We can name 317 million reasons salons should emulate the best practices of specialty retailers — and every one represents a dollar of Bath & Body Works’ third-quarter 2000 sales. You can be sure they’re looking to the salon industry for new opportunities: This past September, the bath and body retailer launched performance hair and face care products aimed at luring away users of salon brands “with strong results” “These product initiatives... helped produce a 27% gain in Bath & Body Works’ operating income,” parent company Intimate Brands stated.

The salon industry, however, retains the home-court advantage—customers enter the salon already prepared to spend money; they’ve developed a personal, trusting relationship with their service provider; and you’ve got their undivided attention for a minimum of 30 minutes while they’re in the salon. According to Leon Alexander, vice president for Etopa, a salon design and consulting firm based in Hammond, La., salons are literally giving away sales to specialty retailers such as Bath & Body Works by ignoring the opportunities.

“We need to seek out the best practices of other service and retail industries in order to learn and to benefit by implementing proven strategies,” Alexander urges. “Investigate and emu­late the strategic plans of successful retailers such as Banana Republic and Pottery Barn.”

Alexander isn’t just talking the talk — he’s walked the walk. As the former owner of a chain of 320 salons and an Aveda distributor in the United King­dom, he examined specialty retailers in all channels, from beauty to appar­el to home furnishings. He borrowed freely from their merchandising and display approaches, their marketing and promotional tactics, and their soft-sell strategies and customized them to his salons. The results? “Done correctly with all the components in place — furnishings, design, lighting, merchandising, etc. — it can double y

our business,” he says.

Retailing doesn’t just bump the top line though — it grows it from the bot­tom as well. “Retail delivers a far greater profit per square foot,” Alexander says.

“And there are no client come-backs, no temperamental staff, no walkouts.”

For the best retail returns, Alexander says you have to stop viewing your business as a salon or spa and start treating it instead as a consumer location. “The key is to create an environment that is conducive to serious retailing,” he explains. “A salon or spa focuses primarily on service and services, while a consumer location is focused on the consumer’s experience.”

Alexander and other retail experts point to three broad category areas where salons can borrow from the successes of specialty retailers — merchandising and display, marketing and promotions, and trained sales professionals.

You Touch It, You Buy It

There are two separate but complementary aspects of the physical retail environment that influence the customer’s buying experience: merchandising and display. Merchandising encompasses the area where products are presented for purchase. It includes wall racks and shelving, showcases, and end caps to appeal to the shopper.

Displays, on the other hand, are meant to attract and entice.

“Consumers aren’t just buying products, they’re buying an experience,” says Carol Phillips, author of “In The Bag— Selling in the Salon” and president of Salon Props in Reston, Va. The retail environment sets the scene for that experience by creating a need or desire on the consumer’s part.

According to the Point of Purchase Advertising Institute, more than two- thirds of consumers decide to buy at the point of purchase. Eye-catching displays and testers that encourage interaction with products both have a strong influence on the buying decision.

When feasible, your visual merchandising strategy starts outside the salon. If your salon has a storefront window, entice passers-by by displaying products in the window to invite them in to browse.

At both The Upper Hand locations in Houston, owner Rachel Gower uses clear shelving suspended by cables to display products in the front window. “The displays attract a good number of window shoppers inside, and many buy,” she says. “We have people who come in all the time to shop, and they’ve never had a service here.”

Upon entering The Upper Hand, the salon is laid out so clients walk down an aisle with displays on either side to reach the reception desk in the center of the salon. Small displays and retail vignettes are scattered throughout the salon — including the bathroom. And the nail drying stations are positioned so clients can’t help but look at one of the main retail areas.

Your main focus should be to create displays that invite customers to see, touch, and smell everything in the retail area. Have testers for hand and body lotions, cuticle creams, and massage oils. At polish displays, provide pre-polished nail tips mounted on cards or orangewood sticks that customers can hold over a nail. If you sell candles, have one burning at all times. If you retail aromatherapy, keep an aroma diffuser running.

Gower points out an added benefit of the aromatherapy diffusers: “The scent seeps out of the salon. The smell alone makes people walking by stop and look in the window to see what we are doing.”

Every three to four weeks (depending on your salon’s client traffic patterns), refresh your retail displays by moving some to new locations and coming up with entirely new creative concepts for others. Once the eye grows accustomed to seeing something in the same place every time, it stops registering the image. And depending on what services a client chooses and who provides them, there are many views of the salon she never sees.

Make It Easy

In your primary retail zone, focus on providing a clean, well-stocked product presentation. If your displays have done their job, clients shopping this area already have decided to buy. Your job here is to make it as easy as possible to complete the purchase process.

Organize products in this area so that shoppers can find what they want quickly and easily. Phillips points to Sephora as a role model. “Sephora merchandises by brand,” she says. “Header panels are clearly displayed for the brand, with product prominently and neatly dis­played beneath.”

When Deborah Reeves and Lisa Ezeshell, owners of Nailz Hand and Foot Spa in Cashiers, N.C., designed their 500-square-foot salon. They asked their decorator to build a wood retail cabinet stained a dark, rich brown to complement the salon’s decor (which Reeves says is styled after a family den in a mountain home).

“One of the first things we did was get rid of all the display cases and stuff manufacturers send,” Reeves remembers. Merchandised in the cabinet, the varied retail selections appear a natural part of the salon and invite clients to step over and browse. A distinctive look doesn’t necessarily have to be custom-made— many store fixture vendors offer a variety of fixture styles and finishes, even for workhorse slat wall displays.

Whatever you choose, Phillips asks only that you shun glass cubes. While they may appear the most economical option, she points out that they aren’t proportionate to the typical sizes of bottles and jars found in salon retail areas.

