How good, how viable are beauty parlours, now that every street seems to have one? A look at the increasingly crowded beauty business.

There are eight beauty parlours within a kilometre of my home on Davis Road, a residential street in Cooke Town, Bangalore. Of these, two are new, having cropped up just last year. It is not that this area has an unusually high number of parlours. A walk through any residential colony in Delhi, ‘sector’ in Noida, or ‘nagar’ in Chennai will prove that the beauty business is blooming.

Venture beyond residential areas towards the more commercial hubs and parlours morph into 'salons-cum-spas', 'image enhancement centres' and beauty clinics, offering everything from painless Brazilian waxes and laser hair removal to botox, exotic body wraps and "complete slimming solutions". Beauty training is in demand too. A new generation of young women (men are still a minority) is gearing up to become makeup artistes, nail art technicians, message therapists, hair stylists and beauticians.

Will all these women get the jobs they are training for? The beauty care market in India is big right now. A 2012 Price Waterhouse Coopers/FICCI report said the market, worth between Rs 230-Rs 245 billion, is growing at 20 to 25 percent annually. Players in the business include Lakmé and VLCC (Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves), new entrants such as Naturals, and thousands of total unknowns. However, actual numbers (of salons/spas) are hard to come by. Back in 2004, Pune-based research firm ValueNotes Database, estimated that India had over 61,000 beauty salons in towns that have a population of over one million. “We have not revisited such specific data but the numbers must be much more now,” a ValueNotes analyst pointed out.

This of course translates into more jobs and better prospects. What's more, beauty-parlour training is considered a key means of transforming women into self-confident, earning, empowered women–especially for those from less privileged backgrounds. Pune-based researchers Jayashree Upadhye and Arwah Madan studied women running smalll businesses, be it beauty parlours, kindergartens, or purse and bag-making enterprises. The researchers found the women enjoyed power over economic resources and participated in decision-making. “That is empowerment in the true sense,” they reported in a paper titled 'Entrepreneurship and Women Empowerment — Evidence from Pune City' presented at an International Conference on Economics, Business, and Marketing Management in Singapore last year.

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Anitha, 17, from Bangalore, will agree with such research. Her mother Rani is a cook, father an alcoholic. The youngest of three siblings, she couldn't study after Class 10. Rani feared the girl would end up like her — lacking education, married off young, a mother too early, and doing domestic work to make ends meet. Then the family Rani has been working for the past 10-11 years stepped in to help. Knowing that their cook was worried about her daughter's future, they offered to sponsor Anitha for a cosmetology course, costing over Rs.1,00,000, at a VLCC institute in the city.

Beauty-training courses are hugely expensive. A three-day workshop (in beauty/make-up/grooming, for instance) can cost upwards of Rs.5,000. Short-term/long-term courses in cosmetology/haircare/wellness/makeup can last from one to nine months, or two years, and cost anything from Rs.20,000 to over Rs.1,00,000. Yasmin, who runs one of the four or five VLCC institutes in Bangalore, said their students range from “lawyers, animation designers, post graduates and housewives to software engineers and corporate professionals.”

Young women from poor backgrounds cannot afford these courses. Unless, they are lucky to have sponsors, like Anitha. Or they receive training through free courses conducted by city/state agencies or non governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the field of womens' welfare. For instance, just this month (April 2013), the Backward Classes Welfare department of the West Bengal government inaugurated a beauty training centre at tribal-dominated Haringhata town of Nadia district. “The first batch of 25 girls is part of the pilot project, which, if successful, will be replicated at 100 centres across the state," said a news report on the programme. A similar scheme is underway within Kolkata itself, under the Centre-sponsored Swayamsidha (Integrated Women Empowerment Programme). This scheme involves giving self-help groups or Anganwadi workers working capital and training for starting beauty parlours.

But how competent are the women who undergo such 'subsidised' training? Can they set up parlours on their own and become ‘empowered’? Rajni Duggal, founder of Raunak Hair and Beauty Academy in Delhi said that unfortunately, such schemes do not always work out positively. “Training courses and institutes run under government schemes are not really practical. Many 'trainees' even come to me to re-learn the basics,” she observed wryly.

