Margo Blue proclaims her business philosophy loud and clear in her greeting to each customer Nail clients get whatever their hearts desire —whether its maximum service in minimum time or leisurely pampering in luxurious surroundings.
The Tuscany Room hosts spa clients who are between services or having lunch or a snack during a day of beauty. In addition to the sculpture and the rolling hills a stone waterfall contributes to the serene atmosphere.
Like her native city of Charlotte, N.C., Margo Blue is a contradictory yet refreshing blend of old ways and new ideas. When I visited her new day spa this past spring, the chic 34-year-old didn't stop talking from the moment she picked me up from the hotel, bubbling over with enthusiastic descriptions of her new day spa and her plans for its future. Yet with the courtesy and deference of a true Southerner, Blue's first stop was not The Spa at Margo Blue, but at a day spa across town. "You just have to see it," she exclaimed, with just a hint of an appealing Southern drawl. "They just remodeled and it's really gorgeous."
Yet our first stop only highlighted that the difference in spas isn't the services offered — it's the service itself. When Blue requested a tour of the spa for "the editor of a national magazine for the beauty industry" (make that contributing editor), the salon receptionist curtly asked us to wait while she finished checking out a customer. But when the customers were gone and she chose to rearrange a display rather than acknowledge us, 1 asked to move on to the reason for my visit.
Opened in November 1997, The Spa at Margo Blue lies at the southern edge of Charlotte, in an area where new, expensive homes sell as fast as they are built, demonstrating the city's rapid expansion. Located in a small shopping center dominated by medical offices, the spa still awaited some final, finishing touches, but the customer would never notice that a picture was still coming for this wall or a sconce for that wall unless Blue pointed it out like she did to me. Instead, the marble floors and soft beige walls graced with plaster figurines, gilt-framed artwork, and themed murals relax the eyes, while the ears are soothed by fountains that bubble water down their rock walls.
Upon entering the main reception area, every client is greeted with, "Welcome to The Spa at Margo Blue, how may we nurture you?" But no answer is required as clients are guided to the spa where they are met by the spa coordinator or their service provider, or to the separate salon reception desk where they are checked in and out for salon hair, nail, and makeup services.
The spa is the culmination of all Blue's ideas and dreams, and yet — perfectionist and visionary that she is — she already has plans to change some things and expand others. The nail department, in particular, ranks high on her list for reorganization. With all of the enthusiasm she exudes for the department, it's hard to believe she dropped nails from her first salon in 1987 and didn't bring them back until 1996. Even then, she admits she reintroduced nails as a client convenience, but when client demand necessitated doubling, then tripling, then quadrupling the nail department in the first six months, Blue's mindset — and her strategy — quickly shifted.
A Paradigm Shift
"In 1986 we had two nail technicians sharing one table, and they were frustrated there was no education or training for them," says Blue, who at the time co-owned Carmen. Carmen salon with renowned hairstylist and then husband Carmen Cutrone. "Nails were big in the home market, and pedicures were something dirty. People weren't that interested in salon services, and distributors didn't have equipment. There weren't many product lines to choose from, and there were no retail products, so we got out of nails."
When the two divorced in 1994, Blue took over one of the two salons they had owned as partners. She was already looking to the future. Margo Blue Hair, Body, and Soul became the vehicle to build capital for the eventual opening of the day spa. Still, nails weren't a factor — yet.
"When the first discount salons opened here in 1994, we were glad they came," she explains. "The concept of no appointment and a 30-minute fill took women by storm. But as these salons began to boom and our customers became comfortable with going other places, we got into trouble. We decided nails may not be profitable, but we needed them as a convenience. It was about this time, too, that pedicures started to take off."
By 1996, Blue had added a nail station to the salon and staffed the department with two part-time nail technicians. Even then, she admits, she was afraid to really promote and build the department because of her past experiences, and because she knew so little about the industry. However, a chance meeting at a trade show with the owner of a salon changed all that. "She had what I wanted — six nail technicians and clients busting out at the walls," Blue says, noting that the other salon owner felt the same way about her hair department as Blue felt about nails. The two started consulting with each other to help develop each other's weak areas.
