Known for its deep-sea cod fishing, naval museums and wharves, the sleepy seaside village of Portland, Maine, is steeped in history and charm. But don’t make the mistake of thinking its residents, with their brusque speech and strong sense of heritage, are themselves caught in an earlier time. The only place you’ll find the old whalers is at the naval museum, and even most of the antique shops are computerized It’s in this comfortable blend of past and present that we found The Nail Gallery, a high-tech salon nestled within a historic wood and brick train station.

The salon’s owner, Carole Fortin, has found ways to attract, maintain, and educate her clients and nail technicians in this quiet resort town.

Today, The Railroad Center, where the salon is located, serves as a professional building inhabited by doctors, lawyers, insurance firms, and, yes, a few salons. Visitors new to the building often are entranced by the corridors’ wood floors and dark mahogany moldings, survivors of the building’s traditional architecture. Upon entering Suite 112, they are further delighted by the haven of neo-classical beauty and charm — a place to escape from the daily routine for a simple pedicure or to buy a birthday gift.

This reaction is exactly what Fortin dreamt of while planning her eventual salon opening. Over a period of seven years, she gained vital technical and business skills she knew she’d need. Now, with 11 years under her belt, she mentors others on the ins and outs of the industry and, she hopes, ignites in them the same passion for nails that she herself enjoys. “In a way I consider it to be more play than work,” Fortin says. “I used to complain about business owners in general and their habits and practices, but now that I’m a business owner myself, I have a lot more respect for what they do.”

Her marketing and networking strategies, commitment to customer service, tutelage of other nail technicians, and dismantling of common nail myths have earned Fortin and The Nail Gallery the respect of its customers and the local community, as well.

Aesthetic Retailing

Because The Nail Gallery lacks a traditional storefront window and adheres to a “by appointment only” policy, Fortin relies on retail revenue and word-of-mouth referrals to thrive. Still, she wouldn’t — and hasn’t—considered changing a thing. “This system has worked for the salon because it produces more loyal clients and I don’t have to preoccupy myself with special promotions,” says Fortin, who in the past had advertised through newspapers, bridal shows, gift certificates at auctions. Now, her existing clients refer the majority of her clients to her.

In her efforts to satisfy clients, Fortin is all for setting the scene, which she’s carefully done in The Nail Gallery. “I used yellows, pinks, and soft greens to make the salon look modern, but soothing. It’s a ‘lady’s place’ with its white Grecian columns, pyramid cabinets, and fluffy pink robes. I wanted a very relaxing and comfortable atmosphere,” she explains. Much of the furnishings and products come from a wide variety of sources. Some were custom-made, but the majority were purchased from catalogs, flea markets, and Pier One Imports.

Wisely, she also made her carefully chosen collection of retail products a part of the decor. Fortin tries to continuously put a different spin on her displays, because The Nail Gallery is a mini-boutique as well as a nail salon.

She travels to Boston to attend gift shows, purchasing feminine, romantic gifts like candles, books, soaps, cards, jewelry, bath and body products, and journals. “If you buy special items that no one else has, the products sell themselves. If an item is already popular and everyone in town has it, then I don’t buy it,” says Fortin, who adds that she also prefers to create her own unique and creative displays rather than use ones provided by the product manufacturer. “If I rearrange my displays and inventory, clients take the time to look at the items longer and it is better for retail in the long run. By making these changes on a monthly basis, the products virtually sell themselves.”

Sales from The Nail Gallery’s mini boutique are about 10% of her total revenue and have been an asset to the salon’s overall financial health. Fortin also estimates that she gets 30% of her business through her networking relationships within the building. “The train station has a whole range of interesting professionals,” she relates. “I also network with a hair salon and esthetician inside the building. When they have clients that need a nail service, they refer them to me and vice versa.” Regardless of where they come from, clients always know about the famous building and where to find it.

Going the Extra Mile

Although smaller in scale with just 700 square feet, The Nail Gallery is big in customer service and public relations. Fortin strives to improve the four- station salon’s overall customer service by attending to clients’ every need, whether it is a friendly greeting or a special trip out to a client’s home. She also pays careful attention to appointment bookings so that clients never feel pushed in and hurried out.

Nor does she or her staff accept calls while they are with a client. “Because we charge a little bit more than the other salons, we feel that the least we can do is totally focus on the client sit­ting in front of us,” she explains. This policy has allowed the salon to avoid the cost of hiring a receptionist. “An answering machine is economically more practical and doesn’t conflict with the client’s service,” she emphasizes. Fortin also tries to be a good, environmentally conscious neighbour, although she’s discovered there’s a high price to pay. Like many salon owners before her, she was dismayed when the tenants next door complained about the acrylic odors.

“In particular, a pregnant employee complained,” she remembers. “She said that her doctor told her that the odors were harmful to her unborn child and that she should not work around the odors. She threatened to sue me for her salary while she was out.” Fortin gathered as much research and information that she could find to prove that the odors were not causing any harm, but at the same time she invested in a $4,000 ventilation system to eliminate the cause of the problem.

In retrospect, Fortin is happy that the complaint occurred because it motivat­ed her to install the ventilation system fester and better. Now she can reassure her clients as well as her technicians of a healthy environment.

Tutoring Techs

In an effort to give back to an industry that she says has given her so much, Fortin offers private classes at her salon on her off time. She covers everything, from greeting a client to product knowledge, in her private classes at the salon. Each student brings her own model for the one-on-one tutoring.

Fortin enjoys the sessions because she can answer all of the nail technician’s specific questions and teach techniques in a quiet setting. It also allows her to concentrate on the technician’s weaknesses, using class time more effectively. “When I used to go to classes, there were so many people. And if a technician was shy, she would often not ask questions. The classes were too impersonal,” she says. The classes are booked by appointment only and are very popular.

In fact, salons from neighbouring towns send their nail techs to Fortin so she can offer guidance to improve their skills in certain areas that they are not quite proficient at. “Whenever a salon hires a new tech, the owner has them attend one of my classes to focus on specific techniques. I’ve been told that they feel it is an investment in their salon,” Fortin explains.

Not only does she target their strengths and weaknesses, but she helps them build their own problem-solving skills. “The only thing that I dislike about teaching is not having more time to do it,” says Fortin. “I like going to classes myself and I like education; therefore, I wish I could offer more of it. Being a salon owner takes up so much time that I can’t just teach as much as I’d like to.”

Immaculate Misconceptions

Since The Nail Gallery’s hometown is resort-oriented, tourists may not expect much from her salon in terms of the latest techniques. Fortin uses this misconception to the salon’s advantage. “I have found that consumers are much more educated than they used to be, and I want them to feel the salon and my staff are on the cutting edge,” she says.

She derives much of her own education through classes and competition at tradeshows. “It was very difficult at first, but it helped me tremendously in improving my work I think that everyone should compete at least once,” says Fortin. “I can charge higher prices because the nail technicians here work harder with the knowledge that we’ve obtained from these competitions.”

Fortin has been competing two to three years now and it has helped her become more detail-oriented in her work. She says she also has learned several “tricks” that have made her work better and faster. These new skills have boosted both her and her clients’ confidence in her abilities and gained her numerous referrals.

The referrals ultimately help The Nail Gallery in its own competition for market share. “Clients choose what they want, just like they can shop at Neiman Marcus or Wal-Mart,” she says. “We’ve worked hard to be in demand. If the nail technicians don’t work hard to be the best at their craft, then why would clients go to that salon?”

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