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Westchester Businesses Bring Beauty Back Amid a New Normal

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Safety upgrades, including high-tech HVAC systems, are helping Oasis Day Spa customers feel safe.
Photo by Enormous Creative

Westchester beauty establishments are adapting their services and businesses to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions and customer expectations.

When you think of essential services, massages and blowouts are likely low on the list. But according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the international beauty industry generates $500 billion in sales a year and provides jobs for millions (directly or indirectly). So, as the coronavirus relentlessly ravaged the planet, the beauty industry was pummeled especially hard.

Here in Westchester, hair salons, nail salons, spas, laser-hair-removal centers, and the like were forced to shutter by Governor Cuomo’s executive order in March of 2020. Since then, these businesses have struggled monumentally just to remain afloat, much less turn a profit.

While the industry’s doors were closed, social media was inundated with image posts of wild hair, reminiscent of the 1960s, and many experienced a tidal wave of overgrown gray roots. Social media also saw many businesses running to the rescue, posting tips on how to style or dye your own hair (unthinkable prepandemic for most), or how to maintain a skincare regimen at home.

As doors remained closed through the summer, businesses needed more than just engagement; they needed revenue. Colorists like Gina Barrios of Salon 913 in White Plains analyzed hair from photos and color-matched bottles of dye for clients to color their own hair. Maria Shkreli of White Plains-based Maria Hair Therapy posted how-to videos on applying hairline touch-ups with her color kits. And Michele Piccolo, owner of Michele Lisa Salon in Cortlandt Manor, says, “We really did our best to stay relevant to our guests. We offered guests customized color kits, doorstep retail delivery, and many how-to videos.”

Moving to a smaller location in Katonah helped Eiluj owner Julie Cuomo offset lost revenue from the shutdown. Photo courtesy of Eiluj

Moving to a smaller location in Katonah helped Eiluj owner Julie Cuomo offset lost revenue from the shutdown. Photo courtesy of Eiluj

This was the main source of income for many salons for months. Spas like POSH Beauty Boutique in Bronxville offered pickup services for thoughtfully wrapped gifts for holidays, like Mother’s Day, when so few were willing to physically enter stores. Owner Diana Rainsford says they received tremendous support from the community; during the months they were not able to offer services, selling products helped their revenue.

As soon as restrictions were lifted, people flocked to salons and spas for professional pampering after months of high stress and lack of upkeep. Marie Giacovas of Rye’s Westchester Laser Associates says, “When we did open, business was waiting. We had 56 [voicemail] messages. I didn’t think it could hold that many.” After reopening, many have revamped procedures and sanitization to make customers and staff feel safer and more comfortable.

Julie Cuomo, owner of Katonah’s Eiluj a beauty lounge, emphasized proper ventilation in her boutique and invested in a blue-light filter system. Bruce Schoenberg, owner of longtime county staple Oasis Day Spa, installed in June a high-tech Halo system that kills 99% of airborne viruses (“We spent a fortune on the HVACs,” he says). At Westchester Laser Associates, Giacovas says they are very strict about cleanliness: Goggles are washed between each patient, and surfaces are constantly wiped down. And though she says, “People are feeling very safe when they come in,” which allows her to keep the business going, she acknowledges that the heightened hygiene has affected the business financially. “There are more supplies we use,” she explains. “We invest in hospital-grade wipes, which we wash down [surfaces] with. It’s added to our cost factor.”

What’s also affected the bottom line for the beauty industry is fewer staff feeling comfortable working in the current environment. While employees are required to socially distance themselves, performing services like laser hair removal or facials requires them to be close to customers who, during some services, will not have masks on. Schoenberg says, “The supply [of staff] has diminished. Some of them just don’t feel comfortable yet. It’s in close quarters, and it’s personal.”

Photo courtesy of The Beauty Box

Photo courtesy of The Beauty Box

A smaller staff impacts the number of customers who can be scheduled, as occupancy was 50% at press time. Schoenberg says, “We’re dealing with a two-headed monster,” referencing the smaller occupancy as mandated by the government and the reduced number of staff who are comfortable working shifts.

