Money Matters

Diary of a Discount Salon Nail Tech

Apprehensive at first, nail technician Heather Sweat took a job at a discount salon for some extra cash. She discovered that these often criticized salons have a lot to teach the rest of the industry.

Heather Sweat has been a nail technician for nine years.

Ironically, I began my eye-opening experience in a discount salon out of a need for extra cash. My mother and I closed the salon we owned together in October 1997 and decided to move to another town almost 20 miles away to work. We both landed jobs as booth renters at a Knoxville, Tenn., salon called High Tech Hair & Nails. To my surprise and horror, the post-holiday slump we usually feel in January and February really hit me hard. I had lost many clients in the move and the new spaces in my appointment book were not getting filled fast enough. I hadn’t experienced the “sitting and waiting for a client to come through the door” syndrome in years. I knew my business would take time to rebuild, but in the meantime I had to earn a living.

I decided to apply for a side job at one of the local discount shops I had seen nearby. I went for my interview at Nails Desire in the evening after work. I ended up doing a fill on the owner. She was a nice lady who had purchased the salon almost a year before, She seemed very concerned with the salon’s reputation and was trying to get away from the “chop shop” image. I noticed all the techs in the salon had Dremel drills (an electric file not designed for salon industry use). I was a little worried, especially since I didn’t bring my drill to the interview. I noticed good sanitation being practiced, such as new bits for each client and disinfecting jars on the stations, so I felt a little better. I also noticed the techs were using low speeds with the drills. I proceeded to do my first fill with a Dremel. It wasn’t that bad.

After my interview the owner asked if I wanted to start that night, right then.

I wondered if I could be busy with no appointments on the book. She said I would be, but I declined, not feeling comfortable without my own stuff to work with. I started the next evening. I was scheduled to work 15 hours a week: one night after work for a few hours, and Sunday and Monday afternoons.

My first day on the job, I noticed an interesting mix of Caucasian and Vietnamese techs working in the salon. I had a hard time with the language barrier, though everyone else managed just fine. I couldn’t understand one of the Vietnamese techs, nor could he understand me. It was frustrating, but after a while, we learned to communicate. The clients were the same type of clients I see at High Tech — working women ages 25-55, some stay-at-home moms, and a sprinkling of students from the nearby college. I couldn’t wait to go into the stockroom and snoop around to see what products they were using. I didn’t smell anything suspicious, but I was curious to see the brands. Finally I got in there. It was off-brand stuff, but it was the safe kind of off-brand stuff. Everything was purchased in gallon sizes. I began to see mistakes I had made in purchasing supplies for my salon. I bought in bulk when I could, but I found I was spending unnecessarily on extravagant items, such as $100 for a gallon of premium lotion when this salon bought a gallon for $6.99.

I asked the owner where she bought her supplies and she showed me catalogs. She purchased her supplied from an Asian distributor. She said the prices could not be beat, and she was right. I was doing in the discount salon looked glossier than the nails I did in the other salon, and that the polish seemed to hold up better when the clients came in after two weeks. They used an inexpensive top coat called La Rosa, but it dried fast, hard, and very glossy.

I stayed busy the whole time I was scheduled to work. If a client didn’t show, it didn’t matter, as there was always someone walking in. No one was ever turned away. I thought about this and realized I never did that. I worked by my little appointment book all day at the other salon. I turned potential clients away if I didn’t have exactly enough time to do them because I had to stay on schedule with my appointment book. Not here. All clients got worked in, no matter what.

I saw the best teamwork in that discount salon — teamwork that I never saw in any of the salons I ever worked in, including mine. In the discount salon, if someone was behind or not ready for the techs would jump up and prep that without having to be asked. The clients are looked at as our client not my clients. I noticed it was very easy for a tech to take a day off without having her clients freak out and the having to work twice as long the day before and the day after.

I had thought that the clientele would probably be more one-time-only visits instead of regulars. I found out it was mostly regulars and standing appointments. As I did these clients’ nails, I began asking them why they chose the discount salon over another salon. The most common answer were the convenience of not having to make an appointment, better hours (they were open until 8 p.m. daily, including Sunday and Monday), and the speed of service. They also liked not having to get too personal with their technician while still getting nice results at a nice price.

Price brings me to another realization I had while working there. My salon prices were at least $10 more than theirs, but the discount salon charged $3 additional for each repair. So an $18 fill with three broken nails would end up costing $27. It was easier to upsell add on services in the discount salon than it was in the other salon because clients perception was that they were getting a bargain.

It was a rare day at my salon to upsell a client on a paraffin dip with her fill after she had shelled out $27. At the discount salon, even if a client had three broken nail, which made her ticket $27, she still could easily be sold a paraffin dip and an airbrush French, which added another $5 to her ticket. I studied this and changed my prices at the other salon to the discount salon’s prices. I haven’t lost any money and, in fact, I am selling more add-ons and actually making more than before. When I ask my clients now if they want an airbrush French or paraffin dip, the answer is usually yes.

My clients have told me they do not mind spending a few extra dollars now, because the basic price is less. The funny thing is, the price is less only in their head. They see the fill as costing $18 even if they had two repairs and it actually cost them $24, and if they got an airbrush color it cost them $2 more. They say “perception is everything.” Now I believe it.

If my experience is any proof, there is serious money to be made at a discount salon. The manager of the salon is currently working 10hours a day, six days a week. She is earning $4,000 a month. There are two techs who have been out of school for only a few months and they work 9-5 five days a week and do a minimum of $100 a day. The Vietnamese tech works Tuesday through Friday 5-8 and Saturdays and Sundays. He is earning about $600 per week for his moonlighting effort. Talk about a hard worker. He has a family of four and a full-time job as a tailor. As for me and my 15 hours, I received a 60% commission, and pay periods are every two week. My first check for 30 hours was almost $600, not including $20-$30 a day in tips. How many part-time jobs offer you a chance to earn $300 a week for 15 hours of work?

Striking a Balance

I worked at the discount salon for a month and then quit because the pace was killing me. I started working there again a month later on a reduced schedule. I work 13 hours per week and make an extra $500-$600 every two weeks for my effort. I work at High Tech Salon building my client base on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. It is working out great for me because my financial difficulties are gone and I have a great time working with the techs at Nail Desire. So if it’s so great why don’t I work there full-time? I like the freedom my booth rental situation gives me. For the new tech out of school, the discount salon is a good starting point to refine skills and speed, build a clientele quickly, and not starve the first year in the industry.

I visit other discount salons in my area and I am seeing a new type of discount salon emerge-where customer service is emphasized. I advise technicians to go out and see the competition, that my services were so different that they would not affect me. I was wrong. The old discount salons were not my competition, but the new ones are. Technicians in the industry have been preaching about what the discount salons don’t do and what they need to be doing. We have talked about how they need education and sanitation. I think that maybe they are starting to listen. The industry is not perfect and there will always be bad salons, but with every thing so focused on the discount nail salon and all the things we wish they would do, I leave you with this one thought: Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.

5 Things I Learned from Working at a Discount Salon

  1. Don’t turn potential clients away by turning down walk-in business. If the salon technicians work together, every client can be worked in somehow.
  2. Teamwork improves customer service. If one tech is behind, another tech should step in and prep her next client.
  3. Lower your base price for a fill, then charge for each repair. The total service price remains about the same, but clients believe they’re getting a bargain and are more receptive to paying for add-on services.
  4. Off-brand labels can offer good products at great values. Why pay $100 for a gallon of premium lotion when you can get a similar product for $6.99?
  5. Go and check out the better local discount salons. They are your competition – whether you want to believe it or not.

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