I am afraid all my journalistic objectivity was washed away in Chicago after an hour-long pedicure from Jo Livingston of Amico’s Grand Salon in Chicago. After four straight days on the trade show floor (in high heels) at the Midwest Beauty Show, I had an appointment to profile a downtown salon, and as soon as I slipped my aching feet in the whirlpool I was bound to love everything about this salon. But I am inclined to believe that anyone, trade show weary or not, would love it too.
Amico’s Grand is in the heart of what is known as Chicago’s Gold Coast, a stretch of real estate that includes the offices of several Fortune 500 companies, tony clothing boutiques, the types of restaurants where hamburgers are $15 and they’re called “chopped sirloin,” and where the average household income is in the high six-figures.
Located just off Michigan Avenue, Amico’s draws a large crowd from adjacent hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton. Salon marketing director Bill Kornit learned that the way to a hotel guest’s heart (and pocket-book) was through the hotel concierge. Kornit patiently cultivated his contacts among local concierges, sometimes providing them with complimentary services so that they’d be able to describe them first hand. The reward has been a steady stream of referrals.
Kornit says, “It’s a tribute to the salon that the concierges recommend us because every time they make a recommendation for any kind of service, they take a risk. They have to please their clients, so they have to be very sure of where they send them.” Amico’s also offers discounts and other incentives for hotel guests.
The salon enjoys a large client following from people who both live and work in the immediate area, and even some who drive from the city’s outskirts for their regular manicures. In fact, the salon is busiest in the after-work hours from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., when button-down executive types polish their images. To accommodate client emergencies and special requests, the salon will even open early on occasion.
In the extreme cases when clients cannot even get out to the salon, the salon will go to them. Amico’s has established a reputation for this kind of above-and-beyond the-call-of-duty service and will make office calls for what has become known as a “power manicure,” so called because for many busy executives it has taken the place of the “power lunch.”
Catering to a demanding clientele is a demanding job. But the salon is run by a team of beauty industry professionals who are adept not only at serving a discriminating clientele, but who are masters of the art of promotion. Kornit specializes in a marketing technique known as “cross promotion” which involves teaming up with other businesses to promote to the same set of customers. The cost is usually below what normal advertising would cost and the exposure is enormous.
The salon did a cross promotion recently with a local radio station, offering the winning listener “A Year of Beauty.” The grand prize amounted to $3,000 worth of salon services. Amico’s gives away its services in exchange for loads of airtime every time the radio promotes its contest. “I love cross promotions,” says Kornit.
The salon gets its name out in traditional venues as well. There are several Gold Coast magazines where the salon regularly advertises. Kornit has found that the most successful advertisements are those that show before and after photos. Makeovers seem to help clients imagine a new look without the risk. Once a client comes into the salon, she can take advantage of the computer imaging system which shows the client, via computer manipulation, what her own makeover would look like.
On a larger scale, Kornit works in conjunction with larger companies or businesses that purchase a bulk of gift certificates and use them as gifts or incentives for employees. For bulk purchases they get special discounts.
A salon that services an upscale neighbourhood isn’t immune to competition. High-end full-service salons are plentiful in the area and the competition is fierce. And, Kornit explains, clients are less loyal. So Amico’s does everything it can instill loyalty in customers: When a client first walks through the revolving glass door she is greeted and immediately relieved of her wrap, her carry-alongs, and, it is hoped, her worries.
While she (or he, as a full third of Amico’s clients are male) changes into a dressing gown, the client is offered a complimentary beverage from a fully stocked bar. If she is hungry, a French meal from a neighbourhood cafe is just a phone call away.
All stylists and technicians are trained to primp and pamper their clients into euphoria. They are required to follow a strict dress code that allows only black and white clothing (and not jeans). Kornit says the stark color scheme reflects the clean and professional style Amico’s strives for.
Prospective employees are screened in the interview process as much for their compatible personalities as their technical ability. Says Kornit, “In this area, you have to be able to compete in service, not just skills.” Past work experience and schooling is evaluated and given heavy consideration since Illinois has no manicuring licensing requirement. Although no formal continuing education program is in effect in the salon, management encourages, and will even sponsor, employees’continuing education. (In fact, most of the salon employees had, as I did, just returned from the Midwest Beauty Show themselves).
Senior nail technician Jo Livingston is a very strong supporter of continued education. In her 10 years in the business she’s seen a lot of change---enough change to know that the only way to stay ahead of it is to keep constantly abreast of your industry. “In this business,” says Livingston, “you are the mother of triplets: education, sales, and service. Education must come before you can make a sale or do a service.”
Amico’s Grand is run by owner Kathy Fanslow and salon manager Mary Jo Thomson. Fanslow came up with the idea for an upscale full-service salon a few years ago and brought the idea to John Amico, a well-known salon industry veteran who has his own beauty school and product line. Amico liked the idea so much he teamed with Fanslow, lent his name to the venture, and Amico’s Grand was born in February 1989. Although daily management is handled by Fanslow and Thomson, Amico helps with marketing and management programs.
The three-level salon currently uses 3,500 square feet to house nail care, skin care, hairstyling, massage therapy, and a small retail section. Kornit has managed to squeeze out an office from what looks like an old supply closet. They plan to expand soon, though, into the basement so there will be more room for another skin care therapist, an expanded client waiting area, and, he hopes, a real office for Kornit.
Amico’s opted to use a “nail bar” rather than individual workstations when the nail area was designed. The bar is located on the ground floor, with great walk-by street view and seats five customers and five technicians. Clients seem to like the openness and informality of the bar. And there’s no better advertising for Amico’s nail care than for passers-by to see a row of happy, chatting clients getting their nails done.
Nail services currently account for about 25% of the salon’s total volume, but Kornit is using his marketing ingenuity to bolster that figure. Natural manicures account for the bulk of that volume, followed by pedicures in a close second. Fibreglass and acrylic maintenance clients fill out the other services most frequently requested at the salon. Livingston also does nail art, and has finally gathered the courage to enter herself in a nail art competition.
Behind the nail bar are three small pedicure rooms (including the one where I lost my objectivity). Each pedicure station has a whirlpool footbath unit with a vibrating client seat. My own pedicure was a calm and soothing experience, but Jo Livingston told me that when all three stations get going at once, whirlpools and vibrating seats as well, even the walls start to rumble.
I could get used to hanging out in a place like Amico’s Grand, but unfortunately I live 1,500 miles away. For those fortunate Chicagoans the salon is just a 10 minute walk from the North Loop, but for me, there’s always the Midwest Beauty Show 1992.