Nail Art

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Japanese Salon Inspired The West

Fads come and go in the blink of any eye, but Kenko Hino means to make nail care a classic fashion in Japan.

When the concierge of the Four Seasons Hotel called Ken Adagio Nails & Boutique to request a nail technician to come and do a pedicure for singer Whitney Houston, owner Kenko Hino knew that her extensive efforts to get coverage for her upscale Tokyo salon through local TV stations and fashion magazines had paid off.

The phone call came in April 1997, right after Ken Adagio’s first anniversary. What could be a more fitting anniversary gift than Houston’s invitation for Hino to attend her concert as a special guest?

After all, it was Western celebrities like Houston who inspired the nail care craze among fad-conscious Japanese women. And it’s enterprising salon owners like Hino who are attempting to turn the Japanese nail care fad into a health and beauty mainstay.

Nails Gaining a Foothold

“Nail care is a fairly new concept in Japan,” explains Atsuko Mogami, purchasing director for Ken Adagio. “Starting around 1992, the general public came to pay more attention to this. Before then, only people in the entertainment and hospitality industries and the rich, social elite classes utilized nail services, which were often offered in beauty salons as one of the auxiliary services of a total beautification service.

“Nail care services are still considered a luxury compared with the U.S.,” Mogami says. “In Japan, new trends usually start among the younger generation who are more influenced by passing fads and what other people do.

“Generally speaking, these young women are not affluent enough to continue the new trends they pick up. The obstacle for young working-class women is that their conservative managers frown on wearing nail colour in the office.”

Still, both Hino and Mogami believe that while the nail industry won’t become as large in Japan as it is in the U.S., it will gain a core clientele. The challenges to the industry’s growth, in Hino’s view, include the bias against nail fashion among the older generation, the tendency of the trend-conscious to remain on the cutting edge of “cool” by continually moving on to the next new thing, the low priority of nail care among other beauty services, and its relatively high cost in Japan.

She’s Got a Plan

Nail services are priced dearly in Japan: At Ken Adagio, a basic manicure costs US $26. A manicure with a “scrub massage” costs $39; add a paraffin dip and it goes to $52. A simple polish costs $13, while a set of sculptured nails starts at $130. A pedicure costs $70.

“The basic nail service, which includes cuticle care, filing, and nail color, is the most popular. That service plus the scrub massage is also accepted very well. Some offices have fairly strict dress codes, and most women prefer light, natural-looking polish and natural nails over artificial,” says Mogami.

Because of the high cost of nail care and the lack of loyalty from the nation’s younger women, to ensure her salon’s survival Hino has developed a marketing plan that includes:

  • targeting a more stable, less fad- conscious clientele, such as professional women, housewives, and wealthy seniors.
  • emphasizing the health benefits of nail and foot care.
  • emphasizing Ken Adagio’s “luxurious and artistic” ambiance and nail art techniques.
  • higher-quality services at prices comparable to the competition.

Hino’s strategy is no different from one that a far-thinking salon owner might have: Target women who can afford regular nail care and who view the service as one that maintains the health of their hands and feet as well as the beauty. To gain these clients, she is providing the ambiance and high level of service these clients not only appreciate, but expect.

Taking the High Road to Clients

Ken Adagio is well-placed to cultivate the clientele Hino desires, located on the periphery of a Tokyo shopping district that is surrounded by residential neighbourhoods. While there’s not much foot traffic in the area, it is near a commuter train station as well as two famous hotels, including the Four Seasons.

While some view foot traffic as integral to a business’s success, there were other considerations in choosing the salon’s location - the Hinos were also choosing the site of their future home.

For many years Hino had focused her attention on her home, raising her three children, and tending to her busy family’s needs. As her children got older, however, she decided to open her own business. She chose a nail salon because of her long-time interest in nails gained from her overseas travels with her husband. In researching the nail industry in Japan, Hino found no statistics that would allow her to make a quantitative analysis of the business. A qualitative analysis, however, was much easier: “She found there were no nail salons that impressed her in terms of ambiance, services, and price,” explains Mogami.

