Once Upon a Laundromat

Two sisters create a dynamic partnership to transform a down-and-out Laundromat into every nail technicians' dream come true.

The old adage that advises against going into business with family did not take into account the close-knit bond between Jennifer and Carol Perdue. With over 40 years' of experience between the two of them, they created a successful salon in the picturesque Twin City of Blooming- ton, Illinois. Touting a fairly large staff of eight nail technicians, one receptionist, and one intern, and a fully furnished location with six stations, two double- stations, and three pedicure stations, Details Nail Salon has been flourishing since it opened in October 1998.

Initially, Details Nail Salon was owned by Jennifer and located at the Landmark Mall in the other Twin City Normal, 111. Jennifer's sister Carol was living in Florida and running her own salon at the time. When Jennifer had to undergo surgery and needed assistance, Carol immediately moved to Illinois to help her sister on a temporary basis. What was supposed to be a three-week stay turned into a permanent move. "It's so much fun working together. And I'm so proud of her," says Carol. They had not seriously considered moving until one day when Jennifer noticed a Laundromat for sale.

"I had passed it several times on my way to work, but I never noticed it. Then I noticed it one day and called the realtor who said that there was no rush to make an offer because the building had been on the market for 10 months. But then the realtor called me back within five minutes and said that they got a verbal offer from another party, so I made my offer within the hour. I knew that if I could keep the overhead about the same as my current salon, then at least there would be equity," says Jennifer. It was an opportune time for her to buy a building because of the low mortgage and interest rates. Not only were the rates convenient, so was the location.

The Laundromat was located in Bloomington, only three blocks away from Jennifer's home and two miles away from Carol's. It is situated in between downtown and surrounding residences, making it a short drive for all kinds of clients. "We're in a convenient location and we have 27 parking spaces that our clients really appreciate," says Carol. The salon is close enough for businesswomen to have their nails done on their lunch break and located near residential areas, attracting suburbanites. The salon also gets many walk-ins because it is situated off one of the main streets that that runs into downtown.

Wash N' Dry to Soak N' Polish 

Now that the location was secured, Jennifer and Carol set out to build their new salon. Borrowing $30,000 against the equity in Jennifer's home, they started renovating the Laundromat in March 1998. Their contractor, Steve Brady, built the reception desk, pedicure spas, and bathroom vanity. "It was his idea to build a multi-level ceiling for our incandescent lighting and to lay the floor tile and the ceiling tile at a diagonal angle to add more interest for an aesthetic look," Jennifer adds. Paying the rent at the Landmark Mall location and renovating the Laundromat at the same time proved to be quite costly. However, since they had fostered a good relationship with the landlord and his wife, he generously allowed them to rent the other salon on a month-to-month basis while the renovations were being done. In fact, it was his wife who had initially suggested the Landmark Mall location for their first salon. "We were fortunate enough to rent the salon that way or else we wouldn't have had anywhere to go. This helped us out tremendously," remembers Carol. Jennifer also adds that at one point the landlord allowed them to pay half a month of rent at a time.

Once they got their two locations in order, they were able to focus on the Laundromat's transformation. A key area that they wanted to concentrate on was the salon's ventilation system. One of the bonuses of buying a Laundromat was the fact that the building already had a fan built into the roof. They built columns at each of the stations, which have a ventilation system that feeds into the single fan on top. Each column has a switch to shut off individual vents and adequate suction to dissipate odors.

"The ventilation system makes it a lot more   comfortable for us. I don't know it the clients notice the difference, but I think that it makes the environment a lot nicer for all of us. In the past, we had a couple of people complain about product vapors, but now there have been no complaints now. We know that our system is working," says Carol.

Along with the pre-existing fan, the sisters found the building had other exciting features. The building has great plumbing and ample supply of electrical power for a nail business.

The sisters also wanted to renovate and install new features and took some of the lessons they learned from their previous business into account. For instance, they would often get a line of clients needing to use the bathroom to wash their hands during a service. To prevent this, they decided to keep the Laundromat's mop sink so clients wouldn't have to wait. They wanted to decorate and furnish the salon with new amenities that would truly reflect their vision for the salon.

Visions of Grandeur

Everything from color scheme to snack area was meticulously planned in order to create a relaxing and accommodating atmosphere. Jennifer derived her color scheme from two terra cotta vases that were adorned with green, blue, taupe, and copper-colored jewels. She decided to use these colors throughout the salon. For instance, the tabletops have earth tone Formica and the tiles have a matching motif in gray, rust, and copper colors. The carpeting is also a deep rust color and the two end walls and tire pedicure wall are stained a copper shade. "I wanted to pick colors that were more masculine than feminine. I didn't want pinks and mauves, which are typically feminine colors. I wanted to create an atmosphere where men can feel just as comfortable as women when they are in the salon. I definitely think that there is a market and a future in attracting and catering to male clients," says Jennifer. Having the right colors and custom made fixtures were vital considerations for the Perdues.

The sisters were able to cut down on their customization costs by buying the materials and having a client's father provide the labor. He had done some work in Jennifer's home and agreed to do the cabinets in the salon. In return, Jennifer did his daughter's nails twice a month for the past three years, so she was able to barter the work instead of paying for it. He installed the salon's two hand sinks, enhanced their mop sink, and built the vanity in the bathroom. Currently, he is in the process of building custom doors for the vanity and making a snack station in the kitchen.