Duggal felt the mushrooming of training institutes across India hinders, rather than helps, the industry. “Here, there are no laws to regulate these centres. Nor is there any government body to recognise the courses they offer,” she said. So these centres associate with foreign institutes for certification/recognition. Duggal's academy for instance, is affiliated with City & Guilds International, London. But in many cases, the syllabus or certification offered, is not even relevant here,” she stressed. Manjul Gupta, founder of the successful Body Craft chain of unisex Spas and Salons in Bangalore, concurred with Duggal's view. “Why, even housekeeping staff seem to be opening parlours these days,” she noted. When trainees are ill-equipped, it is bad for business, she said. “Today, the customer/client is well-informed about treatment options and wants skilled parlour staff,” Gupta pointed out. She added that a government body must be set up to oversee and regulate training institutes and beauty parlours/salons and spas.

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Parlours crop up partly because there exist many government schemes to aid small businesses enterprises such as beauty parlours. Many nationalised banks offer easy-instalment loans — Andhra Bank’s AB Vanitha Vahan, Bank of India’s Mahila Gold Loan Scheme, Central Bank of India’s Cent Kalyani. But a senior official at State Bank of India admitted that loans often go unrecovered. “We give the applicants loans under various government schemes. But often, it is given without any security. A girl may be single when she applies for a loan, then she gets married and vanishes.” The loan is considered a write-off.

Also, many parlours go bust. “Trainees often do not know how to run a business,” pointed out Resham Thanekar, trustee of the Maha Beauty Parlour Training Institute, Mumbai. The institute conducts beauty courses on its own and through select franchisees across Maharashtra. Some trainees are below 18. “We advise and guide the girls on how to apply for bank loans. At times, their fathers apply on their behalf.” Thanekar stressed her girls did emerge successful. “Some approach credit cooperative societies where loans can be paid back on a daily basis, for e.g. Rs.100 a day. Many girls now support their families,” she added.

But success needs both skill and business savvy, said Afshan Anjum, who runs Glossip beauty parlour in Bangalore. Sometimes, in a small parlour, the owner is often the only one professionally trained, she noted. Anjum is the director of a Cosmetology and Healthcare course started two years ago by Mount Carmel College (MCC), one of Bangalore's best-known women’s colleges. Students from any stream in the college can opt for the course, which includes as aspects of beauty care. The idea is to get young women professional expertise and skills along with their degree.

Young women with such degrees have a fallback option if their passion for beauty does not translate into a viable career. Anitha does not have that luxury.

However, she now has the chance to make a better life for herself and her family.

Who knows, she might even open a parlour of her own, one day.

The North-East Effect

No parlour, spa or salon (or hotel/restaurant/resort/boutique) in metros like Bangalore and New Delhi can apparently function without smiling girls from the North Eastern states. Last August, when North Easterners fled Bangalore in a panic after rumours of impending attacks against them, newspapers wryly pointed out that many parlours and boutiques would have to shut down.

Namgang (25) is from Arunachal Pradesh, Tenzin (21) from Dehradun. Both have been working at Glossip beauty parlour for the past year. “We did a free one-year beauty course at the Institute of Small Trade Learning, Nelamangala [outside Bangalore]”, they said. “Every year, a batch of 40 students pass out of the institute. Some of our classmates are working in parlours in Mangalore, Mysore, Delhi and other places,” said Tenzin.

Both believe working in parlours in a big city helps them gain valuable experience. The girls are not new to entrepreneurship. “My mother has a small business making sweaters,” said Tenzin. Namgang's parents too are in the sweater-making business. Tenzin added that after a couple of years, they will go back to their respective homes. “And open our own salons”, she smiled.

Pay and Perks

A good hair stylist/facialist/pedicurist is worth her weight in gold. Parlour/salon owners know that well because clients will ask for her by name. If she leaves, often clients follow. Salaries can vary from Rs.2,500 to Rs.40,000-plus a month, depending on seniority/experience and whether it is a parlour in a luxury hotel or a high-end spa. Tips are a bonus.

Freelancers/mobile beauticians charge less per service than a parlour/salon. Commercial work – doing make-up for films/advertisements, etc. – can also translate into big bucks, depending on the profile of the advertisement agency or film star. Celebrity makeup artistes and stylists, and those who are global ambassadors for iconic beauty brands (MAC, Lancôme, etc), tend to be the best paid in the business.