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Asian Influence: Building A Bridge

bySuzette Hill | April 1, 1997

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two part series.  Last month, “Asian Influence” covered the phenomenon of Asian salons and its effect on the nail industry today.

Walking into Happy Nails in Tustin, Calif., clients enter a large open room dominated by row upon row of pink-and-white workstations.  At each workstation there are jars and bottles labeled with simple, generic terms: “oil” and “lotion.”  Most also have a coffee cup where nail files and cuticle pushers soak in sanitizing solution.

There are the occasional photos of smiling children taped up on display.  Each worker also displays a manicurist or cosmetologist license from the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.  The walls are bare except for two TVs; right now they’re tuned to the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”  The only other color in the room comes from a few silk plants scattered about.

Twenty nail technicians are busily doing nails—some soaking, some drilling, some polishing.  The room hums with the soft sound of several women’s voices underlined by voices on the TV.  Several technicians respond to the bell on the door, looking up with a smile while their fingers continue to fly.  A few clients also crane around to look, but most are absorbed in Oprah, their thoughts, or the technician’s work.  Every nail technician is Vietnamese and every client in the salon is Caucasian.

One has to ask: If everything that is said about Asian salons is true, why are they so often booked to capacity and why do clients continue to patronize their businesses?  Gather a group of nail professionals at a show in any part of the country and they’ll name a handful of reasons that Asian salons are hurting the “legitimate” nail profession”  with questionable products, poor sanitation, damage to nails, unlicensed technicians, and no client communication.

Mary Larkin, who is getting her bi-weekly fill at Happy Nails today, offers several reasons she’s been a happy patron: “They always do a good job and they’re very friendly.  I usually make an appointment so I can see the same person, but I know I can just come in if I need to because they take walk-ins.  Linda, my technician, speaks English and she always talks to me.  Last time I was in she showed me pictures of her family; and she knows all about mine.  I live just down the street and this salon is also near where I do most of my shopping.”

Larkin says she can afford to pay more than the $14 it costs her to get her nails done at Happy Nails, but she doesn’t want to.  “I’d probably be willing to pay $2-$3 more, but I wouldn’t get my nails done if it cost me more than that.  It just wouldn’t be worth it to me.”

And Larkin knows what kind of service and salon atmosphere she can get for a higher price.  She used to get her nails done at a beautiful luxury salon in the same area, where she paid $35-$55 (depending on which technician did her nails) for a fill.   The nail workstations are strategically located within the salon to create privacy for clients.  The nail technicians participate in ongoing continuing education with a major product manufacturer, and they use only the highest-quality products for which they pay a premium.  Larkin says the service she got at the luxury salon was top-rate and her nails were beautiful, but she does not put a value on the difference in quality.  “I usually had to have an appointment and the fill took one hour.  At Happy Nails it takes just 45 minutes, which includes 10 minutes for my polish to dry,” she explains.   Larkin says that she intends to stay put at Happy Nails.

Trudy Oliver-Cuohgi, a nail technician at Fingertips, Inc., in Richmond, Va., says she felt the effect of having new Asian-owned salons in her neighborhood.  She decided to ask clients of hers who had patronized Asian salons what attracted them.

“Number one was convenience,” she says, with clients citing mall locations and the fact that the salons were open seven days a week.  “Clients said that their nails seemed to stay on longer without lifting or bending.  And, of course, they like that the services cost less.”

Although many of her clients left her to try discount salons, many returned.  She also asked those why they returned to her.  Oliver-Cuohgi says they disliked the “impersonal treatment resulting from the language barrier, the technician’s lack of concern over broken skin or the pain caused by the drill, assembly-line production, and the fact that so many of the workers wore facial masks.”

Ironically, her clients also cited “hidden expenses” as a reason for leaving.  “The low cost for the fill only applies to short, square nails,” she explains.  Oval or square nails of average length cost about the same at Oliver-Cuoghi’s salon as they did at the Asian salon.  “A $10 fill ends up costing more than $10,” explains Trang Nguyen, owner of four Hollywood Nails salons in Longwood, Fla.  Many times the low-cost fill is just a starting point for pricing, and salons will add on charges for shortening nails, polishing, or top coat.

