Not-so-nice side to parlour didi

Updated: May 19, 2019, 12:56 IST | Jane Borges

Boston degree project trains its guns on Mumbai's beauty parlours, and how they turn up a profit by treating you like the ugly duckling

Not-so-nice side to parlour didi
Avani Yashwin, proprietor and head stylist at Happy in the Head, doesn't sell or recommend products at her Bandra salon. "From a business perspective, my decision [to not sell products] can be counter-productive. But, we are not sales people, we are artistes," she says.

So, why is it that you often walk into a salon to get your eyebrows threaded and you come out having done a facial, and carrying a dry shampoo in your purse?

Boston resident Asheeta Khanna, a student of graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, says it's because Indian parlours have an agenda. A degree project saw the 22-year-old, originally from Mumbai, conduct a qualitative survey spanning 20 women across two months in the early part of this year, who were interviewed over phone and mail about their salon experiences. All women were between the ages of 20 and 30 years, spread across the metro cities of Mumbai and Delhi.

Around 44 per cent of the participants surveyed said that parlour visits had proved detrimental for their self-esteem. "Traditionally, beauticians are trained to upsell products and services, keep up with current trends and those defined by commercial standards of beauty," says Khanna in a telephonic interview. In the process, salon staff often end up making comments on a customer's appearance, leaving them with a weak body image.

Glenda Bhang, who runs the half-a-century-old Bhang Ladies Hair Dresser at Apollo Bunder, says the old-school way of operating means she decides what's best for her clients, not her business. Pic/Atul Kamble
Glenda Bhang, who runs the half-a-century-old Bhang Ladies Hair Dresser at Apollo Bunder, says the old-school way of operating means she decides what's best for her clients, not her business. Pic/Atul Kamble

'Good is not good enough'

Khanna's choice of subject for the degree project, which was to design and create a parlour service that provided an uplifting experience to middle-class women in Mumbai, comes from a personal space. "Each time, I visited the local parlour in Mumbai when back on holiday, I would receive unsolicited advice from beauticians. This also applies to a high-end salon I visited at a Mumbai mall, where the staff commented on my dry my skin, and that I was in dire need of a pedicure, when all I wanted was to get my eyebrows threaded," she says.

Chembur-based writer Ananya Bahl, 28, who participated in the survey, says she has been dealing with premature greying since she was 12, and the parlour experience has been particularly "frustrating".

"I was often told that I needed to get my hair coloured. Sometimes, they'd make a face when handling my hair, making it particularly irritating," says Bahl. "Despite the greying, I have been blessed with long, straight hair and I consider it an asset. The women offering us this advice aren't exactly gorgeous themselves!" Older and wiser, she now simply tells them to mind their business.

Chembur-based writer Ananya Bahl, 28, who participated in the survey, says she has been dealing with premature greying since she was 12, and the parlour experience has been particularly "frustrating"
Chembur-based writer Ananya Bahl, 28, who participated in the survey, says she has been dealing with premature greying since she was 12, and the parlour experience has been particularly "frustrating"

But confrontation is not everyone's cup of tea. Neha Asher Sonawane, a 32-year-old pre-school teacher at Serra International in Colaba, says she avoids going to the parlour altogether. Like any teenager, Asher used to grapple with acne and blackheads, and the staff would convince her to get a facial. "Even though I had great, thick hair, they'd tell me it was dry, or that I had split ends. I realised that even good was not good enough for them." For the last 15 years, Asher has had a beautician come over to her residence and provide her the services she needs.

One respondent, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke of the discrimination she faced because she had curls. "I was always looked at as the child with difficult hair. They [the staff] didn't know what to do with it. My dad would then take me to the men's salon and get me a boy-cut. It was only when I reached college that I learnt how to embrace my curls," she says speaking of the affinity for straight, long hair for women in India.

In her research, Khanna cites that dark skin is often the first feature to get highlighted by staffers. Nearly 50 per cent of the respondents said they were asked to get a facial done when in fact, they hadn't visited the parlour for the said service.

Asheeta Khanna
Asheeta Khanna

Khanna's personal experience at Boston salons has been different. The salon staff will in fact, try to make sales, but through "positive reinforcement". "There is a sense of choice in the way they suggest services or products to you," she says.

Not everyone seems to think so, though. Only earlier this week, American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who serves as the US Representative for New York's 14th congressional district, took to Instagram to talk about her recent experience at a nail salon. She said, "I just went to the nail salon so I can feel human. Nothing special, just trying to get some paint, cut my cuticles, whatever... My nails are getting painted, and the woman's like, 'Your eyebrows are too big for your face,' and I'm sitting there, and she's like, 'Mustache?'," said Cortez, continuing, "And I'm like, first of all, I thought I came here to feel good about myself. Second of all, what if I like my mustache? Ever think about that?"

Fatema Sutarwala, Touch of Joy
Fatema Sutarwala, Touch of Joy

Customer is queen

The beauty parlour industry in India is growing exponentially. "In Mumbai alone, we have an average of 10 parlours every 850 metres," says Khanna. With her respondents visiting the neighbourhood salon between 2.5 to 3 times a month, she feels that the experience should be anything but discouraging.

One such consolation came from an anonymous respondent, who said she had a positive experience at Happy in the Head salon, Bandra West. Avani Yashwin, head stylist and proprietor, says customers visit a salon for a pick-me-up. "I know a lot of women, who choose to work with their hair, when they are going through a life-altering period. I am supposed to be the medium to feeling good about themselves. I don't sell or recommend products at the salon. From a business perspective, it can be counter-productive. But, we are not sales people, we are artistes."

Samir Srivastav, CEO, Jean Claude Biguine (JCB) Salon & Spa, India
Samir Srivastav, CEO, Jean Claude Biguine (JCB) Salon & Spa, India

Colaba Causeway's 31-year-old Touch of Joy, run by Naaz Javeri and sister Fatema Sutarwala alias Fatti, is popular because its staff is empathetic towards customers. "It's important to know what your customer wants. We have trained the staff to be good listeners. We suggest, only when asked," says Sutarwala.

Glenda Bhang, 50, belongs to a Chinese family that made a home in Mumbai after migrating from Guangdong in the 1930s. The owner of Bhang Ladies Hair Dresser, a 50-year-old establishment at Apollo Bunder, says when her customers say they want a hair spa, she often suggests the less expensive hair oil massage. "I am here to do what is best for them, not what is best for me," she says.

Parlour tricks

At Jean Claude Biguine (JCB) Salon & Spa, a chain headquartered in France, monthly trainings sessions are conducted to help the staff update its skill set through its education arm, JCB Academy. "At the academy, we hone technical, communication, leadership and industry skill-sets to ensure professional success on the floor," says CEO Samir Srivastav. They also claim to conduct 'mystery audits' for how to improve the salon experience for clients. "We encourage direct communication where clients can reach the CEO with their feedback through SMS, e-mail or via social media," he adds.

"As far as soft skills are concerned, social grace, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal etiquette are most important. Closed questions like: 'Would you like to try a summer facial for de-tanning?' sounds more appropriate? than 'You have pigmentation spots on your face and really need a facial'," says Srivastav.

Contrary to popular belief, he feels that "upselling or cross-selling" a service can make the client trust you more, but only when done correctly. "If you take the time to educate your client, it confirms your position as an expert versus adopting an aggressive selling approach. And if your client leaves happy with their choice of an upgraded service or product purchase, they're more likely to visit again."

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