When Kim and John Grandinetti hear salon owners complain that “discount salons” are the scourge of the industry, guilty of everything from driving down prices to ruining clients’ nails to giving the industry a bad rap, they laugh. They know the “enemy” because they are it - at least as far as prices are concerned.

As the owners of two Nail Express salons in Coral Springs and Plantation, Fla., the Grandinettis have proved wrong all the premises of discount salons. Standing appointments are the rule; clients always see the same nail technician; salon disinfection is a top priority. Even judged on looks alone, the decor is more upscale than salons charging more than twice what Nail Express does for a full set ($21, $18.95 with a coupon).

“I have something different to offer clients, and that’s why I’m still growing,” Kim says. “I offer a Bloomingdale’s service and setting with Kmart prices, but I do so much volume. That’s how I survive. If I didn’t do it this way I’d be like so many other nail salon owners - angry and broke. Instead, Nail Express just keeps growing.”

“The person who complains about the competition is too concerned with it,” John adds. “As far as I’m concerned we have no competition because we do things differently than everyone else.”

A Long Time Coming

While Kim cites several key differences between Nail Express and its low- price competitors, the most obvious difference is appearance. Open just over a year, the Grandinettis invested almost $85,000 in the Coral Springs salon, including $25,000 in tile for the floor and walls. Large gilt-framed mirrors add elegance to the salon while making the narrow space appear wider; the mirrors themselves are softened by scarves that swoop romantically down over them.

The Grandinettis did much of the interior design themselves. Paintings by local artists also hang on the walls above the custom-made workstations that seat two nail technicians and their clients.

“The tables have rounded edges, and the surface is larger than a standard table. We also included lots of drawer space,” Kim says. “Even the chairs have more padding. We tested the chairs on lots of different-size people to find one that would be most comfortable.” Whereas pedicure and waxing clients once sat in full view of passers-by, Kim added separate, private rooms in the 3,000-square-foot location, which is almost triple the size of her original Coral Springs salon.

“We offer coffee, pastries, and cookies to the clients, and I have three receptionists to take care of their needs. All of my managers and receptionists except one are licensed nail technicians,” she continues. “They know exactly what clients are talking about and what problems the technicians encounter. They know how to book time so that things flow smoothly.”

The Coral Springs Nail Express is the final result of 10 years and about 10 prior salons. It was 1987 when 19-year-old Kim and her then-husband opened their first Nail Hut salon. From the start Kim adopted the low-price, high-volume philosophy that proved popular in her market. In three years they opened five more Nail Hut salons, but the marriage dissolved with the partnership in 1990, and Kim and her former husband each took three of the salons. Twenty-two years old, the mother of a 3-year-old son and infant daughter, and the sole owner of three salons, Kim remembers this as “a very overwhelming, difficult time.”

The first thing she did was change the name of her salons to Nail Express, which she chose, she says, “because it told clients what we were all about.” In 1991 she closed her E. Fort Lauderdale location because it wasn’t thriving, and she focused on growing the two remaining locations in Plantation and Coral Springs. In 1993 she married John, and he assumed responsibility for payroll, bookkeeping, and advertising in addition to running his own businesses. Freed of these burdens, Kim once again had time to focus on the salons’ future, but what she saw scared her.

“At the time I opened Nail Express, it was just like any other budget salon in Florida. In 1994, so many discount salons opened I knew I had to do something different,” she explains. “I still have the low prices, but I have gone with a more upscale look.”

Her efforts have paid off: “Business at the Coral Springs location has just about doubled, and we’ve only been in that space a year,” she says.

By Any Other Name...

At its core, however, Nail Express is a discount salon: Fill prices are 20% lower than the national average at $16 ($14 with one of the 60,000 coupons the salon circulates each month). Depending on high volume to compensate for the low price, most of the 62 nail technicians (36 at the Coral Springs location and 26 at the Plantation salon) do a fill in 30 minutes, and a number of them can even do a full set in 30 minutes.

“No one takes more than 45 minutes for a fill or one hour for a full set,” Kim says. Nail Express uses drills to achieve the speed, and clients who request filing by hand pay an additional $5.

