Driving around in her rental car, a woman scans the strange city’s streets for something familiar — a trusted cup of coffee to wake her up before the morning meeting. She breathes a sigh of relief as she easily pulls the car into the closest Starbucks. Perfect, she thinks, mentally running through the menu items she knows by heart and pulling out what she knows will almost be exact change. The friendly barista gets to work on her Venti Caramel Macchiato, stopping only to ask if she wants whipped cream on top (always a yes), as the woman opens her laptop to do a fast e-mail check; she’s already a subscriber to Starbucks’ Internet access.

That afternoon before the big dinner, she drives around to search for another familiar indulgence — a manicure. She thinks it’ll be an easy task; after all, she noticed a nail salon or two on every city block. But then she starts to get worried; none of the salon names are familiar, and since there’s only one particular brand of nail polish she likes to wear, she needs to know in advance if the salon carries the brand. Anyway, didn’t she hear something about unsanitary salons that don’t always disinfect properly? Her favorite salon back home uses an autoclave, which she trusts for her safety. Why, she moans, couldn’t her favorite nail salon be in more major cities?

It’s a deceivingly complicated question — but recently, more and more beauty entrepreneurs are offering up new answers. Noticing that the nail industry seems to cry out for a trusted salon chain, which would remedy sanitation and other discrepancies between the slew of mom-and-pop salons and offer a consistent experience across the board, a new generation of nail salon chains is grasping for a hold.

“I think people are looking for a consistently good nail salon that they can go to in either downtown Chicago or Evanston (Illinois) or any other city, where they know they’ll get the same high level of quality, consistent service, and sanitation and disinfection,” says Laura Bronner, business manager at Nail Bar, a Chicago-based five-salon chain that recently opened its first salon outside the state.

Many other new, growing nail salon chains echo this sentiment, with several owners even expressly saying they want to be the “Starbucks of Nails.” Several seem to be well on their way. Established chain Regal Nails is testing a new chain salon concept, Regal Nails Select, which will go in affluent areas and take the brand (which already has 925 salons to its name) forward. New York City-based chain Dashing Diva, is expanding into countries as far away as Ireland and Australia. Airport-focused chain 10 Minute Manicure has begun opening up multiple locations in the same airport. Natural Body Spa & Shoppe, a full-service salon and retail chain, has been the owner’s inspiration for her new nails-only chain concept, 10Ten Nail Spa. ATIR Natural Nail Care Clinic, a Virginia-based chain, is actively looking for more franchisees to enter new territory, while Nail Bar, in addition to opening its Dallas location, has started work on its newest, sixth location.

Hair vs. Nails: What’s the Difference?

Hair salon chains have a long history of success. Regis Salons, Hair Cuttery, and Fantastic Sams are but a few of the instantly recognizable names. One reason for their proliferation, versus that of nail salon chains, may simply be a matter of demand. Consumers, who wouldn’t venture an at-home haircut, feel OK about giving themselves a do-it-yourself manicure or pedicure. “There are simply more customers for hair services than hands and feet; plus, many hair salons also provide limited nail services, while nail salons don’t offer hair services,” says Bill Halfacre, VP of sales and marketing at OPI and a veteran of hair chain Regis’ senior management team. “Because of the potential revenue from hair services, chains had a tendency to grow with a mostly hair focus while nail salons became primarily individually owned.”

Robert Cleary, Dashing Diva’s director of product development and operations, points to the perception of nails within the beauty industry. “In the U.S., there’s an attitude that being a hairstylist is considered glamorous, while nails have always been a separate category that hasn’t had the glamour factor unless you’re a celebrity manicurist,” he says. Legitimizing the nail business to give it more credibility will pave the way for successful nail salon chains, Cleary believes.

Walk-ins too separate hair and nail salon chains. While walk-ins can be an important element to both industries, in general, discount to mid-level nail salons are more reliant on walk-in clients — a possible negative when it comes to establishing a reliable clientele that justifies the consistent hours of chains.

Optimistically, part of the reason for nail salon chains’ struggle for success may simply be a coming-of-age issue. The professional nail industry is new compared to other segments, like hair, and these new chain ventures may be a sign of nails gaining ground. Charlie Ton, CEO and founder of Regal Nails, says, “As our industry grows older and becomes more prevalent in America, I think you can expect to see more nail salon chains open up.”

Staffing: Where Have All the Nail Techs Gone?

