On April 21, Van Council charted new territory in the salon industry as he became one of the first owners to reopen his business during the pandemic. After five weeks of forced closure, he opened his eight Van Michael salons at 50-percent capacity with many new safety protocols in place.
“I felt confident,” Council says. “My team did their homework and research, talked to doctors, studied the CDC guidelines and stayed on top of PPE requirements. I felt like we were doing the right thing by reopening.”
With all eyes on Van Michael salons, Council re-opened at 50-percent capacity with plexiglass shields in key areas, staff and clients masked, and in some cases, wearing face shields as well.
Every other night, the salons are “fogged” with a sanitizer and mask wearing and social distancing are strictly enforced.
“Nobody can take a mask below their noses, they must social distance outside, and no food or drink is allowed,” Council says. “We also opted not to do blow dries for the first month until we go the plexiglass up.”
On July 1, Council was allowed to open up to 100-percent capacity, which he did with plexiglass shields between every station, at the shampoo bowls and in the waiting rooms.
“These measures allow us to do business safely,” he says. “Our building is one of the safest places our staff can be.”
With 300 stylists between eight locations, Van Michael also had to put a big emphasis on training.
“We created a re-entry guide,” says Susan Dykstra, CEO at Van Michael salons. “Each service provider got a manual that outlined everything required of them.”
In the beginning, Dykstra says locating all the sanitizing materials and equipment like Clorox wipes and thermometers was a huge undertaking.
“Basically we’re running a medical supply chain,” she says. “But now it seems like second nature. We take every client’s temperature, sanitize stations and instruments between every guest, and have signage to let guests know the station has been sanitized.”
Having just 50 percent of the staff working the first weeks of reopening was helpful as the salon’s management team coped with new protocols.
“With less team members and clients, we could figure it all out,” Dykstra says. “When we went back full-time in July, we were prepared.”
The five K Charles locations in the San Antonio area opened a few weeks after Van Michael on May 12.
Owner Holly Thalman followed guidelines from the Texas department of license and regulation and received guidance from Neill Corporation and Aveda on safety protocol.
Securing PPE was a challenge, but she quickly found a local company that furnished area grocery stores with shields who could fulfill her salons’ needs.
“We spent about $30k on rolling screens and plexiglass shields for the front desks at all the salons,” she says. “We also got stickers for the floors and did temperature checks, hand sanitizer and masks from the get go. If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, they can’t receive service.”
Thalman also hired a local company to nano spray (sanitize) the salons before opening, and has continued to do so every six weeks.
The new systems are tedious, but necessary. “They make us feel we aren’t servicing guests the way we used to, but they really just want their hair done at this point.”
However, as infection rates rise in Texas, Thalman has had to battle another problem—no shows and last-minute cancelations.
“We’ve had a lot of new guests no-show for big appointments, so we implemented a new client reservation fee of $150 for color services longer than an hour,” she says. “If they don’t show up, we split that money with the service provider.”
This policy—for new guests only—helps protect the pay of her team, who get paid a team-based salary.
“Our stylists’ paychecks and the salon’s bank account is getting hit since we can’t double book, and we’re not doing really long appointments like Keratin or perms right now” Thalman says. “We’re also a non-tipping salon. So getting back to a normal booking atmosphere will be key.”
Thalman also implemented a credit card processing fee. She was spending $10k-$15k monthly on processing, so she instituted a 3.5 percent fee to offset PPE costs.
“We let guests know about this extra charge up front and they are welcome to pay with cash, check or gift card if they want to circumvent the fee.”
Michelle Murad, Executive Director of Marketing and Sales at Douglas J salons and schools, oversees seven schools (five in Michigan, one in Chicago and one in Knoxville, Tennessee), and five salons in Michigan. The Knoxville school was the first to reopen at the end of May, and helped Murad and her team pave the way for the other salons and schools to open back up.
“Every location we have is different,” she says. “We managed the school capacity with a combination of remote learning and social distancing, but now we’re fully operating, with just a few classes that are still remote learning.”
The Douglas J salons are also all operating, but with fewer stylists for social distancing.
Like Van Michael and K Charles, Douglas J created processes and procedures for the staff to learn and follow.