“We have to charge more because of the time it takes, and I haven’t had one person complain,” she says. “With the competition and the low prices, everyone here uses a drill Yes, they can be harmful if the technician doesn’t know what she’s doing, but, used properly, drills are the best thing that’s happened to nails.”

The Grandinettis also help keep prices low by keeping their overhead expenses, such as rent and product costs, as low as possible. “We don’t start salons in a big shopping center or near anchor stores. Those locations are too expensive,” Kim says. “I just need a center that isn’t empty and that has lots of residential neighborhoods around it.”

Still, their prices are almost a third higher than the competitions’. “About three years ago we started getting the real cut-rate salons opening up around us. Near our Coral Springs location we have five, and Coral Springs is not that big,” Kim says. “Many of these salons are doing fills for $11, pedicures for $11, and manicures for $5.” It was when these salons started opening three years ago that Grandinetti realized the only way to survive was to rise above the competition, so she raised her prices to $16 for a fill and $21 for a full set, a $2 increase across the board that left clients complaining. However, Grandinetti knew that if she was going uptown, she needed bus fare, so to speak. “We do coupons constantly so the clients who were really bothered by it could clip them and get it for $14 every time.”

John and Kim were convinced they had already set themselves apart enough that clients would remain loyal. “Most salons in our area service clients on rotation, which means clients don’t get the same technician each time they go in,” Kim explains. “They do this so that technicians can’t take their clientele when they leave because they never get one. But we don’t do that at Nail Express. Clients want the relationship and that helped us because they are willing to pay for it. The nail technicians also like it better because they know their clients and because they’re not in competition with the technician next to them.”

Empowered, Not Embittered

Not one to view the cup as half empty, Kim says the low prices have broadened her potential client base. “Everyone here has nails because everyone can afford them, no matter how much money they make,” she says. “There are kids in seventh grade getting their nails done.”

Kim does all she can to make sure students get them done at Nail Express by offering students $14 full sets and $10 fills. “We don’t make much money, but it’s worth it to keep them in the salon because the volume makes up for the price,” she explains. “There are three high schools around my salons, and every student you ask will say they get their nails done at Nail Express.”

Kim wants to hear that answer from everyone she asks, and she’s willing to pay the price to hear it. While she encourages clients to develop a relationship with a technician, she does everything she can to stop clients from following when a nail technician moves to another salon. “When a technician leaves I contact all her clients and offer them free nails for three months,” she explains. “Since I started doing that I haven’t lost very many clients.”

This policy might seem outrageously expensive, but John sees it as cost effective. “Let’s say a client comes in six times during her three months and would have spent $20 per visit,” he says. “Of that $120, we still pay our nail technician half, so we’re losing $60 plus the cost of the product. But if you consider that it costs about $50 to get a new client, then it’s really nothing.”

Nail Express also spends more than $5,000 a month on advertisements through direct mail marketers such as Val-Pak. “It’s very competitive here,” John says, “but if you offer a good product at a good price and advertise it constantly, people will come. You’ve got to keep your name out there, but you’ve got to put it in the right place.” For example, John says about 15 nail salons advertise in the Sunday paper. He doesn’t even bother because he can’t touch the prices they offer. Instead, he does full-color coupon ads and other promotions such as high school posters. Nail Express also offers a 10% discount to employees of Motorola, American Express, and BellSouth.

The new image at Coral Springs has been so well received that the Grandinettis plan to upgrade the Plantation location over the next year. Kim also hopes to double the size of that location to 2,400 square feet by taking over an empty space next door. She’s also planning to open a third location in early 1998, replacing the salon in Sunrise that she merged with the Plantation salon in September 1997. Kim says this new location probably will be m E. Fort Lauderdale again, and will have the same look as the Coral Springs salon. After that, her goal is to open a 5,000-square-foot day spa in about 18 months. “I think day spa is the way to go. There are a few around here and they do well. There’s not as much competition and those are the services I want to offer my clients.”

Even as busy as her immediate expansion plans keep her, not to mention managing the two locations already open, doing nails several days a week, and being actively involved with her three children (their youngest daughter turns 3 in April), John doesn’t doubt the day spa will open as Kim foresees. “What Kim wants, Kim gets,” he says matter-of-factly.