Offered in thousands of colors, hundreds of brands, and dozens of bottle styles, nail polish is the finishing touch to a woman’s fashion statement. From the clean, natural look of a French manicure to the subtle femininity of a pale pink or coral to the playfulness of a metallic blue or pastel hue, polish finishes the look.


As the finishing touch to 99% of all nail services and the No. 1 nail retail item for salons, nail polish is arguably the salon’s top “outside salesperson.” It grabs attention, conveys moods and attitudes, and can be changed at almost a moments notice. Yet how well do you really know this industry spokesperson? Ever wondered how polish is made? What stages it passes through or how old it is before it reaches the salon shelf? What the difference between a 49¢ and a $20 bottle of polish?


We talked to the people involved in each stage of a polish bottle’s “life” for the answers to these questions and more. As you follow a bottle through it lifespan, consider the different steps that add value (and cost) to the end product: all the time and research that goes into developing new color collections; research and development of optimal polish formulations; the cost of the packaging (bottles, caps, labels, etc.); and advertising and marketing. That 49¢ bottle of polish may seem to be a great value, and perhaps it is to you. However, just remember what it probably doesn’t contain: the optimal mix of ingredients to deliver the right viscosity, coverage, and wear; the latest, hottest fashion colors; the support that comes from trade and consumer advertising to heighten brand awareness and demand; and packaging chosen for both its durability and ergonomic friendliness.


Spinning the Color Wheel

Just like the old riddle, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” the same can be asked of polish manufacturing. Color selection is generally accepted as the first step in manufacturing a polish, and that step can be done either by the raw materials manufacturer or the packaging manufacturer. For the purpose of this article, we followed the path used by our example, Orly International.


For a manufacturer and brand marketer such as Orly, introducing a new polish color collection begins 18-24 months before the actual release date. For example, Myriam Clifford, president of Orly International, began working on this spring’s six-color collection in 1998 by previewing the colors and textures being shown by the textile industry for the same season. (As of presstime, Clifford had resigned her position at Orly.)


“I look at both the color and texture trends—whether it’s velvets, satins, metallics, etc.—because many of the polish trends are a direct result of what’s happening in fashion,” Clifford days. “Several years ago people started viewing polish as a fashion accessory and it got somewhat separated from the color/cosmetic category. It became a way for people to be trendy without making large investments in fashion fads.”


Of course, a lot can happen in 18-24 months, and Clifford says at those early stages she’s just tracking the larger trends and formulating her thoughts on which colors and textures might dominate. “Once I’ve established the broader textile trends, then I look at the fashion trends in Paris, Italy, and the United States. The seasonal color palette often has 50-60 colors in all ranges. Narrowing that down to six colors is based on experience, knowing the market and, ultimately, instinct.”


Because of the long lead times, Clifford usually works on several collections at once. For example, when we spoke in early November, she was finalizing this spring’s collection, narrowing the choices for this coming fall, and was starting to look at the larger trends for the following spring.


When a particular color is dominant, Clifford says Orly may base a collection on its different tones. “When we don’t see one dominant color, we try to get an assortment that ranges from light to dark, from cream to shimmering.”


Because Orly formulates its own colors rather than selecting from a raw material manufacturer’s palette, Clifford says it’s much easier to change a color selection at the last minute because of a change in, say, a fashion trend. “For example, for out fall ’99 collection early in the year we saw true reds coming back. But as the season approached, we saw those true reds change to berry and wine colors.”


Once a color is finalized, Orly mixes the color in its in-house lab and tests it for color, wear, thickness, and viscosity. “Every company has a unique formulation, and with any new color we test it with our formulation because different pigments and their quantity can affect viscosity, wearability, and coverage,” she continues. “For example, we have had to reformulate polish colors because they didn’t cover in two coats bit we didn’t want to market them as sheers.”


Once the formulation passes the quality tests, samples are sent to the bulk manufacturing vendor that mixes the polish in large quantities to Orly’s specifications.


