‘I don’t think that the high street is dead’, said Mr Chalayer.
We were sat in a coffee shop next to the Farringdon office of LeSalon. It was a company Jean-Michel Chalayer had cofounded in 2015 along with his business partner, Natasha Pilbrow. I had come to ask him about the evolution of the beauty industry.
LeSalon is a pun – “salon”, in French, also means living room. ‘Essentially what we do,’ Jean-Michel had explained, ‘is we deliver beauty treatments directly to people’s houses.’
The premise and the company’s appeal is simple. Via the LeSalon app, you can order a beauty treatment to your living room of a consistent price and quality anywhere the app runs. No salons and no permanent staff mean fewer costs for LeSalon, so their mid-market price is a choice. The result is a more consistent, and more convenient beauty treatment than before, which could, if they wished to compete at a more aggressive tilt, undercut the market considerably.
Which sounded like it could create big problems for brick-and-mortar stores.
But Jean-Michel himself didn’t think so. He reached, presently, for an analogous market: ‘taxi and limousine services in San Francisco,’ he said, finally. ‘The size of the market hasn’t changed, actually, it’s grown – but the amount spent on transportation has multiplied by ten. And Uber has been capturing that.’
So the destiny of LeSalon is to capture a massive growth in beauty consumption enabled by superior convenience. How much that will impact brick-and-mortar stores remains to be seen.
A salon like Uber, in the good ways
‘The service beauty service industry has grown very fast’, said Mr Chalayer. ‘A lot of that growth is going to come from “at home” beauty services. That’s the kind of way I see the change – I don’t think people are going to “not go to the salon anymore”, or that, “the high street is dead”, or that if you’re a salon you should shut your shop and move to mobile.’
‘A certain population will always use [offline] service,’ he said. ‘They are not going to change their habits. But the biggest part of the consuming and active population… are consuming products differently. People that are going to generate the next phase of growth in the beauty services industry… we are capturing that.’
And sure enough, LeSalon is enjoying formidable growth. ‘[We have] 15 people in the office. We have more than 100 servicing on the platform. We standardise quality of service so every [agent] is tested, trained, and… once they’ve passed our own custom-made playbook,’ they’re allowed out into the world as a LeSalon agent. ‘We invest a lot in technology, to automate all the processes’, he added.
Jean-Michel started by explaining that LeSalon beauty services would be consistent. It wasn’t a marketplace-of-all-things like Amazon. The LeSalon brand underwrites the quality of each service. ‘To become a beauty therapist [you] need to qualify – not anyone can do it. You need to study, and get certificate.’
I protested that this was unlike Uber, who had competed mainly on price.
He smiled. ‘Uber is cheaper… but they started out as not cheaper. The way they started the business they were a premium offer; a black limousine car, and that’s how they became very big. The cheaper solution came later.’
So were LeSalon’s costs the same? Or…
‘We have much cheaper costs.’
Right. So why not undercut everybody? (A “classic mani-pedi” from LeSalon costs £54, which I am assured is mid-range).
For a second Jean-Michel hesitated. ‘It’s… a reflection of how much we want the therapists to be earning. The benefit of us being asset-lite is that we can give back a lot of those costs that would go to rent, electricity and all of that we can give it back to the therapists.’
Those therapists are freelancers. ‘That’s something that the supply wants,’ he said, perhaps anticipating a spiky question.
‘They have their own commitments… interestingly, a lot of therapists want to work evenings, because they have kids – so they look after the young kids all day and when the husband comes home they can do treatments in the evening, when there’s demand. It’s a really interesting model and it would only work with the gig economy.’
‘It’s a lot easier now to be your own boss, and I think the generation now entering the workplace are aspiring to be independent and flexible in the way they work – that’s why you have the rise of wework, the rise of marketplaces like Fiverr and Upwork that allow you to work differently, where before it was an 8-5 job.’
When I accused Jean-Michel of saving money this way, he answered: ‘it would be more profitable for us to employ them,’ because the therapists currently are incentivised with a substantial portion of the price of each service.
It does shield LeSalon from the risks-of over-investing, or unsustainable growth, though – which seems like it could be an additional reason to stay at mid-market price point, for now. Asked his biggest challenge, Jean-Michel had said, ‘get[ting] supply and demand always aligned – you don’t want a customer coming in and not finding stock, and you don’t want a lot of therapists not having an appointment. Finding that balance is always tricky and the more you grow, it stays tricky – you want to increase supply and demand.’
‘Unlike in a salon… where you have your salon and you just fill to capacity.’
A high-street makeover
LeSalon is a tech business. Tech doesn’t solely or even mostly mean ‘technology’ any more. Rather, tech is a model of financial investment, in which ambition, some software, and modern business models are applied to an inefficient market in a five-to-ten-year funding cycle.
This is LeSalon. ‘We’ve done a seed round [of investment]’, said Jean-Michel. ‘People that like the business – people who can add value from the industry – so we have a lot of people working in the beauty industry, in marketplaces, in tech, who are not only putting in money but giving LeSalon advice.’
But for most of an industry, the question is how to respond to that change. “The high street is dead” is a statement designed to be disagreed with. It’s a rhetorical position newspapers use for their headlines and consultants use in their marketing. Instead, the received wisdom is that high street is in a state of flux. The emergent high street will compete on the basis of their in-store experience; the losers will be outflanked by the superior convenience of online. The high street is not dead. But the high street will change. And change will be painful.
I put this to Jean-Michel, and asked him if he thought LeSalon (or something like it) will change the way the high street looks.
He shook his head. ‘I actually don’t think so,’ he said. ‘I think the two [online and offline] go hand-in-hand together. And if you think about our business, I mean, we supply to build a big business, but we are in essence fostering individual businesses – because all our therapists are individual business owners. It’s a franchise movement, very similar to McDonald’s or Starbucks.’
‘Individual shops will struggle because they are not offering anything different than a convenient service’, said Jean-Michel. ‘We are going to capture that convenience. We are more convenient. We are cheaper because we have a lower cost-base. We can automate processes. We can make sure you get your appointment – whenever you want it.’
‘I think the high street will change a lot, and become really experience-driven. You will attract people for the experience. Probably, they’ll spend more money on the high street because they will go for the experience. The food scene is really interesting. If you see people queueing for restaurants on the high street – it’s because they go for the experience.’
Customers queue for Dishoom, but not House of Fraser. They queue for Franco Manca, but not Jamie’s Italian. Books – which are the fungible rectangular items perfect for delivery – can still be procured in attractive and pleasant book stores in London.
So if you’re a brick-and-mortar salon, what should you do about this?
Mr Chalayer paused for a second.
‘Think about what your customer is going to feel when they enter your store. What is the experience you want to give them? Make sure that experience is consistent in every touch point – because as a physical retailer, you have the ability to control [that].’
‘Use that to your advantage. Make sure that when a customer comes in, they know they’re in your shop; your world; communicate that story to your customer… I think that’s the advice I would give to high street retailers.’
‘Recreate the experience that you would travel for.’
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