’t thrifty.
All of the owners we talked to came from industries outside the beauty business. Most claimed a lack of an adequate place to get their own nails done as the reason for opening their own salon. A strong entrepreneurial spirit also was a common factor. While these owners may not be able to sit down and give their clients a manicure, they understand that running a beauty business is a unique situation to be in.
“A lot of boutique-type nail spas opened around San Francisco about the same time,” says Freeman. “I truly believe that business brings more business. It’s an awareness that is brought to the consumer that this is what you should expect from your corner shop.
“You don’t need to tolerate an unsanitary environment and poor service. You don’t need to watch bad soap operas or not be included in the conversations of the nail techs. The customer is the one paying the bill, and it’s great that boutique nail salons take this into consideration and have raised the bar. I believe the boutique salon is definitely the wave of the future for corner nail shops.”
Competing more with discount salons than high-end salons, the formula for staffing a boutique salon is simpler than the actual staffing. (Let’s face it, finding quality nail techs is still a huge issue for salon owners today.) A friendly, knowledgeable receptionist answers the phone and greets customers when they enter the salon. They are offered something to drink and the latest magazines to peruse.
Nail techs are in uniform and follow the procedures for each service the way they were designed. Close attention is paid to customer service the entire time the customer is in the salon.
“I wanted to create an environment that increased the level of professionalism and customer service,” says Koutsougeras.
Says Hensley, “Our staff is friendly and that adds to the warmth and charm of the salons. We offer more personalized attention and that really pays off.”
And no matter what the service is, clients know when they walk in the door they can see any nail tech at the salon and receive a great service. This is in part because most nail techs at these boutique salons are employees and they are trained on the specific services offered.
“We provide training to all new employees on how to give signature Nail Bar manicures and pedicures,” says Koutsougeras. “We have a full-time educator, and we offer ongoing training.”
Freeman adds, “You can never completely ensure services will be exactly the same because each nail tech has her own style. However, we have a guideline for every service that each tech is instructed to follow.”
So we’ve got friendly and affordable, specialized services in cute, fun salons in hip neighborhoods. Next up for the ideal boutique nail salon is probably the most important item to the owners we talked to, as well as their clients: Sanitation. Every one of them was adamant about the attention to cleanliness and sanitation in their salons.
“We are militant about our sanitation,” says Freeman. “All of the nail techs here say they have never worked in a salon as clean, or that paid such strict attention to sanitation. The health department came to visit and was floored. They said after all of their years of visiting salons they had never come across one that was so clean and conscious of the importance of sanitation.”
“Our clients tell us that no one ‘wastes’ supplies like we do,” says Quesada. “We simply follow state board regulations and use a new file, buffer, orangewood stick, and pumice pad for each service. At the end of the service, our technicians put those in a sealed pouch with a cute pink sticker that says ‘Some things in life should never be shared: boyfriends, bubble gum, and the contents of this pouch!’ to give to their clients. The reaction is always positive. We are doing our fair share of educating the San Francisco market on what they should expect from their nail salon in terms of sanitation.”
Nail Bar Chicago follows the guidelines the International Nail Technicians Association (INTA) adheres to, sanitizing and disinfecting all implements between clients. “Sanitation is definitely Nail Bar’s number-one priority,” says Koutsougeras. All of our nail technicians are trained in correct sanitation procedures and we also keep a log sheet posted.”
Techs at Varnish go one step beyond and sterilize implements with a medical-grade autoclave. “Our clients know about our standards,” says McIntyre, “and I know that is one of the reasons they keep coming back.”
All of these owners have one other thing in common: On their websites, in their salon materials, and in their advertising they let potential clients know that cleanliness and sanitation are top of mind at their salons.
The Future of “Boutique Salons”
Only time will tell what affect this new breed of nail salon will have on the industry. As clients become more aware of this new alternative — to discount salons and high-end spas alike — I believe it will raise the bar for everybody.
Take it straight from a client who used to only frequent discount salons. “I have typically always gone to cheaper salons for my manicure and pedicure,” says Emily Stewart, a new client of both Teashi and Lush Life in San Francisco. “While I don’t want to pay spa prices for these services, it’s certainly nice to be in a warm, relaxing environment. I love the atmosphere of these salons. I don’t mind paying a little more for the peace of mind I get knowing the salon takes cleanliness seriously, especially after all the negative stories I hear about catching things at nail salons.”