What retailers can learn from hipster barbershops

From hipsters sporting curly mo’s and tatts up and down their arms to their old-school chairs and their signature red, white and blue swirly barber poles, upscale barbershops have come back in style in recent years. But what has led to this return of high-end male grooming and what can retailers learn from this traditional service?

A booming sector

According to a 2016 Kline report, men’s haircare products were growing at 15 per cent, double the rate of the globe’s overall haircare sales at 7 per cent. In the US, for the past near decade, the men’s segment has been the only personal-care segment with continued growth.

A UK Daily Telegraph article from May this year noted that barbershops have become the fastest growing shop type on the British high street, with 813 shops opening in 2018, a nearly 30 per cent increase on the 624 new stores the prior year, with the 2019 year new shop openings set to eclipse these numbers. 

In the US, the number of barbershops is estimated by the National Association of Barber Boards to grow annually at 10 per cent, on par with the increase in the number of licensed barbers there. Barbering is the fastest-growing profession in the US.

In Australia, the number of male-only grooming establishments has spiked, and according to IbisWorld, the sector grew 2 per cent annually to $4.8 billion in the five years through to 2017. A 2016 Sydney Morning Herald article estimated the increase in barbershops on the eastern seaboard at tenfold over the preceding five years.

Barbershops are also making more money than they used to. Often premium outlets, they charge more per cut than their predecessors, or hair salons. An Ibisworld USA report indicated that barbers were generating more revenue per person in 2018 than they did in 2013, likely also a function of offering increasingly popular specialised services.

Looking good, feeling great

A number of macro trends involving increasing interest in men’s appearance have been capitalised on. Globally there is an increasing acceptance of men tending to their appearance, with social media playing a role as image-conscious men visit barbers up to weekly to ensure constant Instagram-readiness. 

While women visit a hairdresser on average every six weeks for a colour or cut, many men typically visit the barber every two to three weeks for a half-hour tidy-up.

Even in Australia, football players are on-field with their hair freshly styled for a match, unthinkable a decade ago. The trend isn’t limited to hair, either. There has been an increase in beauty services including skincare, facials and nail grooming. The barbershop “movement” rejuvenated first in Europe and the UK as “grooming shops” for men, offering not only haircuts and shaves, but complimentary beauty and wellness services, such as massages or nail care as evidenced by the Aveda-branded grooming destinations in the UK. ManCave Sydney bills itself as Australia’s first “medical aesthetic clinic” specifically for men, offering non-surgical procedures.

The rise in acceptability of facial hair and beards, even in corporate settings, has seen the rise of facial hairstyles requiring a greater degree of upkeep, and a return to traditional barber services, such as wet shaves.

And then there’s the rise of the “third place” for men – like a shed or a pub. Barbershops have traditionally been such a place, where men to chat and feel comfortable. This is now being leveraged with an array of services and means to increase dwell time and spend – not that barbershops would necessarily use those terms. The US’s Blind Barber, launched by a barber and restaurant manager in 2010 and now a chain with its own line of grooming products sold to 150 retail accounts globally, combines barbershop at the front with bar in the back. Customers are given a whiskey while they have their hair cut or beard trimmed, and they then head out the back for a few more drinks.

Melbourne’s The Bearded Man offers beers and coffee, with DJs or live musicians playing in the background. Many have TVs and lounges where one can enjoy a drink.

So the barbershop offers a place of sanctuary, community and relaxation. And according to Kristin Barber, author of Styling Masculinity, alternative versions of masculinity. Barbershops are capitalising on appearance-consciousness by offering heightened experiences. If you google “barbershop”, you get a number of interior-design companies spruiking the awards they’ve won for barbershop design, another indicator of what a hot experiential space this has become.

A boon for landlords

Retail rental vacancies in US malls are increasingly being filled by health and beauty services and particularly barbershops, and landlords are welcoming the trend. According to a 2017 Forbes article, barbershops are perceived as “lifestyle brands” largely exempt from online competition due to the service-based nature of the offer.

The customers that visit high-end barbershops are also a drawcard, as they’re not often seen in some retail areas. They can also draw more high-spending traffic, given they may promote the experience on social media.

The space that barbershops prefer – typically long and narrow with minimal storefront for privacy – are notoriously difficult to lease.

Product sales on the rise

Typically in women’s hairdressing, around 10 per cent of revenue comes from retail product sales. Barbershops are looking to improve that figure. While in the US barbers had been considered to be a contributor to the growth of men’s grooming products in mass retailers, barbers are improving their skills at recommending products. Various surveys indicate that 30 to 35 per cent of men purchase grooming products based on the barber’s recommendation, and there is a 90 per cent chance the client will return to the barbershop where he made the purchase. This is particularly true for unique or professional brands, of which there has been an explosion in the past decade, according to the Kline 2016 report.

Beyond the barbershop itself there are other retail opportunities. In Poland there have been events created around the barbershop trend, such as Barber Days trade shows, and associations and get-togethers organised for men with beards.

Uppercut Deluxe, an Australian brand founded by two barbers in a barbershop with products now sold worldwide, has become renowned for their pop-up barbershop activations in retail stores, dive bars and skate competitions. Their “cut bus” is a fully functioning mobile barbershop with a TV and minibar that visits musical gigs. With a fully stocked retail space, customers can receive a free haircut from one of Uppercut’s barber partners when they purchase a product from the bus. 

Keeping up standards

The growth of barbershops hasn’t been without some growing pains. The comparative lack of regulation and low barriers to entry such as low startup costs have seen a number of outlets open without proper staff training. Some in the industry are concerned that lack of qualifications may reduce the perceived standard of barbering.

It’s understandable, though, that some want to capitalise on this burgeoning sector, with Ibisworld Australia reporting that barbershops contribute 6.3 per cent and growing of the $4.8 billion hairdressing and beauty service industry, and forecasting a further 1.4 per cent annually through to 2022.

The sector looks set to grow further as men trim themselves in upmarket alternative sheds.

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