Disclosure: I am biased in writing this piece as I am married to the compassionate, smart, handsome, and overall amazing Edwin Neill III, CEO of Neill Corporation, whom I see working for the salon industry day in and day out, with passion and purpose. Edwin Neill is also the Chairman of the Board of Cosmetology of the State of Louisiana.
The reopening of salons across the country is a hot, political, and divisive topic. So hot that Georgia salons were featured in Vogue. So divisive that some owners have been reluctant to reopen. This is such a political issue that in San Francisco, Gavin Newsome seems to suggest that nail salons were the source of the first COVID-19 case.
Discussing salon reopenings, however, would not be complete without discussing how salons have handled being closed. What have salons been doing to survive during this time of closure? And who did they turn to for resources and support?
A Case Study: Neill Corporation
Some context: Neill Corporation was founded in the late 1940s as a beauty supply store. Over the years the company evolved to become the leading independent distributor of Aveda products (in 7 southern states); an innovator in salon education (which to this day continues as Serious Business, a personal and professional development conference attended by over 3,000 industry professionals, back in the days when we had events); a pioneer in salon software development (SalonBiz, sold about two years ago); a salon operator (8 Paris Parker locations and a barbershop, The Parker, all in Louisiana); a school owner (17 Aveda Institutes throughout the country); and a purveyor of complementary products including lash and hair extensions.
As it became clear that the professional salon industry would shut down in mid-March due to COVID-19, the leadership of Neill Corporation, whose revenues at its lowest point were 90% down year over year, gathered to create a plan for the 700+ Aveda salons they service.
The Theme: Survive to Thrive
This multifaceted plan took the form of weekly Tuesday webinars aimed at informing and assisting salon leadership with their survival plan.
“Caring for the salon leadership so that they may care for the teams and community that they serve has been our pursuit. In the absence of face to face connection, our webinars have served not only as a compass to guide our salon owners through this process, but also a refuge to re-ground themselves for the tasks and decisions that lay ahead. Relationship is the foundation of this industry and we have been able to continue to keep that connection with our salon owners in their most vulnerable time,” said Cristen Walley, VP of Aveda Sales for Neill Corporation.
Mid-March to Mid-April: Pause and Pivot
- Furlough immediately. As politically incorrect as it may be, Neill Corporation’s recommendation to its salons was to immediately furlough all team members. Furlough so that team members could maintain benefits. Furlough so the salon could maintain cash flow. Furlough so that employees could receive nearly $900 per week in unemployment benefits while the salon could survive to reopen.
- Negotiate with your landlords. Ask for rent forgiveness or deferral. Ask early, and ask often.
- Navigate the loan and grant processes. Neill Corporation gave its salons access to lawyers and HR experts to understand the PPP and EIDL loan options.
- Focus on education. Neill immediately shifted not only its Aveda Institute education to distance learning, but also implemented Instagram Lives as a daily resource to keep stylists and salons inspired and engaged in their craft.
- Maximize your online presence. Audit your salon’s Google My Business page. Add e-commerce (or A-commerce as Aveda calls it) to your website capabilities.
- Neill Corporation automatically suspended payments due from any salons with terms for the month of April.
Mid-April to Mid-May: Restart and Recover
- Reduce administrative costs (front end and management) to 8% or lower. Rethink front desk and front office headcounts as they will count if you are subject to social distancing restrictions. Leverage technology, interns, and stylists.
- Review ratios: 45% service compensation to service payroll is the goal. Consider adding a $5 per ticket sanitation fee as you plan your reopening to mitigate the cost of spreading out service times and providing personal protective equipment to team members and guests.
- Rethink your services. Express color services? Limited blow-drys? Reinvent your business to match this new reality, which requires having fewer people in the salon, and maximizing booking times to enhance the guest’s safety, and the stylist’s efficiency.
- Strive to achieve 10% or greater profits in service and retail.
- Follow state guidelines and gold-standard practices for safety. Neill Corporation recommends the Aveda and Estée Lauder reopening recommendations, including guidelines and checklists.
Neill Corporation also began sourcing personal protective equipment, as safety will become the new luxury. And last, but certainly not least, Neill Corporation reignited its Salon & Spa Relief Fund in partnership with Aveda to provide $2,500-$5,000 grants to salons in need.
Other than the specifics of what was shared with salons in terms of survival tactics and reopening strategies, there are a number of lessons learned that will enable any business to better plan for the next pandemic, whatever and whenever that will be.
- Put crisis management plans and protocols in place when there is no crisis. Neill Corporation learned this the hard way, as the company is no stranger to disasters, having survived Hurricane Katrina (only closing operations for one business day), and more recently having helped salons through Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Pivoting operations to focus on survival is nothing new to Neill’s management. Giving thought to how one would plan for a blizzard, a burst pipe, or a global pandemic helps when said disaster arrives. Indeed, previous experiences with natural disasters enabled Neill Corporation to create their COVID-19 plan in late February, when purchases of hand sanitizer, masks, and iPads to ensure students could learn remotely seemed “paranoid and exaggerated.”
- Communication is key, and needs to be decisive, clear, and frequent. This is true internally within teams, and externally with salons. Neill Corporation has had a number of company-wide webinar updates since mid-March (something employees have asked continue past this pandemic), and weekly salon webinars every Tuesday.
- The focus of all crisis-related action has to be humanity and empathy. Whether the action be automatically suspending payment requirements for customers or furloughing team members, all has to be done with compassion. Always, but especially during a time of crisis.
“Who would have ever thought that salons would be so much in the news? Our industry is underappreciated except when it is not. This crisis has put us in touch with what is important in our business. It has always been about helping people reach their full potential. It is also about caring for each other. When this is all a memory, we will be judged by what we did to lift up others,” concludes Edwin Neill.
Photo: via Neill Corporation