Marketing & Promotions

The Chain Link

Chains do well at providing a service at the right price, convenience, and quality. They have found their market position and defined it — my advice to independent salon owners is that they very carefully do that

Lesson #1: Define your market position and target a defined market.

Lesson #2: Systemize your operations.

Lesson #3: Train your employees well and motivate; them with education.

Lesson #4: Find your place in your salon. (Hint: it may not he behind a workstation.)


Could following such simple steps really make a salon successful? Yes, say chain salon owners, who should know. After all, these owners’ greatest claim to fame is that they operate not one, not two, but sometimes as many as 1,000 profitable salons. And while you may not want to expand your number of locations, the lessons that chain salons have to offer can help any size salon run more efficiently, decrease turnover, increase client retention, and not only survive, but prosper in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

While best known for value-priced chains such as Supercuts and Fantastic Sams, chain salons run the gamut from the value-priced to high-end salons like Gene Juarez Salons, a chain of 10 salons in Seattle, where client tickets average more than $50 per visit.

“Chain salons are the fastest-growing segment of the beauty industry,” says Michael Coe, president of the International Chain Salon Association (ICSA) and co-owner of the Gene Juarez chain with Gene Juarez. Coe estimates that there are 400 – 500 chains of salons in the United States, with more emerging all the time.

“Chains are growing quickly and in a healthy way; that says the business is coining from somewhere. I believe that chains are bringing new people into the salon marketplace through advertising and promotions as well as location and general merchandising,” continues Coe.


Find Your Place In Your Market


“Chains do well at providing a service at the right price, convenience, and quality. They have found their market position and defined it — my advice to independent salon owners is that they very carefully do that,” says Coe.

“Most salons occupy the value-price arena, but that’s not true for all. Chains tend to be larger, they gross more per single location, and are usually located in major metropolitan areas. It’s very difficult for chains to get into small urban areas because they need to have a critical mass for a potential customer base,” says Coe.

While all salons can’t be located in metropolitan areas — and you may do very well to stay away from them if the competition is fierce in your metro district — you would do well to remember the old adage “location, location, location.” Consider your target market, and make sure any location you consider is convenient and accessible to that market.

Who is your target market? Well, that’s the first question to answer, says Coe. “Once Gene and I established our structure, we established our market position and business philosophy. We found major regional malls worked best for us, and we just evolved that way. Now we really only look at regional mall locations. We don’t want to put in a salon that won’t do $3 million a year.”

Likewise, Minneapolis-based Premier Salons has found its niche in department stores, and while you may not recognize the name Premier, you may be familiar with Neiman Marcus Salon, Saks Fifth Avenue Salon, and Hudson’s Salon, just a few of the department stores where the chain of more than 900 salons operates.

Defining your market position means deciding who your target market is and how you position your salon to capture it. The founders of Ulta3, for example, decided they wanted to create “the total beauty experience for the career woman,” explains Kathi Grider, director of salon operations. After researching what their target market wanted, the owners determined Ulta3’s niche as that of a retail salon or “beauty superstore.”

On the other hand, if clients want sculptured nails and only sculptured nails, then Volpe Nails is the place for them. “All we do is sculptured nails, and we do them a certain way,” says franchiser Maureen Volpe, who has franchised or licensed 59 Volpe Nails Salons.

Finding your niche in the market allows you to focus your energies on attracting and serving a particular segment instead of trying to be all things to all people.


Put Your Systems In Place


“Management systems and styles are not unique; they’re just good common sense,” says Coe. While, as Coe points out, there are very successful salons whose owners don’t have formal management systems in place, management systems are business controls — and in those situations the owner is the control system. “The need for systems in salons with multiple locations is a lot more immediate and necessary Independent salons may not have to have them because the owner is there to operate and monitor the controls, but systems are helpful to a business, regardless of its size,” adds Coe.

Management systems cover everything from hew every new employee is trained to how often the bathroom is cleaned. Even in an owner-operated salon, putting systems in place at least lots the owners take a day off with confidence that the staff can handle any situation that arises.

“The advantages of systems lie in consistency. If you don’t have consistency, you’re all over the board,” says Cheryl Schimming, national nail program director for Premier Salons. In fact, Dianne Altobelli, president of Rocco Altobelli, a chain of 10 salons based in Eagan, Minn., says her management systems make her and her husband’s chain of salons easier to run than a single salon. “We have a lot going on, but because of our size it’s very systematic. We schedule our education a year in advance and constantly work toward our goals, which include bringing up the level of customer service and having high community involvement,” Altobelli says.

At the same time, all systems need a certain amount of flexibility. While you can outline standard procedures, you need to allow for a “plan B.” “We’re selling service, and service is not die-cut,” reminds Wade Haddad, director of development for Heidi’s Inc., a chain of 26 high-end salons based in Bingham Farms, Mich.

“Selling services is not like selling sweaters, and our customers expect something different.” Haddad credits flexibility for much of Heidi’s success. For Heidi’s, he says, finding the right people is what it’s all about. “People are more important than systems. The; backbone of our business is the quality of our managers. Rather than trying to put a unique person in a pigeonhole, we try to maximize each person’s particular strengths.”

Salon managers are critical to salons with multiple locations because they represent the interests and concerns of the owner. Ideally, they have the; same goals the owner does, and the energy and acumen to roach them. Finding the right match is always challenging, says Mary Ann Messere, president of Nailery International, a chain of 10 salons in Conshohocken, Pa. “Sometimes I luck out right away, and sometimes I go through as many as seven managers before I find the right person. Once I have a good manager in a salon, the store can make a 360° turnaround,” comments Messere.