At about the same time, Blue noticed that discount nail salons were exploding: By 1997, 12 more had opened in her area, and she felt it was time to learn more. She spent an afternoon just sitting in the reception area of a nearby discount salon, observing traffic flow and service styles. She was astounded.
"I sat and counted each client who came in, and I listened to the conversations," she remembers. "It's non-service there, like Jiffy Lube. Yet we realized when people need nail services it must be quick because they don't have the time. The salon did $300 an hour in services."
One Spa, Two Clienteles
With those observations in mind, Blue began noting what was going on in her own business and talking to clients about their needs. "We've learned we have two specific types of client: One is the quick-service guest who wants a nail service while her hair color is processing or a nail polish change during her pedicure," Blue notes. "These are the ones who don't care about the cost or a lack of pampering; they are corporate women or mothers with kids. Both are in a hurry.
Blue's response: Services-to-Go, a concept that offers clients the ability to get the full salon experience in a minimum amount of time. "We're able to shorten the service time by booking guests for two or three services at a time," she explains. "A client might be getting a hand massage and a cuticle treatment while her feet soak in the pedicure bath and her face is being steamed. Although it takes half the time, she has two or three people working on her at once, and we find customers enjoy that."
The Services-to-Go concept also solves another issue for Blue: lack of space. "When we designed the spa we totally underestimated the nail department's potential volume. Right now we're considering things like putting up screens or bringing in portable pedicure units, but what we've also done is move some of the nails into the salon area, where we had some dead space. This has built the volume even more because nail clients see the hair clients and hair clients see the nails." It also dealt with the odor issue of acrylic services, she says.
For that second clientele, who values the experience as highly as the results, nail services are performed in the spa, where there's a nail station in the men's salon area and a separate pedicure room with two whirlpool spas. The pedicure room also has a nail station, but it's used mostly for clients receiving multiple services because they found the pedicure room became too crowded and noisy when operating at full capacity — which is most of the time these days.
"It kills me now when 1 hear salon owners say they're phasing out nails," Blue exclaims. "There are just so many services clients want. For example, toe waxing is gaining popularity, and I have the nail technicians do it," she says. "Once you make clients aware of the hair on their toes, they want that service. Cuticle treatments, the Gentleman's manicure — these are all services we've developed to serve a need. Once you educate clients about these services and show them what they can do, they want them. And the more tiny services, like toe waxing and cuticle treatments, that you can create, the more apt clients are to buy them as an add-on to, say, a haircut."
Far from resting on her laurels, Blue continues to search for new ideas and ways to promote the spa. Some of her most recent marketing plans include Spa Lunches, where staff members will go to local businesses and offer 30- minute massages, polish changes, and hair consultations.
At the same time, Blue credits her nail technicians for the technical expertise and customer service skills that make new clients regulars. They, on the other hand, laud her eye for detail and her energy.
Together, they answer the question of "How may we nurture you?" before it even is asked.
“Nail Technician Needed”
When asked about her biggest challenge in the nail department, Margo Blue unequivocally replies: "Finding staff"
"When you get into day spa services you attract a clientele with high expectations," she adds, "The business has become so competitive, with spa products and services available not only in fine salons but also in department stores and consumer clinics, that clients need a reason to come."
Blue opened The Spa at Margo Blue with a full staff, which she now says was a mistake. "If I had it to do again I would stagger departments. Work your plans so that you hire one or two technicians to complement each other’s' down times, and then add staff as demand allows. We had several wonderful staff members quit after we trained them because they couldn't hang on long enough until the business was built."
Until recently Blue had a hard time recruiting nail technicians, but the spa's growing reputation, a specific job description, and some flexibility on her part have eased the shortage. "I've had great success putting computer-generated fliers up on distributors' boards," she notes. "Instead of just saying, 'Nail Technician Needed,” I've been very specific about the hours, days, pay, and products used. Another thing I've found is to let them know the services I offer and the prices I charge."
With a still somewhat-sporadic volume — busy some days and slow others — Blue says she allows nail technicians to work at other salons as well. "My professional friends have questioned my thinking, but all I care about is that they go through my training, do services to my standards, and commit to certain days and hours," she says.
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