Short cuts to a loyal clientele

Hair salons hate it when regular customers are seduced by rivals. Rosie Millard reports on how they'll tempt you to stay

Having a good hairdresser is almost the perfect relationship. You keep in touch regularly, but not too often; you know each other well, but not over-well; and he (it usually is a he) exists solely to (a) make you look good, and (b) tell you that you look good when he has finished. It's dreamy.

Yet even the most perfect set-up has its dull moments. We've all been there. You have your hair cut the same way - but somehow it's not the same. The light has gone out of it. It looks like last year's version. Or you look like last year's version.

Either way, you decide you might just start looking around for someone else to cut your hair. Just for a bit. Not for ever - just for a breather. And, of course, you never go back.

It is the moment every salon dreads. It is not so much the hunting of new heads as holding on to that precious client list, which brings in the real bread and butter.

"Clients can be romanced away," says Lauren from Vidal Sassoon. "Usually if a friend recommends someone else. We have fierce loyalty, most of the time, but it does happen sometimes."

Enter the loyalty scheme: an idea taken on by several salons determined to combat the "romancing away" of old faithfuls. Sassoon tried it last year, "We had a Frequency Scheme," says Lauren. "Only for men. Or women with extremely short hair."

The idea was that if you had a short back and sides every four weeks you got a discount. There was a courtesy card and you simply flashed it at the desk for 15 per cent off the regular charge of pounds 34.50. About 75 men a week used the service at Sassoon's 11 salons. After a trial of a few months, the scheme was wound down. "It got embarrassing," Lauren says. "Too many regulars would come in after five weeks, not four, and demand the discount." However, Sassoon says it is considering setting up a similar scheme in the future.

Molton Brown Hairdressing, which has salons in the West End and Hampstead, is the envy of the hairdressing world in the loyalty scheme stakes. Hair Miles were invented by the owner, Harvey Collins, who was so taken by the idea that when he coined the phrase he instantly patented it. Every time you have a snip, you get a Hair Mile; collect eight and it's a free hair-do, which at Molton Brown's prices (top price for a cut and blow dry: pounds 75), is no mean feat. Or you can give the freebie as a present to a lucky friend or relative. The only catch is that you must collect all eight Miles within a year - a canny calculation which means you must have your hair cut about every six weeks. It's a formula that keeps the customer thinking she's got a bargain, and the salon busy.

"Most people keep their hair too long by about two weeks," says Collins. "This encourages them to have a routine cut sooner." Collins estimates that he has 3,500 clients doing Hair Miles. "They love it! There's a little wallet-shaped card, which people like, and when you get all your Miles there's a certificate. Mothers give it to their daughters, daughters give it to their mates. We have penniless students coming in here and staying for hours getting their hair cut. It's good for our clients; people like to have some kind of benefit. This attracts the sort of person who likes value."

As with British Airways, Collins sees the Hair Miles future writ large. "We want to link up with other salons, or airports, go into the regions. The potential is remarkable," he explains. "It's something for nothing."

Well, sort of. "These days women are looking for cheaper options," says Heinz Schumi of the eponymous Chelsea salon. "I routinely offer a discount if they have more than one treatment."

There is no card with Schumi, but a charming approach of "rounding down" the overall bill. "If a client comes in for a full head of highlights, that's pounds 90. Then a cut is pounds 50," explains the maestro. "So I round down the overall bill to pounds 120, which is much nicer and encourages them to come back. But I am thinking of setting up a more formal incentive arrangement."

For some places, getting in is all you need for a price drop. So tricky is it to book an appointment with the celeb-cutter Nicky Clarke that after the first experience (an eye-watering pounds 190) the price falls to a mere pounds 120. A snip!

Could one call this an incentive scheme? "Well, not really," says a Clarke spokeswoman carefully. "It's just that Nicky needs to have that all-important consultation at first. To get to know your hair." Ah.

Some salons need no incentive for their customers: the regular price list is encouragement enough. "Nah, I don't bother with a scheme," says Louis August, manager of Cutting Remarks in Barnet. "People just keep on coming back. Even if they've moved out the area.

"I think it's because I listen to what they want. I recommend new styles, but I don't push extremism on them."

Price of a chop at Cutting Remarks? "We'd do you a cut and dry for 12 quid."

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