“We have a link on our website that says ‘Our New Normal’ so clients can click and learn about our new policies as well,” Murad says. “We also extended service time by 15 minutes to clean between services and have plexiglass in any spaces where we couldn’t social distance.”
The majority of Douglas J salons and schools are located in Michigan, which did not reopen until June.
“The benefit of this was the supply chain opened,” says Murad. “When Knoxville opened in May, we were running around trying to find all the PPE we needed. But by the time Michigan opened, stock was replenished.”
Douglas J let staff and guests know they needed to wear a mask in the salon, but also provides them if needed. And just recently, they decided to brand their stylists’ and students’ masks with their logo.
Council, Thalman, Murad and their teams went above and beyond to open their salons safely, even when it meant extra cost, inconvenience and even pushback from clients and staff. But they achieved a safe environment, which made it all worth it. And the virus is not spreading in their businesses.
COVID-19 in the Salon
“To date, we’ve had a total of 11 staff members our of 350 test positive,” Council says. “Every single one of them has gotten COVID from a husband, wife, roommate or party—not in the salon.”
Council adds, “We see about 1,000 clients per day and we haven’t traced a single case of transmission from an employee to client or to another staff member.”
Council, who also has a salon chain in Japan, says he looked to the Japanese as an example of safely running a salon.
“I’m not a scientist, doctor or politician, but I can see what’s happening in Japan,” he says. “We have 600-700 employees there and nobody has gotten COVID. I feel confident we can wear masks, save jobs, and keep our business going.”
At Douglas J, Murad says they’ve also had a handful of cases among students and stylists, but none have contracted it at work.
“They have told us about the positive cases, so they can quarantine, and everyone feels extremely safe,” Murad says.
Thalman has had to quarantine six of her employees due to contracting the virus outside of work, which stopped it from spreading in the salon.
“We had one pedicure guest who called us after she tested positive, and we quarantined her service provider for 14 days,” she says. “The provider was wearing a mask and shield and never got sick.”
With PPE and cleanliness measures, Thalman says she feels confident in her salons’ environments. “The systems are working.”
With their businesses running safely for staff and clients, Council, Thalman and Murad are looking at profitability and logistical issues for the rest of the year.
“We’re running about 30 percent down from last year,” Council says. “The PPP money helped us build up a nice cash balance, but it eventually ran out, and we need to readjust our budgets for the rest of this year.”
Council says they lost about 15 people from the front desk and call center during the pandemic that they simply didn’t replace, and they’ve put a freeze on hiring.
“We’ll have to trim down staff and possibly restructure some positions and pay,” he says. “We will make it through—we just may have less profit.”
He adds, “Our goal is not growth right now, it’s to stay healthy and in business. We want to maintain, and not go backwards from here. We’re going to keep going full speed ahead.”
Thalman echoes Council’s sentiments. “We are staying in business,” she says. “We are a NEED, which was proven when we were closed down.
“I’ve done some cost cutting, renegotiated leases, and leveraged my relationship with the bank. By the first of the year, we’ll be back stronger than ever.”
Thalman’s confidence comes from her recent success in hiring, and a training program that’s back in full swing.
“We’ve done remote consultations and interviews, and we’ve hired five service providers,” she says.
Murad is also restructuring and becoming more efficient.
“We disbanded our call center for schools, and put most of those people into guest service positions at the front desk,” she says. “We also had an admission team who worked only in high schools. A couple of those people are filling different roles in the interim.”
The good news? Like K Charles, Douglas J is still hiring.
“Now is not the time to hire entry-level stylists with no book,” she says. “But we work with local salons and schools, some that had to close for good. We don’t poach, but if there is a stylist in need of a home in our market, we try to bring them on.”
On the school side, Douglas J is still enrolling at a solid pace, thanks to a strong team who was able to pivot.
“We did remote touring, remote enrolling, remote financial aid, etc,” she says.
And six weeks after re-opening salons, the Douglas J salons’ books are still solid.
“We’ve weathered the storm as well as we can,” she says. “We’re never going to make up losing an entire quarter of revenue, so we’ve got to restructure and get creative.
“We’ve learned to be very adaptable and flexible,” Murad adds. “And our company as a whole really upped our game in communication.”
A weekly newsletter and online forum with the leadership team kept the 350 Douglas J employees up to date on new information.
“We learned and stumbled along the way, but came out stronger through communication,” she says.
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