Are the Horror Stories True?

Holly Bonello, a nail technician at Nails in Motion in Falmouth, Va., says of Asian salons: “I know cases of families living in their salons.  Many times they use each other’s licenses.  Their sanitation practices leave much to be desired, using the same drills bits and files without being sanitizing them…I have many clients who come to me to ‘fix’ problems caused by unsafe practices at these shops.  I’ve seen grooves that reach all the way to the nail bed from someone misusing a nail drill.”

Elaine Ho-Wan, a salon consultant who specializes in Vietnamese salons, says that, although rare are unfair stereotypes about Asian salons, many of the “horror stories” are true.

“The [Vietnamese people]  have a negative history with government which was often in place to hurt them, not help them.  I think these new businesses owners are not willing to take time, to be patient, and to go through the necessary steps to get the right licenses and the right equipment before they get started.  They want to start working right away.  They don’t want to deal with what they see as government interference.”  Ho-Wan explains that it isn’t a casualness about legalities or a disregard for the American system behind it; it’s simply a need to quickly start working, earning money, and supporting one’s family.

She feels many Asian nail technicians and salons don’t follow, and in some cases don’t bother to learn, key state board regulations, including such important issues as sanitation.  As for licensing, Ho-Wan says, “Many Asian owners hire technicians who have a license in a state, but not in the one where they want to work.  Still, they allow them to work without specific state licensing, but they don’t want to pay the fees until they see the people’s work.”

Although no one from the state board in Arizona, or any other state for that matter, will speak on the record about how much Asian salons have contributed to the crackdown in reciprocity and licensing fraud, licensing is a hot topic among the state boards.

Asian salon professionals are blamed for a host of other industry ills, as well, some fairly, some not.  “Their sanitation practices are very bad,” says Pauline Herr, director and instructor at Bonsoir World Nail Academy in Temple, Ariz.  “But I believe they are trying to improve.”  Herr says a Vietnamese salon chain hired her just last year to critique its salon’s practices and help them make necessary improvements.  “They are trying everything to improve their sanitation.  I went from salon to salon, had meetings with the owners and nail technicians, made up accident report forms, and educated them on how to clean the salon and use sanitation systems.”

Ho-Wan says that besides the cultural obstacles, the lack of communication vehicles available to Asian salons is also to blame for lack of conformity among them.  The quality of cosmetology education today knows no ethnic boundaries; it is a frustration faced by everyone in the business.

Although there has been much published in the trade press about the ban on methyl methacrylate (MMA) in nail products, admittedly it has probably not reached the Asian salon population.  Considering that use of MMA was once legal and accepted in the nail industry, and that it is still sold today despite the ban, it’s understandable that there would be confusion in the Asian community about whether or not it is legal.

“I don’t think they understand the difference between methyl methacrylate and ethyl methacrylate [the alternative component to MMA],” says Dan Hoang, editor of Saigon Nails, a Vietnamese language magazine for nail professionals.  “What company is going to admit they’re marketing MMA to the community and how are Vietnamese salons going to find out about it?”

Ho-Wan adds, “All they know is that the product sets quickly, is easy to work with, and is cheap.”  When the price of your services is your competitive edge, the price of your products must be comparably low, and MMA-based products fit the bill.   “Methyl methacrylate is cheap,” Nguyen says.  “[Asian salons] probably don’t know it’s no good; they’re just looking for whatever is least expensive.”

An Asian salon owner who asked not to be named says she had asked her distributor about MMA.  Her distributor told her that the FDA had talked about banning it, but added that everyone was selling it and using it because it was the best.  “He told me there were no problems, and not to worry about it,” she admits.

The complaints about Asian salons usually are not being voiced by their clients.  Instead it’s their competitors who have spoken up.  State boards say consumers rarely report their problems to the licensing agencies.  “If there was a blood spill in a doctor’s  office, clients would line up in horror.  So why is it not a big deal in the salon?”  Sansom asks.  “I was talking to someone the other day who had a client with all of her nails bleeding because of a drill, but no one called the board to inform us.”

