Business Management

Is the Mid-Level Salon Extinct?

No, it’s alive and well. The demise of the mid-level salon has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, these salons can be regarded as the bread and butter of the nail industry. We talked to several salon owners and industry experts to get their take on this industry trend.

Nowadays, it seems all anyone talks about when it comes to salons is either a day spa catering to a high-end clientele or a discount salon catering to the budget-conscious and those with little time to spare. Rarely does the mid-level salon come up in conversation. In fact, it’s downright underrated.

You’re familiar with what day spa and discount salons are, but what exactly is a mid-level salon? NAILS categorizes a mid-level salon as a salon that offers mostly nail services, but may mix it up by offering other services such as waxing, hair, and skin care. According to NAILS Big Book, 98.7% salons offer manicures, while 93.8% offer pedicures. Of those salons surveyed, 69.8% said they also offer waxing services and 57.5% offer hair services.

True, discount salons are plentiful and it seems like more and more spas, whether destination or day, are opening up throughout the country. But the mid-level salon, typically owned by a working nail technician and usually offering a booth rental situation, is a vital part of the nail industry and keeps the $6.53 billion nail market going strong. Rumors of the demise of the mid-level salon have been exaggerated. After all, how do you account for the fact that nearly 40% of nail techs make roughly $30,000 a year and this amount is neither a discount salon wage nor a spa rate? To get a better understanding of what characterizes the mid-level salon we talked to salon owners whose salons are decidedly mid-level, as well as several well-known industry figures.


The mid-level salon advertises and markets itself to bring in new business. Whether running an ad in a local newspaper or magazine, the mid-level salon never rests on its laurels and is always looking for ways to bring in new business. “During our busy season we only advertise retail specials. During the slower winter months we advertise discounts for services,” says Deborah Reeves, owner of Nailz Hand & Foot Spa in Cashiers, N.C.

And they’re not always satisfied with sticking to the tried-and- true advertising methods. Although Salina Rush places an ad in her local Yellow Pages (the biggest one under the Beauty listing, she is quick to point out), she also places a roadside sign in front of her salon, Studio 10 Hair & Nail Design in Wooster, Ohio. The sign is in a high-traffic area and there’s a stoplight nearby, so it’s almost a given that passers-by will notice it. The sign can be changed weekly to promote specials.

Other salons such as Awesome Nails in Grayslake, Ill., wear clothing emblazoned with the salon’s logo and even sell sweatshirts, T-shirts, and caps to clients.

Besides advertising, mid-level salons know the importance of branding. Just ask Maisie Dunbar, owner of M&M Nails in Silver Spring, Md. The salon brands itself as a healing sanctuary where clients can escape. The salon’s logo has a botanical theme that goes well with its wellness concept. Dunbar places the logo on everything, including all promotional items, on her website, and on T-shirts. “Change is good, but when it comes to branding, you must be consistent.”


The mid-level salon knows how to keep it clean. Yes, every state has strict sanitation guidelines, but are they really followed religiously? With salon cleanliness even more in the spotlight than ever before, it’s crucial for salon owners to keep their salons as clean as can be. The salon owners we spoke to adhere to their state’s regulations and in many cases go above and beyond what their state requires. For them, sanitation and disinfection is more than a requirement, it’s an obsession.

At Pattie’s Place in Baldwin, N.Y., owner Patricia Yankee Williams has each client and nail tech wash their hands prior to any service. Personal kits are furnished for each client and replaced as needed. Nail techs work with three sets of implements to minimize the sanitation and disinfection procedures.

At Nailz Hand & Foot Spa, disposable files are used for natural nail treatments and pedicures. Stations are cleaned between clients with hospital-grade wipes and metal implements are cleaned and placed in an ozone sanitizer between every client. “It’s important to the client to see everything clean, including the towel her hands are lying on,” says Reeves.


The mid-level salon knows that comfort counts. What type of salon does the public seem to gravitate toward? Some people might say they’re attracted to hip, trendy nail bars while others might say they like a salon with a luxurious, elegant feel to it. The vast majority, however, is apt to say they’re looking for a salon they can feel comfortable in, one where they can feel as if they were in their own home.

“Digits Professional Nailcare is all about comfort,” says owner April Franks of the Rockford, Ill.-based salon. “Anyone who enters is treated to a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and it’s not just the decor, but also the attitude of the nail techs. Clients are greeted with a smile, offered a drink, and invited in. The atmosphere is so homey that sometimes there isn’t a place to sit in the waiting area because clients have tossed their coats over chairs as if they were in their own homes.”

At Finger’s Nail Studio in West Dundee, Ill., owner Shari Finger says there’s no need to create a spa atmosphere. “My salon is usually noisy, people are watching TV, they’re talking, laughing, cell phones are ringing, and that’s OK with me,” she says. “We’re catering to the working woman, the lady who is on her way to a meeting or to drop her kids off at soccer practice. They need to get in and out without cutting any corners.”


