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Customers flock back to hair salons — but others have learned they can manage just fine from home

Hair stylists are finding that lockdown has taught some regular customers they don't need an expensive salon treatment after all.
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York
Barber Michael Nasimov cuts hair with a protective face mask between plastic separations at Joseph Hair Salon in Port Washington, New York, on June 11, 2020.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters file

After months of hibernation, customers desperate to shed their natural state for something more polished are flocking to local hair and nail salons as states reopen their economy. But with heightened safety measures — and heightened costs — some customers and salon owners are giving the experience mixed reviews, leading many to wonder if the coronavirus has forever stained the beauty industry.

When Claudia Reuter, an author and tech investor based in Boston, visited her favorite hair stylist last month after it reopened, she said the small differences that can make a salon visit a relaxing experience were gone: No more glossy magazines to flip through, no complimentary tea or coffee was served, and employees were taking people’s temperatures at the door.

Although the salon visit no longer felt like pampering, she said she still felt relieved to look more professional again.

“Getting back to the salon was great. I never get my hair to look as good as it does when I’m at the salon,” Reuter said.

Other customers are avoiding salons altogether for now.

“I’m holding out on the hair,” said Annie Howell, from Kensington, Maryland, who suffers from asthma. She said that after seeing stylists on Instagram posing with models not wearing masks, she does not feel convinced that salons are doing all they can to limit risk.

Salon owners are also feeling the weight of customer anxiety and the changed experience.

“I’m working more hours and making less money,” said Haim Hazan, who runs Lifestyle Salon NYC in New York. Before the coronavirus, he could apply a color and then attend to another person’s cut, he said. Now, he must spend up to four hours now with the same client to avoid contamination.

Hazan said he has had to buy new ponchos, and pay to have the salon disinfected, adding to costs. Among other changes, there are no more walk-in appointments.

“In New York City, everyone wants a service and they want it now," Hazan said. "But if they don’t book it, they won’t be able to see me.”

Some of the bigger salons in the city may not be able to survive beyond the next few months, Hazan predicted, citing the new economics and the high cost of New York real estate. The Professional Beauty Association has been helping members apply for government assistance and insurance, as well as helping salon owners establish coronavirus best practices.

Another entanglement for hair salons is that while some customers are rushing back to the professionals, others are realizing they can manage their own hair care — and save some money.

"YouTube videos with 'self-care' in the title more than doubled in March than the same time last year," Lauren Verrusio, a spokesperson for YouTube, told NBC News.

Ivette Collazo, who works in the finance industry in Boston, used to have her hair cut and colored regularly, but since the pandemic she’s been evangelizing to friends about hair color-in-a box from the drugstore.

“At some point it needs to be touched up in a professional manner, but did I save myself a lot of money? Absolutely," she told NBC News. "If it grows out now do I care? I don’t have to go back into the office. I have some freedom."

Online beauty sales have surged in lockdown, as customers try to manage hair styling and nail care by themselves.

“Hair care has been really excellent, from basic shampoo and conditioners to styling products such as styling devices, while everybody was doing more grooming at home. We saw a really big surge there," said Nata Divr, senior vice president and general business manager for Macy’s Beauty.

Divr also noted that sales of foundation and concealer have also been robust — likely because people are trying to look good for their video calls.

"From a nail perspective, nail color was really strong, and tools and accessories were also good,” Divr said.

Beth Feldman, a communications executive based in New Rochelle, the site of New York’s first coronavirus outbreak, said getting her nails done again was an essential part of a summer time routine.

She argued that nail salons are much less risky than restaurants and bars, largely because there are fewer people at one time.

“I just finally feel like wow, it’s summer. I can feel like a person again — and nails are a big piece of it,” Feldman said.