“No one would have to call,” counters Mihn Naht Trieu, an instructor at the Asian American International Beauty College in Westminster, Calif., “if the board sent more inspectors out to salons and really enforced the rules, maybe revoking business licenses for bad practices.  Then people will see that as a disadvantage to the industry and not open so many salons, which would bring prices back up.”

A logical request, but not practical for the state boards, most of which are already taxed to their limits.  Denise Brown, deputy director for the California State Board of Cosmetology, says there are only 15 inspectors to watch over more than 40,000 salons in her state.  One Asian salon owner there says in seven years her salon was not once visited by the state board.  In Arizona, Sansom says the goal is to inspect the state’s 3,600 salons twice a year, but because of the number of investigations her salon is handling, the number of salons actually visited twice a year is falling.  “In 1995, 97% if salons got two inspections.  In 1997, we’re projecting that 35% will be inspected twice.  This correlates to the increased number of investigations we’re having to do,” says Sansom.

According to Ho-Wan, the real solution to the industry’s ills lies in providing Asian nail technicians with access to the same information and educational sources, such as manufacturer’s classes and videos and trade magazines.  “I hear from all of them that their dream is to own their own salon,” she says.  “They want to get experience and be their own boss—not be the best technician or compete at shows or service a niche area like nail art.  They want to be business owners.”

Hoang agrees: “They need the same materials Caucasian technicians have available to them.”

Price Is Not the Only Issue

With all of the drawbacks, you’d think Asian salons would sit idle, says Larry Gaynor, president/CEO of Nailco Salon Marketplace (Farmington Hills, Mich.), “but they’re packed.”  Clients are drawn to the low prices, convenience and the ability to walk in without an appointment, and sometimes the quality of the service.  The consumer feels she’s getting beautiful nails at a good price…on her own terms.  Businesses that do not fulfill a consumer need do not survive; so despite the admitted shortcomings of many of these salons, they still fulfill a consumer need.  And it is that concept—filling a need in the market—that all salons must address in this concern over Asian salons.  What do these salons do right and should they be emulated?  What do they do wrong that hurts the industry, and how can the industry as a whole help them to the right track?

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“Asian salons have tapped into the needs of the typical American woman, who wants her nails done in 30 minutes,” adds Gaynor.  “Price is not the issue; it just happens to be the benefit.  If they’re charging $25 for a set of nails in 30 minutes, that’s no different than paying $50 for a set of nails applied in one hour.”

“Forget the price,” agrees Harriet Rose, CEO of Forsythe Cosmetic Group (Lawrence, N.Y.).   “They reason Asian nail technicians do so well is because they’re very hard workers.  You don’t need an appointment; they never say no.  If you call to get your nails done and it’s 10 minutes until closing they say, “Come in!”  They’re very customer service-oriented.  Women don’t go to a salon just because it’s $2, $5, or even $10 cheaper.  Convenience is the key.  It’s that they can get their nails done at any time without an appointment.”

Salons offering convenience at an economical price present a tough package to compete against, but it’s what nail professionals today must do survive.  “Perfect your skills,” advises Gaynor.  “You don’t have to cut corners or eliminate customer service to do nails faster.”  Just ask Blythe Albert and Sherri Isley, co-owners of Expressly Nails in Washington, D.C.   “Our clients want a fill in 15 minutes.  They want wham-bam service but they don’t want it to feel like wham-bam.  We have conversations and carry them over every two-week period.  Nothing takes us more than 45 minutes,” says Albert.

There are also ways to make your salon more convenient to clients.  If everyone in the salon has a full book, you can add a new technician who wants to build a clientele and advertise that you take walk-ins.  Put a sign in the window, then tell your regular clients and everyone who calls that walk-ins are welcome.  Add “Walk-ins Welcome” to your ads in the phone book, newspapers, and direct mail fliers.

Develop a mentor program or training procedure that pairs an experienced nail technician with a junior one, so that the trainee quickly picks up the skills by working closely with the senior.  Hoang says this is how Asian technicians work” “In Vietnamese salons they have mentors who teach them their techniques.   They have a very good system of working with each other.  There’s no competitive feeling of ‘If I teach you you’ll take my client.’”