Even as the colors are being tested, Orly’s marketing department sets to work on the images to surround them. “We immediately start thinking about what they mean and what would be a theme or concept that captures the meaning,” adds marketing manager Ellen Jenko. “Sometimes that’s really easy. For example, last spring’s collection was all pinks, so we called it ‘Pink Madness.’”


Next they create the image to appear on the display header card and in the trade advertising. From there, they create the ads and distributor sell sheets; the first ad is scheduled to coincide with the shipping of the polishes to the distributors. “Marketing and advertising are an integral part because you have to catch the imaginations of salons and distributors,” Jenko says. “There are so many polish options that you need the right presentation with the right color.”


A Little Bit of This, a Little of That

Because nail polish contains nitrocellulose, which is highly explosive in its raw state, polish manufacturers are bound by very strict regulations to protect both workers and the environment. For example, the facility must be explosion-proof, kept at a constant temperature, and equipped with generators in case of a power failure. For these reasons of cost and commitment, there are only a very few bulk manufacturers of nail polish in the U.S. these companies only accept orders from polish packaging manufacturers who create unique colors and purchase polish by the thousands of gallons. The relationship between “primary manufacturer” and “secondary manufacturer” or “marketer” is a close one, because the process is started not with a simple “order” for polish, but the development of colors, chemistry, and containers. Just as many companies use an outside contractor to fill orders to their individual specifications, so too do the major marketers, in both the professional industry and the retail market.


The actual process of making nail polish is fairly simple. The complexity of the process is in selecting and perfecting color and viscosity, among other traits. The base ingredients of an individual polish formulation are added to a large covered tank and mixed for about 15 minutes with a 3-to 6—inch rotary blade that stirs at a speed of around 500 rpm. Colored pigments and any other “texture” components (such as mica, for example, which adds shimmer) are added, followed by another 15 minutes of mixing. A sample of the mixture is then placed on a draw-down card to check the color. A draw-down card looks like an ordinary white index card, but it is designed to allow “true color” to be detected. The white side of the draw-down card shows what the polish will look like on the nail; the black side indicates the color’s appearance in a bottle. A “color eye” expert (someone who possesses the rare ability to match colors more precisely than even sophisticated computer equipment) checks to make sure the color is just right. This process can take several tries to get it just right.


Once the color is set, a sample is provided to the brand marketer, who then tests the color again for the match, viscosity, wear, coverage, etc. Ideally the polish is approved the first time, but the brand marketer may request changes based on its findings. In that case, this back-and-forth process repeats until the brand signs off on a sample and authorizes release or production of the batch.


Next, the entire color batch is poured through a nylon mesh screen cloth to filter out any foreign matter, then placed in 3- to 55-gallon metal drums. (A 55-gallon drum of polish makes 14,080 half-ounce bottles of polish.)


These sealed containers are shipped in these large drums via trucks (flammable material, such as nail polish, is prohibited form air shipping) to the bottler, which in the professional industry is almost always the brand marketer.


From 55 Gallons to Half an Ounce

To continue our trail with Orly, the company receives several hundred gallons of polish per week that are then stored in fireproof rooms. “We have four bottle-filling lines,” Clifford says. “We normally fill about 80 bottles per minute and we run the filling machines 8-16 hours a day, five days a week. When filling large orders, we have run as many as three shifts a day for 30 days.”


Before bottling, a sample from the drum is again tested for quality control and then labeled and stored. (If a customer has a problem with a bottle, the manufacturer can trace the original sample through a batch code that’s stamped on the bottom of each bottle during the filling process.)


Next, a drum of color is sent to the filling room along with the glass bottles, caps, brushes, mixing balls, and labels. The components are loaded into the different parts of the filling line that feeds the bottling machine. The bottles themselves are often sourced from overseas; in Orly’s case, they come from Italy. “We buy from an Italian supplier because we’ve found it’s the finest in terms of consistency,” Clifford explains. “With aoutmated filling equipment, you want as little variation as possible in the container size. This glass is strong, with a few flaws, which is important considering how much they’re handled during their lifespan.”