It’s no secret that staffing even a single salon can be a difficult task, as evidenced by a recent NAILS survey in which “finding competent nail techs to staff the salon” was voted one of the Top 5 Challenges of the year (2006-2007 Big Book). But a salon chain inherently has to staff multiple locations, possibly in different states with different licensing regulations, which means a budding chain could be in deep trouble before it ever opens its doors. “The No. 1 issue is just making sure you have enough staff and quality staff,” says Bronner, talking about her experience with Nail Bar, which employs about 50 nail technicians. “A lot of salons don’t make it right off the bat because they have staffing troubles. Plus, I think the difficulty in doing a chain nationwide is the variations in staffing regulations from state to state.”

10 Minute Manicure, which has 10 locations and employs 45 nail techs, has tackled the issue head-on. “We’ve hired an HR recruiter full-time, who’s an integral part of our business,” says Karen Janson, executive VP and a co-founder of the chain. “Finding the right people is a very challenging aspect of our business and a good part of our daily allotment of time, but it’s really important.” As the chain grows, name recognition has started to work in its favor. “When we opened the first few stores no one had heard of us, but now we have nail techs who will send in our application form on their own.”

Janson also points out the employment pool for techs who are a good fit at a chain is different from the general employment pool. “Some techs start with us, then realize it’s not for them. They’re used to doing nails a certain way, but we do it a different way because we have to keep it consistent over all our locations,” Janson says. “The tech either has to understand and like the fact that working in a corporation is a slightly different entity, or realize we’re not a good fit.”

Of course, size can also have an advantage. Cici Coffee, founder of full-service 19-salon chain Natural Body Spa & Shoppe and of new nail bar concept 10Ten (which has two locations and employs 15 nail techs), markets her chains’ large size as an asset. “Having several stores gives us the opportunity to take advantage of economies of scale and spread the costs across more locations,” Coffee says. “This means we can offer benefits and other things that may be more new to the industry.” Plus, she says, it’s a great motivator to recruit techs who consider nails a career, not simply a job. “If we keep opening more and more salons, there are increasing opportunities for higher-level positions within the company. That keeps people motivated and excited,” she says.

Another staffing issue all chain salon owners face is whether they want employees or booth renters to work in the salon; this can prove tricky when considered on a large scale. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but many nail salon chains opt to use only employees in order to keep products, implements, and techniques consistent among different nail techs at different locations. “It was one of the big decsions we had to make when we started up the business, but we decided to hire employees so they’d feel vested in the company,” Janson says.

Real Estate: Location, Location, Location

A major factor determining whether a nail salon chain will succeed is its effectiveness at picking out the perfect locations. To this end, many chains opt to have a dedicated person or team handling all real estate issues. At Happy Nails, Carlos Diaz is kept on hand as a consulting realtor. “He is responsible for locating new sites and represents the company to the landlords,” says the more than 45-store salon chain’s website. “Diaz…is extremely knowledgeable in the location requirements.”

Once a chain crosses state lines, an expert’s opinion is invaluable, as 10 Minute Manicure found out. The chain keeps nail tech Angela Redwing on staff; her area of experience is understanding state, county, and city licensing requirements. Redwing was in charge of researching the chain’s potential new location in Philadelphia International Airport. The airport was very interested in hosting a 10 Minute Manicure, but after many months of poring over laws and regulations, Redwing concluded that the salon couldn’t meet the state’s unique licensee per square footage requirement — a letdown for both the chain and the airport.

Even after getting city approval for a location, things can go wrong. Take Dashing Diva’s Las Vegas store. Opening the winter of 2005, the salon in Las Vegas’ Fashion Show Mall was later shuttered, primarily due to a poor rent and lease agreement. “I felt we’d made a mistake as a company,” Cleary says. “If the location can’t pay its rent, it doesn’t matter how great we are or how great the support is that we give them. We realized it’s better to be in an outside area, like a strip mall (with a much lower rent), than it is to be in a high-end mall.”

But Dashing Diva has learned from its mistake. The chain has since implemented a “site approval package” for its franchisees. Partnering with Baum Realty Group Inc., the site selection process includes a demographic analysis, site plan, aerial views, and upcoming construction plans in the area. It also includes rent and lease negotiation help, though the franchisee retains the power to sign off on the site.