For the salon owner, it’s a control issue.  Nguyen explains: “To keep up the salon and have everyone following the same systems, they have to be employees.”  Then they come to work at a specific time, follow our procedures, and use our products.  They don’t have a problem working together and they help each other.  It’s a family type of thing: I help them and they help me.

“In booth rental the attitude is, ‘It’s your customer, you take care of it.’  I wish I could run a booth rental salon so I wouldn’t have to worry about the business, but I want control of my business so I’ve made all my workers employees.  I want everyone using the same products and following the same procedure,” he says.

Salons can also learn from what discount salons are not doing.  “We do two-tone acrylics, which the discount salons don’t do.  Two-tone acrylics account for 97% of our business; our clients can’t get them at a discount salon,” says Nguyen.

“They don’t see the benefit in doing paraffin dips, or they don’t have the knowledge they need to offer it because they weren’t taught how,” says Ho-Wah.  “Schools aren’t teaching them how to do waxing or sea-salt pedicures or fiberglass wraps,” she continues, “but eventually all salons will have to expand their service menu to include these special services.”  If a salon uses price alone as its competitive edge, then it simply must keep its amenities to a minimum as well.

Gaynor advises salons to do whatever it takes to make their salons competition-resistant.  “Look at bagel stores and coffee shops, for examples.  There’s a bagel store on every corner, and for years Dunkin’ Donuts was the place to get coffee and a doughnut, then all the sudden Starbucks appears and now there’s a coffee shop on every block.  No one goes to Dunkin Donuts for coffee anymore.  Then bagel shops open everywhere and no one goes to Dunkin’ for doughnuts anymore, either.  That’s because in the past there was only Dunkin’ so what they offered was O.K.  But now there’s a choice about where to go and what to get.   So what should Dunkin’ do?  Add bagels and flavored coffees.

What Does the Future Hold?

“Even though there are two market segments, we’re all doing nails.  Unfortunately, one segment has very limited information and another has abundant information,” explains Hoang.  “You find most Asian nail salons offer mostly acrylic nails, nothing else.  If you are an Asian nail technician, what do you do then to attract the customer?  Either offer additional services—but you can’t because you don’t have the knowledge—or you lower you prices.  That’s why prices are so low—they have such limited information.  American salons offer a variety of services.  Whatever a client wants, they have.  These salons do gels, they do waxing.  Those are additional services and the prices are fixed, not discount.

“We need the industry to pay attention to the Vietnamese market to help them achieve what they need and to help the industry in general.  There are two markets with different prices; somehow we need to unite them, and that means unite the segments.  We need to give them information; push up their knowledge.   If we can do that we can push up the prices, improve their sanitation standards and knowledge of nail disorders and how to work with drills.

Most industry watchers see these changes already happening.  For their part, Vietnamese salons have watched prices fall so low that certain areas of the country are no longer very profitable places to run a nail salon.  There is a migration out of the large metropolitan coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York, to areas of the country where nail salons are less common.  Within the Vietnamese community there is much concern about the continuing downward spiral of service prices.  No one, it seems, wants prices to go any lower, and most want them to begin to move back up.  There are signs of a growing awareness of how to do that.  Manufacturers say they’ve seen an upswing in class attendance by Vietnamese nail technicians, and they’ve also noted a growing interest in “alternative” nail services that allow salons to seek premium prices.  Light systems, for example, are enjoying popularity in Vietnamese salons, which charge $2-$5 more for light-activated systems than traditional acrylic procedures.

Last month, in part one of this article, Vietnamese salon owners Peter Ha, My Kieu Huynh, and Trang Nguyen talked about how they have had to evolve from what was considered a “traditional” Vietnamese salon.  Huynh started out as a low-priced salon to compete, then decided to go upscale with her services and prices to survive.  Huynh and the others are the front wave of a new generation of Asian salon owners.  They understand the industry, the culture, and the business world and have repositioned their salons to maximize their potential for profit and success.  Not only that, they are expanding into other areas of the industry.  Ha owns five beauty supply stores in several states and has plans to open more; Nguyen plans to capitalize on his reputation as a top competitor by introducing his own line of acrylics marketed to Asian salons; and Huynh plans to continue growing her successful salon chain.