When planning your retail space, Alexander reminds that products should be merchandised no lower than 22 inches and no higher than 66 inches so that clients can easily see and retrieve their selections.

While merchandising and display encompass distinct strategies, the two should work together in the salon’s main retail area. Take the “wait” out of the waiting area by encouraging clients to interact with your retail selection. Place testers prominently in the merchandising zones, and use professionally made signage to highlight product features and benefits for different needs.

Consider replacing some of your seating in the reception area to make space for small consultation tables where clients can experiment or enjoy a demonstration. Alexander also recommends strategically placing mirrors in this area to reinforce the invitation to try the products for themselves. “The opportunity to experience products is a critical factor in allowing consumers to take ownership,” he reasserts.

If clients resist all of these temptations, you have one last chance to fill their bags at the reception desk. While you’ve long been chastised not to place retail products behind the desk where clients can’t interact with them, Phillips believes at least some products should be displayed there.

Give ’Em a Reason to Buy

Targeted marketing campaigns and focused promotions often provide consumers the last small push they need to finalize the purchase. Marketing your retail selection to consumers can be as simple as heightening their awareness of your summer body care retail selection through an article in your salon newsletter, a direct mailer, and salon signage.

You can also build promotions around your marketing messages by creating special incentives such as a “Choose Any Three Summer Care Products and Save” promotion.

Phillips points to Target as a master of simple yet effective in-store marketing and promotion programs. Target starts immediately inside the front door with a seasonal promo­tional section that consumers can’t miss. Then, the retailer carries the message throughout the store via posters, other signage, and end cap displays. According to Phillips, consumers are so bombarded with visual messages that they have to see the same message five times to “get it.” By the time they leave Target, they not only “get it,” but they’ve often got at least one of “it” in their baskets.

As for price-based promotions, “The only stores I know of that don’t discount are Louis Vuitton and perhaps Tiffany,” she says. “If your salon and its customers have the same kind of attitude, that’s OK. But the upscale shopper who doesn’t care about price is about 1% of the population.”

For better or worse, retailers have trained consumers to respond to “the deal.” You can use this mindset to your advantage, though, by making the deal on your terms. Tie promotions to services and products that you want to build in your salon, and make the savings modest. Through Salon Props, Phillips encourages salon owners to team product promotions with services to boost incremental sales. For example, a waxing promotion with the theme, “Smooth All Over for Summer” might offer customers who have a leg or bikini wax a 10% discount on a sunless tanning product. In the hair department, she might offer clients a 10% discount on a color-enhancing shampoo and conditioner with every hair color service.

While price promotions can be effective, don’t get stuck in a discount mindset. Stay on top of the trends and be one of the first to offer your consumers what’s hot. “Half the population is right-brained,” Phillips observes. “Righties always react to what’s new, what’s improved, what’s hot, etc.” She recommends displaying these products on a sep­arate display or shelf in the retail section with attention-grabbing signage —“The Hottest Summer Polishes Are In. Get Yours Before They’re Gone!”

Natural-Born Sellers

Professional recommendation of home-care products is an important part of the salon professional’s job. Everyone in the salon should be trained on consultative selling techniques to ensure they understand its importance and are comfortable with how to do it.

“If the person is there for a service, you have the time to sell to them,” Gower reiterates to her staff. “During the service you can do a needs analysis and talk to her about the products that fill her needs. At the end of the service, you remind her of what you talked about and ask if she’d like to try it. Ninety percent of the time she’ll buy it.”

But just as you wouldn’t expect someone who works the front desk to cut hair or do nails, Alexander says it’s equally unrealistic to expect service providers to produce the best retailing results. “A thriving retailing business requires passionate, highly trained retail specialists whose attention is focused on retailing,” he comments.

Denise Thompson, people development director at John Roberts Salon in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, agrees. “Maybe the designer doesn’t have time to go over what’s new, and I think they have a fear of pushing product,” she says.

Service providers at John Roberts are expected to educate clients about the products and to make recommendations, but the salon also has a full-time retail advisor. It’s her job to maintain the retail area and set up new displays, demonstrate products, and make clients aware of new items such as seasonal color collections. “We definitely consider this a sales position, and the person in it has to have an outgoing personality,” Thompson says.

While a salesperson or retail advisor may seem feasible only for the largest salon, Alexander disagrees. Rather than decide based on your current size and retail sales, evaluate the job in terms of how big you want to grow your retail department as a part of your overall business. Remember, Alexander says, think “consumer location.”

This summer, Reeves and Ezeshell plan to hire a salesperson for exactly that reason. “Our future plan is that as we grow the salon space we want to have a retail store upfront,” Reeves says. “You reach a point where you can’t do more clients, but retail can expand indefinitely.

This spring, Reeves and Ezeshell began writing out client “prescriptions” based on products they recommended during the service. Reeves says they also plan to track customers’ past purchases to help them make future recommendations. But she recognizes that she and Ezeshell can only do so much as full-time nail techs.

“Right now we’re retailing from the chair as we work with clients,” she comments. “We’re trying to attract people just to buy, but they need and deserve someone’s full attention. It’s difficult for us to do that.”

You can also make this position serve double-duty. If your salon already has a receptionist, evaluate her potential as a retail specialist and redefine the position. Phillips also advocates having newer staff members who are still building a clientele do product demonstrations.

“If there’s an empty station, I set it up as a home styling bar and have techs teach customers how to duplicate the look,” she says. “It’s an excellent way to build rapport with customers and to get the tech comfortable with talking to them about products.” The exposure also gives her the chance to build her clientele more quickly, so everyone wins.

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