Grider sums it up: “You have a vision. Finding the’ right management that share’s that vision and can carry it out to the field is always a challenge.”

The chain salons interviewed for this article all have salon managers as well as department managers in the full-service salons. At Mario Tricoci Salons and Day Spas based in Chicago, Ill., Fabienne Guichon is the spa director and nail director for all 10 locations. While Guichon visits all the locations regularly, she has head nail technicians and spa coordinators at each location who oversee daily operations and meet regularly with Guichon to keep her up-to-date. “I also have monthly group meetings with the head nail technicians and the spa coordinators. These are networking meetings where we discuss what needs to be done and what I would like to see happen during the coming month. We exchange ideas and discuss what’s worked well in individual locations,” she explains. These meetings ensure all the managers are up-to-date with what’s going on with the chain as a whole.


Only As Good As The People


Two things most chain salons have in common are comprehensive training programs and ongoing education. While training and education programs are expensive, the payoff is high. “You need a great team of people who feel they are continuing to grow. Technicians will leave when they get bored. You have to put together a budget and schedule of training,” says Grider.

At Gadabout Hair, Skin, Nails, & Day Spa, a chain of four salons based in Tucson, Ariz., each department has a team of trainers. New nail technicians spend their first month at Gadabout training with veteran nail technicians on all the services. Not only does it get the new person up to speed, for the trainers it’s the next career step. At Mario Tricosi, new nail technicians spend two to four months in training, and the training is by the book — the salon has a manual covering all the services offered.

At the larger chains, ongoing education receives the same emphasis as the initial training. At Ulta3, all new staff members go through three to five days of orientation, which covers product knowledge and application techniques as well as all salon procedures. After that, technicians attend mandatory education classes every 6-8 weeks. Ulta3 also offers Creative Nail Design Systems’ Masters Program to qualified employees. Once certified through Creative’s program, the master technicians become educators for Ulta3. Not only that, but master technicians also earn a higher commission at Ulta3. “This is how you retain people — give them things to strive for,” Grider says.

At Premier salons, the training is not mandatory, but technicians are strongly encouraged to attend. “When someone needs training, the salon manager fills out a training request form, which gets forwarded to me. I work through one of our educators or a vendor to set it up. Then I send invitations to all our salons within a 150-mile radius,” explains Schimming.

Beyond technician-retention, good training and education also keeps clients coming back, reminds Altobelli. “We don’t put people on the floor until they’re ready because with good training you’re much more apt to keep the clients. We try to keep our people growing all the time through education because it makes them knowledgeable and keeps them energized,” she says.


Define Your Role


For the owner of a chain of salons, offering services herself is not an option — she’s too darn busy making sure the clients and the employees are serviced. For the owner of a single salon, however, the lines become more blurred. Many single-location owners juggle doing nails with managing their staff, overseeing the front desk, interacting with clients, and doing the books and inventory as well. And while many salon owners live on the money they make doing services, Pam McNair, owner of the Gadabout Salons, found the greatest rewards — financially and personally — came after she stopped working behind the chair.

“For so long I ran the business and hired people to do the book-work while I worked behind the chair. It got to the point where it wasn’t fair to my employees or my clients. I had to find out how I fit in,” says McNair. Only later did she realize it hadn’t been fair to her business, either. “What goes on in the salon versus what goes on at my chair or table has a direct impact on the salon’s income. I can’t stand behind my chair and bring in $2,000 a week and not be concerned about the quality of service of the other employees. It’s important that there’s a total environment that everyone feels comfortable with,” explains McNair.

And it’s up to her to oversee that environment, addressing client and employee concerns as well as overseeing the operation of her four salons. Nobody has to tell her she’s doing the right thing; she knows it. Wheat one of her salons burned down a few months ago, 40 employee’s showed up almost as soon as the flames were out to scrub the equipment that could be salvaged and move it to a new location that they helped paint and get ready. The salon didn’t miss a day of business, McNair says proudly, reaffirming her belief that, “You can’t be successful alone.”


A Final Note


The best lesson owners of independent salons can learn, says Grider, is to run their salons as a business. “While the business itself is based on creativity you need to run it as a business — you need a budget, a forecast of future performance, and goals. A salon can run without goals, but if the owner or manager creates daily and weekly goals and communicates them to the team, salons would be more successful.” she explains.


Chain Salons Have Their Benefits


Finding good nail technicians is difficult for all salon owners and a particular problem cited by chain salons, whose growth depends on having a large pool of qualified candidates to choose from. Further compounding their problem of finding good people is that the nail industry has a significant number of booth renters, and most chain salons insist on salaried or commissioned employees.

“This industry isn’t really educated on the value of benefits,” says Michael Coe. “I’ve seen people give up 13% [of their salary] in benefits for 5% more in commission. These kinds of uninformed decisions are destroying the industry.”

In a recent survey by the ICSA, it was shown that most chains offer comprehensive benefits packages. But convincing nail technicians the benefits are worth a lower commission is difficult. “[Because chains pay a lower commission or base salary], artists say they’re being cheated. But what’s really happening is that owners of commission salons just choose to pay out all the money in commission. A full benefits package is worth 12%—14% in commission. If someone pays 60% commission versus 45% plus benefits, the employee is getting the same value,” explains Coe.

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