Salon owner Maria Hamim, who owns four salons in Arizona, says that although her prices are currently considered “discount,” she plans to change that, as well as the salon chain’s identity.  “I want our employees to be more customer-oriented and spend more time on the hand massage.  We try to differentiate ourselves with the products we use.  Now that there are a lot of Asian salons around, I’m trying to push things to be different.  We try to keep the talking Vietnamese down, and the technicians try to speak English to their clients, who appreciate the effort.”

These are the people who will continue to shape the future of the nail industry.  As the generation of Asian immigrants becomes more established, their salons will become increasingly mainstream and their acceptance more widespread.  Their success—and their failure—will lead them toward the same values embraced by all nail technicians and salon owners of every nationality: increased prestige, customer retention, technical excellence, and financial success.

 Is Lack of English a Barrier?

“Ninety-nine percent of our students are Asian,” says Minh Naht Trieu.  “The percentage who speak English is 30%-33%.  Most of them are newcomers to the industry and haven’t yet learned English very well.”

Almost immediately the lack of English skills works against many Asian nail technicians because only three states (California, S. Carolina, and Washington) offer the state board examination in Vietnamese (Vermont requires students to call about other language tests).  While some allow the use of translators (only 10 states allow an interpreter into the exam and four specifically require pre-approval), “this gets into problems with the validity and reliability of the testing instrument,” says Debra Norton of the Arkansas State Board of Cosmetology.

Says Elaine-Ho-Wan, “Non-English-speaking students can’t really understand the nail diseases and disorders taught in the books.  Whatever they learn while they’re actually in class is all they get.”

Trieu and Pauline Herr speak only English while teaching their classes in an effort to keep students learning their most critical skills—to communicate with their clients.  Herr, who doesn’t speak Vietnamese, has an “incentive” for students to speak English only: “They speak English on the floor or they have to put a quarter in the jar.”  By the time her first class graduated, Herr says they had made good progress in mastering the basics of English.

“Immigrants have limited language skills,” cautions Dan Hoang.  “They can communicate in daily conversation, but not intellectually.”  If English-speaking students don’t graduate salon-ready, how ready can a non-English-speaking students be, he wonders.

Does the language barrier affect Vietnamese nail professionals once they begin work in the salon?  “I don’t think so,” says American-born Maria Hamim.  “Clients just want a smile and some basic conversation.  I have noticed in our salons that when technicians talk to each other in Vietnamese, clients don’t know if they’re talking about them.  A lot of clients come here because they want to be relaxed so we try o keep the talking down.  Clients are really nice if you try to speak in English.”

“That’s why they come into the nail industry,” says Trang Nguyen, “because they don’t have to speak English.”

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State Boards See Link to Licensing Fraud

Although most state boards don’t track the ethnicity of licensees and therefore cannot provide data on ethnic breakdown in their states, many will say that they’ve noticed an alarming trend.  With the growing number of Asian nail technicians has some an increase in unlicensed activity and fraudulent applications for licenses.

“The biggest problem [state boards] have had is fraudulent documentation and people going into schools, completing the training, and taking the test for someone else,” explains one state board director who asked not to be named.  “That is a real problem; I don’t think it’s limited to Asian community, but it’s more prevalent in that segment.”

Other forms of fraud seen more recently include schools “selling” hours, cheating on the exams (stand-ins taking the test and interpreters providing the answers, for example), or using someone else’s school documents or identification to apply for reciprocity.  One school in Louisiana was called a “diploma mill” by the state board for falsely certifying hundreds of students.  One student, who never attended a single class, paid $1,600 for her certification from the school.

“Some 95% of those certified by the school to the board…were of Vietnamese extraction, many of whom spoke little English,” explained the Louisiana Inspector General’s recently issued report on a cosmetology school in New Orleans.

In Wisconsin, salon and school owner Jan Studesville says she received a distress call from another school owner: “She’s in town on the Illinois border and she says she’s been getting calls from Vietnamese who want to know how much it would cost them for her to sign the papers to take the exam!”

Denise Brown of the California State Board of Cosmetology says the board now provides the written portion of the licensing exam in Vietnamese because of the numerous “incidents of cheating.”

