For many, hair and nails showing the recession

The Baltimore Sun

The economy hasn't been kind to Christal Perry's pocketbook, but she's not letting that show in her hair.

The private-school teacher's side job as a settlement agent has suffered because fewer people are buying homes, but the Randallstown woman keeps one regular meeting on her schedule - with her stylist, every other week.

"It's a luxury I tell myself I deserve," said Perry, 35.

But for many customers, the recession is evidenced by roots of a different hue and do-it-yourself treatments. Salon owners say that fewer customers are getting services and others are waiting longer before retouching their highlights.

"The ones coming every week are [now] coming every other week. The every-other-week ones, it's once a month," said Tony Williams, owner of Bounce Salon in Charles Village.

For most people, a haircut is a necessity - though perhaps not one they indulge in frequently, said Serena Chreky, vice president of the Andre Chreky Salon in Washington and a board member of the Professional Beauty Association, a trade group. "Everybody needs a haircut at some point," she said.

The 80,000 hair salons nationwide, mostly small and independently owned, generate about $16 billion in sales annually, according to a First Research industry report.

Although the day spa and salon industry was always considered recession-proof, "they're feeling it more at this point," according to Eric Brennan, director of operations for About Faces' five salons in Maryland.

He said his business has remained steady but that some people are coming less frequently - every other week to change their nail polish color, for example.

"If they cut out one time a year, that can be as much as a 10 percent reduction," Brennan said.

About Faces has been featuring different products and services monthly and adding value to gift packages - such as Godiva chocolates for Valentine's Day, he said.

The salons are also emphasizing savings when purchasing gifts.

Joe Pitta, co-owner of Neal's hair studio and day spa in Mount Vernon, started discounting all services 50 percent in December, using advertisements and coupons mailed to regular customers through January. Most clients schedule appointments six weeks in advance, but the scheduling book was practically empty in December.

"It was outrageous for the busiest month of the year," he said.

The spa decided to continue the promotion at 35 percent off for the next two months.

Williams said his Bounce salon was slow through September and October but got a boost right before the holidays.

"Thank God, we had this rush of people," he said. "We haven't seen some of these people in two months."

Financial woes are a delicate situation, and Williams says he tries to tread carefully.

"I don't want to ask my clients when they sit in the chair, 'Where've you been?' " he said. "When they get here, we want to be upbeat."

Williams said he has suggested lower-priced alternatives to women who could not afford full services. One woman highlighted just the front and sides of her hair rather than all of it.

"It cost her less, and she was happy because she could get something done," Williams said.

Some clients skimp on other things so they can afford professional hair care.

Dara Wilson, 34, a Bolton Hill chiropractor, said she saves by watching movies at home rather than in the theater.

Wedding planner Tameka Smallwood, 30, of Edmondson Village has returned to a more frequent schedule at Bounce, from a wash and curl once a month to twice a month.

"I'm just trying to find the money in other ways," Smallwood said.

One area in which sales have improved is among take-home hair care products, such as balms and repair treatments. Generally, hair care products provide from 5 percent to 40 percent of a salon's revenue, according to First Research.

Karen Grant, a beauty industry analyst for the NPD group, said the sales of luxury hair care products are booming.

Williams said he also has noted growth in retail sales. "This time last year, you'd suggest [products] to a client and they were like, 'For what? I don't do my own hair,' " he said. Now they respond differently.

Still, Pitta, who has survived other downturns, remains optimistic that when the economy gets a makeover his spa will again fill up with women seeking a little extra pampering.

"When things started back on the upswing and people started feeling better, the business went up dramatically," he said. "We're riding this out."

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