StarTribune.com

Dollars+Sense: Beauty of a deal

By JOHN EWOLDT, Star Tribune

June 24, 2008

At Red Nail salon in St. Paul, Erin Schumann spent $30 for a pedicure in a whirlpool massage chair. At full-service salons she'd spend nearly twice that, but Schumann can't see spending the extra money.

"There's not much difference between a full-service salon and what's done here," she said.

Spa visitors looking to nail a bargain on manicures, pedicures, facials and massages increasingly are looking to cosmetology schools or minority-owned businesses, often Asian, for such services. Red Nail, Daisy Nails, Hollywood Nails and Elegant Nails are among the salons offering basic mani-pedis for under $40. Customers at full-service salons pay more than twice that price. Elegant Nails and California Nails in downtown Minneapolis offer both services for about $31.

When economic times tighten, personal luxuries such as spa treatments are often the first to go, said Robert Lindquist, general manager at reVamp salon in Minneapolis. At best, clients extend a week or two between services or at worst, drop them entirely. He said it's still a little early to see how much spa business will be affected, but other salon owners are taking no chances. ReVamp is advertising its "Buy four services, get one free" package deal more heavily.

In April the Jon Charles salon in Uptown Minneapolis offered 30 percent off any service for new clients or any client who "lapsed" because of a downturn in the economy. The salon called it the "It's the economy, stupid" discount. The salon still offers the deal, albeit at a 25 percent discount, to new and lapsed clients.

Still, full-service salon owners worry that clients may think something is wrong if prices are lowered, said John Zeches, owner of John Zeches Skincare in St. Paul. Clients who go to high-end salons for pampering in a cocoon of relaxation aren't conditioned for sales as Kohl's or Penney's shoppers are. Zeches' prices as a one-man salon are less than a full-service spa, but he offers a "buy four, get one free" package on any service, to encourage clients to book regular affordable visits, not an occasional treat.

While regulars may appreciate getting every fifth or sixth treatment free, more economical spenders are switching to area cosmetology schools. At the Minnesota School of Cosmetology in Woodbury, business has tripled in the past six months, said Jill Hocking, campus director. Customer surveys at the school have shown that clients appreciate the attention they receive from students, said Hocking. Price is the No. 2 reason they're drawn to the school.

Sally Brunn of Woodbury switched to the school after deciding her full-service salon was too expensive. She now saves 25 to 50 percent on manicures, pedicures and facials. "I ask about the best products to use. Since the school isn't tied to one brand, the students and professors are free to answer," Brunn said.

Mary Neal of Woodbury has tried the school's hair services, pedicures, waxes and eyebrow shaping. "The school lets me tell them the style I want," she said. "The fancy, higher-priced salons want to tell you how you should look."

If you're considering switching to a school or a no-frills salon, expect to pay about $10 to $15 for a manicure, $20 to $30 for a pedicure, $20 to $40 for a facial. Services at schools might take longer than at regular salons. No-frills nail franchises such as Daisy Nails, Red Nail and Hollywood nails charge much less but the decor and amenities are comparatively spartan.

Keeping it clean

Discount nail salons may prove to be a good deal, but not if you leave with an infection because of poor sanitation. "Proper sanitation may be lax at some nonstandard salons," said Karen Huneke, a nail technology instructor at the Minnesota School of Cosmetology, "but it's not just the discount salons that people need to be careful of." Huneke as well as Billi Jo Rugg and Gina Stauss Fast from the law compliance department at the Minnesota Barber and Cosmetology Board said that customers can make several observations to check the cleanliness of a salon.

Licenses for the salon and technicians should be posted. The Barber and Cosmetology Board has started publishing inspection scores online at www.bceboard.state.mn.us. Individual licenses can also be checked at the site.

Technicians should wash their hands before and after each client.

Clients getting pedicures should check that salon employees are sanitizing and disinfecting whirlpool tubs for 10 minutes before and after each use. The tub water should be clean, and no dirty towels should be lying around. The suction screen/drain should be taken off and cleaned, preferably after each client.

Nail implements should be dust-free and disinfected for each client. Tools should be taken from a closed container, not lying out on a table. Metal instruments should be sanitized and disinfected; porous or plastic instruments or tools should be discarded after use. Some salons may give the client the tools after use. A good salon has disinfectant in plain view at many stations. A bottle of Windex is not a good sign.

Clients with any cuts or sores should delay service until healed, and customers should have shaved their legs at least 24 hours before a pedicure to minimize infection.

Assuming a salon passes the test, Twin Cities customers can look forward to lower prices on nail services in the future. Prices have already dropped in places such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as a result of competition. The standard price for mani-pedi in New York is $45, said Charles. He expects similar prices to reach the Twin Cities within the next 10 years as competition heats up.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. His articles are online at www.startribune.com/dollars.