The mid-level salon recognizes the importance of retailing. It’s no secret that NAILS is a big believer in retailing. After all, what better way to increase a client’s service ticket than by having her purchase the products you’re using on her? It’s an easy sell. The mid-level salon is smart enough to know that offering services isn’t enough. In order to increase a salon’s profits and outshine the competition, retailing is key. According to NAILS Big Book, 77.5% of nail techs retail products for clients’ at-home use. Every salon owner we talked to for this story retails products for clients. Although some salon owners said retail only accounts for a small percentage of their income, everyone felt it was important to offer products to clients.

“We try to retail everything you can think of for hands and feet, including gardening gloves,” says Reeves. “We use many of the products we sell during services. For example, our lavender neck wraps are warmed in the microwave oven and offered during pedicure and nail services.” That extra attention has paid off for Reeves. Last year, the salon grossed about $25,000 in retail sales, about 36% of the salon’s gross receipts, says Reeves.

Likewise, Millie Haynam, owner of Natural Beauty Salon in Twinsburg, Ohio, says she has a strong retail center. She retails everything from hair care and styling tools to nail treatments and hand-knitted scarves. “I offer clients anything that catches my eye that I think they’d like,” she says. “After a little trial and error you understand what your customers will buy and what they won’t.”


The mid-level salon believes in — and practices — higher learning. Continuing education is a big deal to the mid-level salon. It’s not enough to graduate from cosmetology school and take the continuing education courses some states require to renew a license. In order to stay competitive with other salons and keep their services new and up to date it’s crucial to take in an extra dose of education.

In a recent NAILS online poll, 63% of those who took the poll said they do a variety of things to keep up with the nail industry: they attend classes, go to trade shows, and read industry publications. Another online poll revealed that 58% attend at least one or two industry events a year, whether it is a show, seminar, or workshop. Clearly, nail professionals take their learning seriously.

“We take anything and everything that is available in our area,” says Yankee Williams. “We attend at least two to three continuing education classes a year. My staff must attend at least one trade show a year, including taking a class at a show.”

And continuing education doesn’t have to mean attending a class or going to a trade show. Each week, Metscaviz helps the Awesome Nails staff with some aspect of nails. “We might give each other pedicures while I try to expand their knowledge of how to use each implement,” she says. “Or we might work on smile lines with acrylic and gel. I also hold a chat session every other week so we can bounce ideas off each other.”


The mid-level salon continually strives to keep things fresh. You already know the mid-level salon offers more than just nail services. Head to one of these salons and you’re bound to encounter a range of services, including waxing, massage, and skin care. The mid-level salon also strives to keep up to date and offer clients something new on a continual basis.

“We work in a similar manner to restaurants with a standard menu featuring monthly specials,” says Haynam. “Every once in a while a special treatment makes it over to the regular menu.” Haynam spices up her service menu by offering innovative services such as the Cucumber Manicure and Pedicure, Pumpkin Peel Manicure and Pedicure, and Pomegranate/Kiwi Manicure and Pedicure.

Salon owners say change is good, not only for clients, but for nail techs as well. “We work on our service menu during the winter so that when our busy season begins in the spring we will have a fresh menu with interesting twists on services,” says Reeves. “The changes give returning clients a reason to reread the salon menu and become enticed. And it introduces different salon retail products and keeps it interesting for us.”


The mid-level salon knows its worth. The abundance of discount salons makes many nail techs and salon owners uneasy. They claim that discount salons’ lower prices drive away their clientele. How can they compete with a salon that offers services for half the cost and gets clients in and out in half the time?

The mid-level salon, on the other hand, does not feel pressure to raise or lower their prices or standards in order to compete with other salons. “We feel no pressure to raise our prices,” says Franks. “And we would never lower them. Why would we take a step backward?”

Reeves agrees. “We don’t really feel any pressure to change our prices,” she says. “We don’t compare ourselves to discount salons so we wouldn’t try to compete with their pricing and we feel justified in what we charge.”

If anything, many salons raise their prices once a year or every few years. In fact, a NAILS online poll revealed that 33% of those who took the poll raise their prices every two to three years, while 21% raise their prices at least once a year.

Some salon owners fear that raising prices might drive away clientele, but mid-level salons know clients come to them for their high level of service and quality, so they won’t mind paying a couple of extra dollars the next time a price increase rolls around.

Yankee Williams says her clients pay an extra $1 or $2 every year, but her reputation keeps clients coming back without a complaint. “I’ve created a reputation for doing quality and consistent work,” she says. “My artwork and creativity draw most of my clients.”

Everyone we spoke to said they had a steady stream of clients who come in every week or every other week, depending on the type of nail service they’re getting, with an average of 187 clients coming through their doors every week.

So what does all of this prove? That the mid-level salon is alive and thriving. There will always be clients who head to discount salons looking for an inexpensive service or to a day spa for that spa-like atmosphere. But the vast majority of them know that if they’re searching for a salon that provides quality, innovativeness, and experience, the mid-level salon is their ticket. After all, where else can they kick off their shoes, put up their feet, and feel right at home?

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