So when Hino and her husband decided to build a new home, she saw this as an ideal time to make her dream a reality by integrating her salon into the design of the house. The 800-square-foot salon occupies the entire first floor, while the family’s home is on the second and third floors. While there are a few drawbacks to having her salon so close to home, the advantages — free rent, control over the planning and design of the space, no commute, and security—far outweigh the disadvantages.

In targeting an upscale clientele and remaining conscious of outside influences, Hino imported all her salon furnishings and equipment from the U.S. The service area blends the natural appeal of wood floors with the clean lines of curved tables constructed from richly collared wood-laminate workstations and upholstered chairs. The salon has four nail stations and two pedicure areas, which Hino recently transformed into partitioned bays in response to clients’ desire for more privacy. The mostly bare walls lend sophistication to the space, while a few well-placed plants keep it from feeling too stark. French doors lead to a small patio where terra cotta tiles and colourful plants along with a contemporary iron table lend a Mediterranean flavour to the space.

Imported Beats Out Domestic

While Hino doesn’t cater to a fad- driven clientele, one of her marketing points is that she imports all the salon’s equipment and products. She and Mogami spend much of their time researching new products and trends in the U.S., watching for new items and services they should introduce in Ken Adagio. “These items are the selling points of the shop, and they have been very well-accepted,” Mogami says. “Keeping up with the trends is a continual effort. We do this by studying trade magazines, attending tradeshows (including those in the U.S.), trying competitor’s services, and attending classes.”

Mogami, in fact, lives in San Francisco. Her duties as purchasing director include purchasing all nail care equipment and product in the U.S., researching industry trends and new products, attending tradeshows, performing publicity activities, and hosting Hino and other technicians visiting from Ken Adagio. Mogami makes occasional trips to Japan to teach the salon’s staff new techniques.

On her end in Japan, Hino manages the salon and her staff, researches nail art and products, and conducts market research and trend analyses in addition to doing nails. She travels to the U.S. about three times a year, attending tradeshows, visiting beauty and nail salons, and calling on product wholesalers. “Due to the prevailing idea among Japanese consumers that imported products, especially cosmetics, are better than domestic ones, we try to stock U.S. products,” Mogami explains.

This gives Ken Adagio a competitive edge as many salons find it difficult to import products: Shipping costs are very high, and between the shipping time and time spent clearing customs, purchases need to be planned far in advance.

Nails Are an Art Unto Themselves

While they deny being trend-driven, Ken Adagio is home to a nail art “gallery” of about 1,000 decorated nail tips, handsomely showcased in black-matted shadow boxes. “The ideas for new designs are obtained from our continuous efforts and observations of everyday lives. The staff and I often go to museums, art exhibitions, fashion shows, and libraries. Anything could be a clue to new ideas,” Mogami says.

“The nail art gallery itself doesn’t result in any economic rewards [prices for nail art start at $2.70 — a bargain compared to other services]. Rather, this attracts prospective clients, enhances the salon’s luxurious ambiance, and helps improve the staff’s technical sophistication.”

More Techs Than Clients?

Nail technicians at Ken Adagio earn a starting salary of around $18,000 per year, plus a yearly bonus equivalent to one to two months’ salary. “Their starting salaries are average among people with trade school qualifications,” Mogami adds. Licensing for nail technicians is not required in Japan, but each training school does issue its own diploma. Employees also are sent to tradeshows in the U.S. at the salon’s expense. Ken Adagio employees also enjoy health insurance and social security coverage, which Ken Adagio is required by law to provide.

Finding qualified nail technicians in Japan is nowhere near the challenge salon owners in the U.S. report it is. “‘Nail technician’ is perceived as a new, fashionable profession,” Mogami explains. “Japan is a very trend-conscious country, and some people are always looking for new trends and new business opportunities. Nail technicians were already in overabundance before the nail care business became big.”

Regardless of how big the nail business grows in Japan, Hino plans to take it “adagio,” a music term that means “slowly” and is meant to represent the slow, relaxed ambiance of her salon.

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