Clifford raises an important point, which is that quality is not dictated by the polish alone: Factors such as the quality of bottle, the number of bristles in the brush, the shape of the cap (some have been designed for optimal ergonomics) all impact the salon’s cost for polish.


Depending on the product, the bottle may be labeled during filling or frosted or etched after. The filled, labeled, and coded bottles are packed and stored until they’re shipped as part of an order. Typically for Orly, Clifford says, distributors order anywhere from a few hundred bottles to an entire pallet.


One of These, Two of Those

Product distributors play an important step in getting product to market. While many technicians think they can and should get a better price by ordering direct form the manufacturer, most manufacturers are not geared toward selling small quantities of product. For example, the packaging and shipping of onesie, twosie orders would dramatically increase a manufacturer’s costs, which would be passed along to the salon.


The distributor, on the other hand, receives large shipments of a variety of products and can much more cost-effectively service the individual customer by fulfilling a variety of needs.


So we can follow a single example of a distributor, we asked The Nailco Group to tell us about the life of a polish bottle form its point of view. At The Nailco Group, manufacturer shipments are delivered daily via UPS and freight lines. Upon receipt, warehouse personnel check the merchandise and verify the correct items were received undamaged. The outer boxes the polishes are packed in are barcoded and date-stamped by The Nailco Group to ensure a continuous fresh stock. The receiving process updates instock qualities in the computer system. From there, the polishes are stocked on warehouse shelves and immediately made available to fill customer orders. According to CEO Larry Gaynor, The Nailco Group’s polish inventory turns about six times per year, which means the average bottle of polish remains in the warehouse 45-60 days (much less, of course, for the best-selling colors).


The professional beauty industry has a number of distribution methods to get product to the salon professional, including salon sales reps, store locations, and mail order.


At The Industry Source, a division of The Nailco Group, customers can visit a professional-only store or order through the company’s catalog. While the front-end view to the customer appears very different, the back-room actions are similar. Every time you purchase a bottle of polish, the computer system adjusts the store inventory level accordingly. Once a week the inventory control supervisor runs a report and places a warehouse transfer order, which transfers the replacement product from the warehouse to the store. Once in-store, a salesperson restocks the shelves. On average, product in The Industry Source stores turn 10 times per year (every 4-6 weeks).


If you order by phones, on the other hand, the salesperspn allocates warehouse inventory to your order in the computer, suggesting substitute items if the polish color you want is out-of-stock or placing a back-order if preferred. Phone orders are filled directly from one of The Nailco Group’s three regional warehouses. Once an order is entered into the computer, the system prints a “pick ticket” in the closet warehouse. A warehouse employee uses the pick ticket to pull product from the shelves and place it in a bin, where it is then sent by conveyor belt to the inspection and packing department. There the order is re-checked for accuracy and packed securely. This package then proceeds to an invoicing station where a bill is generated and shipping information is updated.


The Point of Sale

Gina Marsilli, owner of Perfect Ten in Wilmington, Del., offers clients a choice between Orly and OPI polishes, saying the salon normally carries anywhere from 125-150 colors. At the front counter she merchandises the latest seasonal collections from each, while her “main collection” is displayed in the nearby retail area for clients to browse.


“We order each collection and usually can tell what’s going to sell,” Marsilli notes. “Then we order a dozen of each of those colors.” Marsilli’s objective is to keep six of each color in stock, which translates to anywhere from 750-900 bottles. In the main polish retail area that means four each on the shelf and two more in inventory. The seasonal collections are re-stocked as they sell.


Marsilli orders products once a week, utilizing both Nailco and Schoeneman, her local, full-service distributor. Like many salon owners, Marsilli claims that she and her 10 staff members are kept so busy that they don’t have time to take a formal inventory, instead they just eyeball the retail displays and stockroom. “We know we keep enough to last at least a week, so it doesn’t have to be exact,” she says. “Sometimes we do run out of a color, but not very often.”


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