STELLAR service |

4 mins

STELLAR service

With customer service crumbling in the retail and hospitality sectors, could the excellent care provided by salons and spas be the key to their survival?, asks Hellen Ward

Being located in Duke of York Square, I often pop into John Lewis store Peter Jones, a stalwart of Sloane Square located at the start of the Kings Road in Chelsea. It used to be a full department store, where you could browse the extensive haberdashery department or even get your keys cut, as well as having tea in the restaurant and trying on the fashion.

So beloved was it by local residents, the actor Dirk Bogarde said he wanted to die there, as “nothing bad could ever happen to you in Peter Jones”. It was warm, friendly and, dare I say it, old-fashioned.

What a shadow of its former self it has become today. Gone is the cosy, bustling warmth, helpful staff and convivial atmosphere. In its place is a rather sparse, soulless showroom. A shop floor that looks just plain sorry for itself. Uninspiring, run-ofthe-mill, boring items. But worse still – with very little actual stock available to buy.

Am I alone in thinking that retail units are increasingly becoming merely empty shop windows that actually don’t carry any stock whatsoever? If you bother to go into a shop to buy something, rather than ordering it online, it’s usually because you want to see it, feel it, look at it and then take it away with you there and then, isn’t it? I tried to buy four items. All four were display only, it turns out, and if I wanted the actual physical goods, I was told I had to go online.

As an entrepreneur, I find this hugely worrying. Not because I’m a dinosaur stuck in a time-warp who isn’t fond of online shopping – Ido more than my fair share of screen time with my debit card in hand – but more that this kind of retail operation is just plain unsustainable. The costs incurred running bricks-and-mortar premises are spiralling, and if there are no sales to negate them then the writing is on the wall for businesses like this. They simply won’t survive. How sad.

Physical presence

In our sector, we need premises. Whether we are working freelance and facilitating our treatments in our homes, or operating salons in high streets, shopping malls, hotels or clubs, we need physical bricks-andmortar sites. The cost of running such premises is increasing more rapidly than treatment prices can keep up with, resulting in squeezed margins and reduced profits.

Business rates (and if, like me, you’re in a development then you’ll have service charges on top, so in effect you’re paying double for things like refuse) as well as dilapidations from the landlord to cover (repainting the exterior every seven years, for instance – all covered by the tenant, us!) not to mention energy bills and other utilities are rising, meaning that it’s increasingly hard to make money.

The problem with these rises is that, like wages, we can’t raise our prices willy-nilly to keep breaking even. Some of these costs we just have to swallow. When inflation rages, nothing can keep up with it.

The upside

So, every negative has to result in a positive – how can we take this and make a win out of it? Well, I for one am trying to keep my shelves well stocked, which is not easy when the products you want to buy have their own supply chain issues or are newly available online. Slimming your offering so that it’s strictly professional is key, and then ensuring you have adequate stock levels and skilled professionals on hand to advise so that clients can take their recommended, prescribed products home there and then has never been more important. Offering incentives like added retail points to redeem on in-salon services helps too.

It’s tough out there at the moment, and if you’re feeling it, know this – you aren’t alone. I suppose the other option is to do what the Ivy Asia in Chelsea did to me recently. I’d booked a table way back in October for eight (in person because I walk past every day en route to work) for a friend’s special birthday in December. I had tried to book online but the maximum number of guests it allows for online bookings is six. Over that, you have to call.

24 hours before the dinner, the restaurant called to make me aware that the minimum spend per head was £150 because it was the “festive season”.

Appalled, I asked why they were notifying me of this policy at such short notice. “You would have been told at point of booking,” they said. “But I wasn’t,” I said. “It’s on our website,” they said (it wasn’t – Ichecked). Anyway, that’s irrelevant when it’s not possible to book that many people online.

As much as all eight of us would be enjoying a few drinks, guaranteeing that sort of spend puts undue pressure on. The manager eventually called me back and said he would “let it go on this occasion”.

Service sector

I hate to sound every one of my 55 years but I was horrified at the lack of customer service, and the blatant arrogance and attitude of both the company and the staff who represent it. As much as I would have liked to have told them to stick their table where the sun doesn’t shine, the chances of finding another reservation at that short notice were slim (and they knew it), so I had to suck it up.

I know I say it with increasing regularity in my column here, but I will say it again. The hospitality sector could learn a lot about service from people in the hair and beauty industry. Let that always be the case and we will get through these tough times.

Hellen Ward is managing director of Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa in London and a beauty ambassador for the National Hair & Beauty Federation (NHBF).

This article appears in February 2023

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February 2023
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