Published on November 30, 2018
I find it fascinating that many businesses today are navigating around change like it’s a completely new concept or effect. This mind-boggling influence even has its own buzz word, DISRUPTION. So, while I will concede that the velocity, scale and volume of change has reached an unprecedented high, at the core it’s still only change. With a front row seat to the professional salon industry, I can confirm change is anything but new. Technology, cycles of fashion, laws, regulations, etc all naturally create a shelf life or expiration date on how things are done. I used to argue against the concept of “If it’s not broke, break it!” I don’t do that anymore. The one thing that is crystal clear is that nothing stays the same. If you take an historical look at change in the salon business, you’ll find great examples of some perceived disruptions. In the ‘70s, salon business owners commonly claimed, “blow drying is killing the business.” At the time, women had weekly appointments for roller sets that were the lifeblood of the business. There were no products used at home since the salon did it all for the guest, every week. Well, a brilliant fellow out of the UK, with a new way of cutting hair, was showing a whole new vibe in style. Vidal Sassoon changed salon services forever when he showed the world precision wash-and-wear haircuts that could be styled at home with a blow dryer. Another big influence came from hippies, who now were pursuing careers and needed a sharper, more-finished appearance but weren’t going to be tethered to the salon like their mothers. Call it “anti-establishmentism.” When one door closes, another opens. The opportunity that emerged was this new thing called retail. People needed to take products home to prep and style their new coifs. The ‘80s saw the extinction of the roller set and a steady decline of texture. The foundation for both was the permanent wave. Up to 35% of service dollars were perms so this caused alarm. Shortly after disco died, so did the perm. The salon world’s take on it was “straight hair is killing the business.” The new opportunity was a total shift that focused on color and highlighting. Professional stores started to become increasingly more common in the ‘90s. Until that point, full service distributors were the only source for salon products. As stores grew, many brands jumped in. The spin was “stores are killing the business.” The reverse was true. As many did, the opportunity to mirror the change was obvious. Today, few distributors don’t have stores. In the 2000s, the ugly underbelly of the industry was exposed and the word on the street was “diversion is killing retail.” This stemmed mostly from salon products showing up in retail locations, a major taboo for professionals. While picking up their prescription, the salon customer found the same product their stylist used on them on the drug store shelf and they bought it. The telling part was that the price was almost always higher than at the salon. Four things caused this. First, product was available in the path of consumer behavior. Second, the stylist didn’t talk about what they were using when the client was in the chair. Third, the product was merchandised to standout. Forth, the margins were significantly better than selling consumer brands. The opportunity was for the salon and the professional to learn how products work and why they were different as well as how and when to talk about them. Professional merchandising (store-like) became the new standard. Education took on a new, more important role. Even at the start of the ‘10s, we saw a shift in the career choices of salon professionals. Independent contractor numbers increased as a significant segment of the licensed workforce moved in that direction. This occurred for a variety of reasons, but the perception was that “booth rental is killing the business.” One only needs to be familiar with the persona of a stylist to understand the progression, especially if their experience as an employee lacked leadership and/or career pathing. The leveraged opportunity for owners of employee-based salons was to develop a training program, build a structure for growth and learn to lead. A meme I saw the other day said it all, and I’m paraphrasing, “Train people so they can go to work anywhere and treat people so they don’t.” Conscientious proprietors of both employee and suite model businesses, are increasingly providing education that confirms all businesses have occupancy costs, utilities, tax reporting, insurance, product costs, business hours, etc. The myth of 100% commission is being dispelled. And that brings us to today. What’s killing the business today? You guessed it. Amazon! Well not so fast. Salons have seen a decline in retail sales that appears to correlate with the rise of Amazon, but I’m not sold on a direct cause and effect. The response of many salons is to stop selling brands that sell online, after years of building awareness with their customers. By pulling those lines from their shelves, of course sales will shift elsewhere. While everyone is focused on retail what’s next, service? Just to level-set, I’m not one of those, “they haven’t found a way to do hair yet” proponents. If a company at that scale can find a way to deliver fresh organic produce to my front door, are salon services impossible? The new opportunity is to elevate the experience and standards. Find new ways to out-service online fulfillment. Some salon businesses offer same-day local retail delivery, ride service, dry cleaning pickup, car detailing, grocery list pickup, lunch delivery, and so on. So instead of falling on our swords, this is a time when every guest leaving the salon must have an excellent experience and be well-informed. They must leave their appointment knowing what products were used, from their stylist, when they are applied and how to take them home and duplicate the finish. It’s not selling. It’s high-level, high-valued service. It’s what the guest wants and expects and that my friends is the ongoing fuel for change, not disruption. Those who move with change, stay in the game. Those who resist and throw out the anchor, don’t survive. So, is disruption a real thing? Absolutely, and it’s easy to identify. Change is simply a progression from one thing to another. Disruption is the introduction of a solution or influence that eliminates the established standard. MapQuest, originally a map company, replaced printed maps with GPS only to be replaced by Google Maps or Waze on mobile devices. Google itself has cleared most rooms of phone books, encyclopedia, travel guides, directories, etc. The CD made vinyl and tapes obsolete, now downloads or subscription streaming has pushed out CDs. Digital cameras crumbled the film industry and now phones have replaced digital cameras. DVDs replaced VCR tapes and now streaming entertainment (ie Netflix) is the standard. Uber drivers pushed out taxi drivers and now driverless vehicles are looming over both. These are all disruptions and were fueled by the consumer’s insatiable appetite for change, more information, convenience and service. If you are making a customer’s life easier, you’re staying with the pack. If you’re exceeding their expectations with a unique experience, you’re winning. While working with best-in-class businesses, I was able to identify a set of actions that drive winning called “The 4Es”. Foundationally, they are Engagement, Education, Empowerment and Execution. Since defining the original four, I found there was one E missing. The common denominator to any organization that has succeeded during times of great change is they EVOLVE.