The salon has a galley-type kitchen furnished with a microwave oven, toaster oven, full-sized refrigerator, and a double sink. Their fully functional kitchen allows them to stock up on beverages like soda, coffee, tea, wine, as well as snacks, which they offer to clients at no charge. The sisters also take turns bringing in sandwiches and crock-pot soups, offering these lunches to their clients. For the Perdues, client service through personal attention is of the highest priority.

Pedicure Paradise

Jennifer wanted a lavish pedicure area, including custom-made footbaths and sumptuous chairs that clients could enjoy. One way she created a luxurious pedicure station was to invest in custom- made copper footbaths. She decided to go for textured, copper footbaths made for $80 apiece. She chose copper, not only for the way it looked, but also for its ability to keep the pedicure soak water temperature warm. In addition, she had to determine the footbaths' dimensions for each station. Instead of using a tape measure, Jennifer cleverly used her feet to determine a basic measurement.

Her attention to detail, especially with the footbaths, has made quite an impression with clients. "Clients really like the pedicure area because it is comfortable and relaxing as the sinks have four jets in the them. The area is also separated from the rest of the salon so they can enjoy the private ambience," says Jennifer.

By installing footbaths, there is a lot less disorder and disruption. The technicians no longer have to lug water-filled tubs around. Technicians also sit level with the clients' feet so there is less strain on them as well. "When you're comfortable it transfers to the client. Soon they find themselves a lot more relaxed," says Carol.

Though the footbaths were expensive, Jennifer found a great deal on her pedicure station chairs. The chairs were affordably purchased from a local office supply store. For approximately $100 apiece, the fully reclinable chairs (which came with matching footstools) were installed in the salon. Once the contractor built the supports on the floor by installing a metal plate under the floor and it into place, each chair could be placed into its support. The design allows them to retain their swivel and reclining features. Also, if something should happen to the chairs, they can easily be popped out and replaced. As for the footstools, they are conveniently used as seats for the technicians while they work. The pedicure area is a definite hit with many of the Perdues' clients, but is not the end of the sister's resourcefulness.

Inventory a la Carte

Despite the spaciousness of the salon, it was important to keep the level of disarray at a minimum. The sisters found at their previous salons that products could clutter workspaces. "Tables get cluttered. By using these carts, the salon looks much neater and there is enough room for all of our products," says Carol. "We got the idea from hairdressers."

The carts keep the stations clean and also provide an organized system to keep track of inventory. Jennifer invested in eight Rollabout carts that cost $90 each. They are 36 inches tall and have six drawers with locks and side pockets. In trying to keep with the earth tone colors in the salon, Jennifer opted for cream-colored carts.

All eight carts are rolled away at night and at the end of the week each technician turns in an inventory sheet of what she needs for her cart. "We can keep better track of the inventory through the weekly request sheets, and it also helps us track how much product is used per customer. If a tech is going through twice as much product as the rest, then we can see that we need to train her on how to use products properly," says Jennifer.

This system eliminates shortage during a service, saves the receptionist time and labor, and ultimately keeps the technicians mobile. Carol explains: "No technician has her own station all the time. She can go to any available station because all of her stuff is in her cart. This improves client service since there is less time spent on getting up and getting additional supplies. The client gets total attention," she says.

Hence, the inventory control system has helped the salon owners with their monthly product budget and establishing training guidelines.

They have also found that diligent retailing is also an area where products can boost their bottom-line.

Beverly Dickerson, whom the Perdues affectionately call "Queenie," oversees the reception duties, the general operations of the salon, and the merchandising of products. After 35 years as a housewife, Dickerson excelled at managing the salon and in creating interesting, seasonal displays to highlight various product lines. The displays are made of moveable flat board shelving and have cabinets underneath for storage. Because the shelving can be adjusted, she can create a centered area to showcase specific products.

"Eventually, we plan to highlight a different line of products every month to encourage clients to try products that they would normally not use," says Jennifer. The salon currently carries 8- 10 different product lines, but they would like to expand their selection. Averaging around $10 a month on display changes and clearing a profit margin of about 10% of total sales, they're still striving for a much higher percentage in the future.

Coming Back for More

Priced at $16 for manicures, $55 for a full set, and $30 for pedicures, the Per- dues have maintained many of their existing clients and have attracted new clients through their location, fundraisers, minimal advertising efforts, and referral programs.

The salon's location and parking situation has made a positive impact on developing walk-ins and new clients.

The sisters also receive numerous requests for their participation in charity events, like silent auctions, and donate their time to many fundraisers.

As for outside advertising for the salon, they have invested in Yellow Pages ads. Jennifer estimates that they spend about $30 a month on the salon ad, but the bulk of their business does come from word-of-mouth referrals.

And no wonder. The salon's referral program gives existing clients $5-$ 10 off their next service when they refer a new client. "This is especially helpful for new technicians who are trying to build their client base. The program doesn't cut into the technician's pay because the salon basically eats any costs. But when the client comes back, it more than pays for itself," she comments.

The Perdues believe that hard work, smart planning, friendly clients, and a little luck have made Details Nail Salon successful. "It wouldn't be what it is today without my sister Carol," says Jenifer. Although they had never worked together before, the sisters have created a winning partnership.

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