Gaynor Donelan of The Beauty Box in Rye has expanded hours to compensate for the fewer clients allowed through the doors. “We expanded our daily operating hours to slow the hemorrhaging of the traffic due to the [mandated] 50% operational capacity. Our booking productivity increased, and we managed to minimize lost traffic. We are currently providing service for an average of 22 clients a day versus 30 pre-COVID. Our current client number is largely due to our extended hours each day.”

“Our client patterns have changed, with many guests opting for several single-service visits versus a full day of beauty, which I believe will ultimately benefit business.”
—Gaynor Donelan, Owner, The Beauty Box

Smaller revenues have meant owners have had to re-evaluate their business models. Prior to COVID, Cuomo had operated Eiluj for 18 years with little to no web presence. In the digital age, it’s a statement of viability to be able to survive solely on brick-and-mortar biz. But during the shutdown, when she wasn’t able to connect with customers, she launched a full e-commerce website, allowing customers to shop her eponymous brand and stocked brands of makeup lines. Says Cuomo: “We made our website a virtual lifestyle shop. We will be adding lingerie and basic Ts and tanks soon.”

Further transformation occurred when Cuomo was forced to downsize after a failed negotiation with her landlord, moving to a smaller location down the street and thereby “lowering our overhead and restructuring our business yet maintaining our loyal client base,” she says. The move has allowed her to stay afloat. Other landlords were more forgiving. Schoenberg, for example, shares that he was able to renegotiate his lease for both the Westchester and NYC spa locations. “Of course, the landlords are in as big of a problem as we are,” he adds.

COVID protections at The Beauty Box in Rye. Photo of The Beauty Box

COVID protections at The Beauty Box in Rye. Photo of The Beauty Box

While many have been eager to return to their go-to salons and spas, revenues have taken a hit due in major part to the three months of shutdown. Giacovas reports being down approximately 20–25%, and Donelan is down 36%. Piccolo says, “We are at an average 30 percent reduction in revenue; this was expected. We knew when we returned there would be a big decrease in sales due to reduced capacity.” Schoenberg says that as of February 2021, his business was off 52%, adding that for a good year, the margin is 13% of gross revenue.

While the numbers reveal a tough narrative, the changes imparted by COVID are not all negative, says Donelan. “Looking back over the past months, many of the changes, although challenging to implement at first, have in many ways strengthened our business and our relationships with clients. We have found that new-appointment timing and protocols are allowing for better client engagement, ultimately resulting in a higher quality of customer care and increased retention.

“Clients have become more loyal, not wanting to venture outside of their comfort zones,” Donelan continues. “Our client patterns have changed, with many guests opting for several single-service visits versus a full day of beauty, which I believe will ultimately benefit business as we settle into a new normal.”

“It’s going to take years for me to get back to even after this. I am deep in the hole. I don’t expect 2021 to be a profitable year; 2020 was a disaster. Let’s hope that 2022 is a good year.”
—Bruce Schoenberg Owner, Oasis Day Spa

Some proprietors foresee a return to “normal” fairly soon, perhaps in the fall, as Donelan says. Giacovas believes the vaccine will help. “If everyone gets vaccinated, we can resume a more normal life.” Piccolo agrees: “We are already seeing a change since the release of vaccines; we have seen guests who haven’t been ready to come until just recently. It has been really nice to see a brightness in everyone. We know it will adjust; it will be incremental and slow, but it’s moving in the right direction.”

Schoenberg, however, expects a longer recovery. “It’s going to take years for me to get back to even after this. I am deep in the hole,” adding, “I don’t expect 2021 to be a profitable year; 2020 was a disaster. Let’s hope that 2022 is a good year.” Ultimately, says the longtime spa owner, “For people in business, we’re all leaning against the ropes.”

Piccolo admits, “There is no question this will affect us this year and potentially next, but our mindset is that this shift has opened our eyes to some changes we needed to make in our budget.” Yet, despite the major challenges, she has confidence in the industry as a whole: “We know statistically the beauty business is one of the strongest businesses. It has stood strong through many financial crises. We expect a major boost and boom in the next years to come.”