Design: High Style, Efficient Layout

Savvy salon owners realize the importance of a unique interior design to brand their chain. But, similarly, they realize the importance of having an efficient layout, one that allows the most stations in the smallest space. Atlanta’s 10Ten features a nail bar for manicures in both of its salons, allowing for multiple patrons to get hand care services at the same time. The pedicure area is laid out similarly, with bowl after bowl positioned next to each other. But both the nail bar and the pedicure area are fashionable and welcoming. The nail bar is crafted with cement that’s embedded with beautiful, recycled crushed red glass. The pedicure bowls are custom-designed alabaster bowls, and the chairs are comfortable and buttery-soft. The chain also provides WiFi to emphasize the stay-and-sit atmosphere.

Dashing Diva has also created a unique sense of place for the salons in its chain. Its pink pedicure lounges have become iconic, and have been featured in music videos, TV commercials, and magazine photo shoots.

The Dashing Diva chain is now experimenting with taking its unique, yet efficient design to a new level; its original 8th Street store is going through a renovation using a “salon in a box” kit. If all goes well, this could be the wave of the future for new Dashing Diva openings.

“I started looking at our operations component and participated in every step a franchise goes through (from visiting the site to signing to opening to having a clientele), and all of the challenges kept going back to the build-out,” Cleary says. “The franchisee had to get her own contractor. She’s so worried about sheetrock that she can’t focus on running the register. Plus, some training falls under the new owner too. How can she focus on training when she’s worried about light fixtures?” With the new method, Total Resource Group, a store-in-a-box company, brings the salon directly to the new location. A truck pulls up with lighting fixtures, tiles, flooring, the pedicure lounge, manicure tables, retail walls, and reception desk. Everything is modular, so it doesn’t depend on the size of the store. “The build-out cost will drop dramatically when we buy materials for several stores as once,” Cleary says. “And it enables franchises to focus on what’s important, like marketing.”

Training: Keeping It Consistent

Like a Starbucks or other restaurant chain, a nail salon chain is only as good as its salons are consistent. 10 Minute Manicure puts its new managers through rigorous training before they ever set foot in their own store.

“First, they come to our corporate headquarters in Miami and work in the salon there, where it’s relatively slow and they have more time to touch and feel the product and get to know everything,” Janson says. “Then they’re put in an actual airport store, where everything is so quick. They learn to be professional in delivering a quality service. Then a whole training team helps set up their store and stays with them for the first few days of opening.” Two weeks later, the training team comes back to check on the new store and focus on the retail side. “It’s a huge undertaking but it takes that to deliver that consistent level of service,” Janson says.

Regal Nails too has extensive checks and balances, especially when it comes to sanitation practices.

“We have given our franchisees exhaustive instructions on how to properly clean their pedi-spas,” Ton says. “We monitor them by inspections and by daily operation reports. We have a toll-free hotline and through it, we receive reports when untoward things occur. Our Quality Assurance Managers provide bulletins and updates on issues.” Nail Bar takes a more casual approach. For the Dallas salon, the only one outside of Chicago, Nail Bar management (Bronner and owner Theodora Koutsougeras) formally speak to Dallas manager Cerita Evans once a week, but in reality, they talk to her almost daily. “When we have new techs start, we train them in how we do things at Nail Bar,” Bronner says. “But it’s the managers’ constant reminders that keep things consistent.”

The Starbucks of Nails: What Would It Take?

While each of the salon chains in this new generation is making headway in mainstreaming the chain nail salon industry, it’s unclear whether any of these will ever reach Starbucks-esque status. What will it take to be the chain that, like Starbucks, provides familiar relief to traveling consumers worldwide as they search for a place to relax, unwind, and trust in the level of service and sanitation?

Halfacre offers some insights. He says a successful nail salon chain will need:
• great education/training programs
• owner(s) with the ability to manage people and to teach others that skill
• solid financing
• good real estate
• dedication to the business
• in the beginning, hands-on ownership
• user-friendly systems
• career growth opportunities
• fringe benefits
• support programs to quickly build a clientele

Cleary of Dashing Diva also offers his perspective. “The hardest thing is to change the nail industry culture. But change is slow. When we try to convince a mom-and-pop nail salon to convert to a Dashing Diva, we frequently hear the argument, ‘My nail salon is working fine. Why would I want to change?’ Then, we explain the benefits of economies of scale, of national marketing, and of a solid reputation. You have to convince people there’s a better way.”


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