But the biggest problem of all is fraudulent documentation, says Sue Sansom of the Arizona Sate Board of Cosmetology.  As a result, she says, the Arizona Board no longer accepts certification of school hours directly from the school; all certifications must come from the licensing state board.

“We have found people buying certifications, we’ve identified some schools doing it, and have found doctored certifications.  The board took another giant step recently by instituting a requirement for photo ID for all applicants.  We will process paperwork for applicants from out of state, but they have to pick it up and we have to verify their ID.  We were having people drop off papers for 10 people on the same day they were picking up papers for a different set of people,” Sansom explains.

Many state boards are being forced to show down their reciprocity procedure to take the necessary time to review and authenticate documents.  The sheer volume of applications for reciprocity was overburdening state board administrative staffs.

Debra Norton, executive director of the Arkansas State Board of Cosmetology, says her office now interviews in person everyone applying for reciprocity and goes through licensure requirements.  And, like Arizona, Arkansas now has stricter documentation requirements.  “The interview process puts a real strain on the staff,” says Norton, “but we see every person who comes for a test, so why wouldn’t see anyone coming from another state?” [Fraud] could have been a problem for years, but we will never know.”

While all of the state boards executives we spoke to for this article emphasized that licensing is a fraud is not exclusive to Asian applicants, they all admitted that there was a remarkable correlation.  Most of these officials also disclosed that a significant proportion of the cases they have investigated for fraud have involved Asian applicants.

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[sidebar]

Service and Retail Industries Both Bloodied in Price Wars

If it’s any consolation, the nail industry isn’t the only industry that faced price wars and oversaturation.  The retail and service industries have had “shakeout periods” borne of intense competition and price-cutting.

Department stores, specialty retail stores, and even the popular mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Kmart are being squeezed as new shopping centers spring up on every corner and in every empty field.  Today’s price-conscious consumer got her training at discount warehouses like Sam’s Club and Price Club/Costco in the early ‘80s.  Department stores and specialty stores suffered, especially those that didn’t create a compelling identity for themselves and couldn’t compete at the same price level.

To maintain profits as they lowered prices, discounters and mass merchandisers had to slash their operating costs.  Eventually, there was no more fat to cut, and yet retailers couldn’t raise their prices because they had trained their customers to be highly price-sensitive.

In an effort to sustain their growth, they expanded to new neighborhoods, new cities, and new states.  By the mid-‘90s there was a glut of retail stores and everyone suffered; today many retail chains are closing stores and some have been forced into bankruptcy.  The retailer hurt the most didn’t create a strong identity for themselves, but copied what others were doing.

On the flip side, Sears and Wal-Mart are emerging as winners.  Sears was on a downward slide until it repositioned itself with its “softer side” advertising campaign, which it supported by upgraded apparel lines and better product selections.  Wal-Mart, on the other hand, has simply continued proving itself to have the lowest everyday prices.  It found out what its customers wanted, then made sure it provided it.

In the salon industry, this concept has caused a sort of identity crisis for mid-range salons: They can’t afford to offer clients the lowest prices in the market-place, but they don’t provide any other compelling reasons for clients to pay more.  They don’t usually have the ambiance of a high-end salon, nor the services to maintain clients.

How can you create an identity that draws clients through your doors and keeps them coming back?  Simple, says Lary Gaynor: “Find out what your customers want.  Survey them with 10 questions.  Ask them if time is of importance.  Which service do they enjoy getting?  And while you may not be able to redecorate at your customers’ whim, find out what kind of music they want to hear or what programs they want on the TV.  Examine every aspect of your business and figure out how you can make it more appealing to your clients.

At the same time, you cannot afford to ignore what your competition is doing, warns Gaynor.  “Understand your competitors.  Go to the salons yourself to find out why people go there; experience them firsthand.   Then make sure your salon is competition-resistant and that your customers don’t want to leave.”

That’s simple marketing.  There’s a great saying about marketing from Jean Bailey of Helene Curtis, a leader in the salon industry.  “Marketing is not a war with your competitors; it’s a love affair with your customers.”  Understand both your competitors and your customers, then give your customers what they want.

 

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