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Published in Small Business
Le Nails salon at The Crossroads mall in Portage. Le Nails salon at The Crossroads mall in Portage. PHOTO BY KATE CARLSON

Portage nail salon confronts broad, industry-wide challenges

BY Sunday, May 09, 2021 04:30pm

PORTAGE — For years, Le Nails owner Jennifer Nguyen provided manicures for some of her regulars on a strict two-week schedule. 

During the COVID-19 outbreak, however, Nguyen’s regulars grew accustomed to more sporadic appointments — or none at all — as the pandemic caused capacity restrictions and temporary closures. Michigan nail salons were mandated to close on March 17, 2020, to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and were allowed to reopen again on June 15. Similar to other businesses in the beauty industry, nail salons are typically limited to indoor settings.

Along with customer hesitation to resume in-person activities or a loss of disposable income, or both, the beauty industry found itself among a unique sector of small businesses harmed by the pandemic.

In the first five months of the pandemic lockdowns last year, the founder of London-based nail polish retailer Nails.INC told Harper’s Bazaar that the company’s online sales increased 200 percent and U.S. retail sales were up 125 percent compared to the previous year.

People replaced salon appointments with do-it-yourself beauty regimens — a shift still being felt by small business owners like Nguyen.

“They are used to living their lives without their nails done,” said Nguyen, who hopes it’s a slow re-emergence to nail routines instead of a long-term trend. “Business has been slowing down. Even though the vaccine came out, I think people are still getting used to getting their nails done again.” 

Nguyen started working for her cousin at Le Nails in 2007, and has owned the salon since 2012. The 1,000-square-foot shop inside The Crossroads mall in Portage has been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions. The store is currently limited to about six customers at a time compared to about 20 customers at once pre-pandemic.

“There is lots of extra cleaning we have to do before every customer comes in, so it takes a bit longer,” Nguyen said. “There is a very slow motion to what we have to do and we cannot have someone sitting and waiting.”

Before the pandemic, 90 percent of Le Nails’ customers were walk-ins, which is much harder to accommodate under tight capacity limits. Mall operating hours also have been reduced by three hours to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Nguyen said. 

Additional unemployment insurance benefits have also made it challenging to keep Le Nails staffed, said Nguyen, who had 10 employees pre-pandemic but now has three and works overtime with her husband to stay afloat.

“Me and my husband have to be there six or seven days a week,” Nguyen said. “We have to be the workers and the managers, but we want to be working there to pay our rent and utilities. If I hire a manager or another worker to come in, then I will be making zero money.”

Moreover, costs for supplies like personal protective equipment, rubbing alcohol and acetone needed to operate Le Nails skyrocketed during the pandemic, Nguyen said. She’s also buying more tools and supplies than before when she could sanitize and reuse some of them.

“It’s terrible, but it’s happening everywhere,” Nguyen said. “I do understand that it is what it is, everyone is having to limit their capacity.”

The challenges don’t end there. Nguyen was able to access some federal small business relief funding, but she couldn’t have done it without the help of attorney Crystal Bui, who also serves as the president of the nonprofit Asian Community Outreach. Nguyen speaks English as a second language — an additional barrier to COVID-19 relief funding for minority-owned businesses — and reached out to Bui for help.

The New York Nail Salon Workers Association, which is part of the labor union Workers United, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 members that found more than 81 percent felt excluded from government help during the pandemic, according to a report in MIT Technology Review

Meanwhile, mall foot traffic has been decreasing, and Nguyen’s family is pushing her to look at other locations. But she has built up her business in the current location for so long that it would be hard to walk away, she said.

“The business you get inside of a mall is not the same as it was 10 years ago,” Nguyen said. “Because I’ve been here about 15 years I do know lots of customers. They are like my friends and my family, my shop is like my kid, so I will try to hang on and hopefully we can get through until business is more normal.”

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