It will take more than a price rise to repair UK nail salons

Self-employed nail salon owners are protesting poor profit margins that are putting them out of business. But the sector’s issues run deeper than the nail bed.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Getting a manicure has long been seen as a harmless treat; a fun pampering designed to cheer us up without costing a fortune. This week, that illusion has chipped, as the consequences of low-cost self-care on underpaid beauty salon staff have been brought to light.

Yesterday, over 5,000 UK nail technicians collectively raised their prices as part of “National Nail Price Increase Day.” As well as being fed up with crippling profit margins, they reportedly earn just £6.99 an hour after expenses and tax. That’s almost £3 less than the new Living Wage.

Will the price rise be a redesign for the nail care industry? Or will customers continue to gloss over the impact of budget bars on employees?

Nail salon boom

Today, nail bars are one of the biggest (and only) success stories in UK retail. According to figures from the Local Data Company (LDC), nail salons were the fourth fastest-growing retail category last year, with 302 new stores opening in 2023.

Like many modern phenomena, the boom can be attributed to the rise of social media. Instagram and TikTok are now home to huge online communities of nail artists, who can easily showcase their designs to local audiences using free and low-cost marketing tools.

But the competitiveness of this space has also contributed to depleted profit margins, as customers search for luxury options at unsustainably low costs.

According to analysis by The Nail Tech Org, the company behind National Nail Price Increase Day, after overheads such as products, tools, and rent, a self-employed nail technician earns just £800 a month. That contrasts to the Living Wage average of £1,052.

Speaking to the BBC, campaign leader Amy Guy said: “You won’t see every nail tech increase their prices, but if you do see nail techs tomorrow onwards increasing their prices it’s for the right reason: so they can actually earn a solid income from their hard work.”

The ugly truth

Faced with the figures earned by today’s salon owners, few people would argue with the decision by sole traders to raise prices. What is less clear is how the movement will help nail bar employees, who have been at the centre of worker protection scandals for decades.

Industry statistics show that nail salons are one of the few sectors dominated almost exclusively by small businesses. Three-quarters of hair and beauty businesses in the UK employ fewer than five people, while 95% employ fewer than ten people.

That’s if you believe the figures. High street bars have been highlighted by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) as breeding grounds for worker exploitation.

While the majority of salons operate within the law, a minority are suspected to hire illegal migrants who are forced to work brutal hours in poor conditions and at slave wages.

High-profile stories mean this is not a well-kept secret. One of the first prosecution cases against modern slavery in the UK involved two children who were found working in a nail salon in Bath. A victim of the 2019 Essex lorry tragedy, in which 39 human trafficking victims were killed, was a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman whose plan was to work in a nail salon.

Despite this, the general public has continued to seek out ever cheaper rates for their next nail appointment. An investigation by The Guardian found that some units charge as little as £10 per manicure – trading customer wins for worker health and safety.

Need to nail down regulation

The issue is not restricted to nail salons. Police in Wiltshire recently issued a warning that ‘really cheap’ barber shops offering £10 haircuts could be a front for criminal gangs relying on human trafficking to employ slave labour.

Legislation introduced in 2019 has tried to cleanse the beauty sector. Employers are now required to provide payslips for each member of staff, with total hours worked and hourly rate of pay clearly stated.

Nonetheless, various political debates over how to combat the scourge of human trafficking have seen new bills introduced that remove protections for potential victims.

Government figures estimate there are at least 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Last year, a report into the matter concluded: “we are deeply concerned that the government is prioritising irregular migration issues at the expense of tackling human trafficking.”

Customer need

Without legal precedent, the issue risks going unchallenged. Movements like National Price Increase Day can educate salon owners on the dangers of competing with ‘too-good-to-be-true’ treatment costs.

But the problem of wage theft and labour abuse will only be solved when demand for exploitative nail prices disappears. That means the onus is on customers to recognise the signs of an unethical nail business and act responsibly.

In today’s economy, that might be a tall ask. Customers are cutting back on spending as the cost of living rises. Those who are unwilling to forgo their favourite luxuries might find themselves drawn to a budget nail bar that is, unbeknownst to them, exploiting staff.

The Nail Tech Org has also produced a free course to help nail technicians successfully raise prices so that members can “earn the income you deserve, without losing clients.”

Crucial to the package is a tailorable social media post that explains why the business is increasing charges to clients. Guy hopes this will address ‘unfair pricing’ in the sector in a way that educates the customer as well as the sole trader.

“[Members will] feel that support around them and hopefully we will see the change in the industry that I think we really need to see”, she says.

Worried about how your clients will react to a price rise? Check out our expert guide on how to raise prices without hurting customers.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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