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How to Turn a Hair Salon in Decline into a Luxury Experience and a Thriving Business

Ellen Cortes, owner of Hairworks in Normanton near Leeds, let us into the secrets of her success.

In 2008, Ellen was at a crossroad in her career. Having completed an apprenticeship in hairdressing and worked as a self-employed stylist for five years – renting a chair in a salon in Leeds – she was ready to take the plunge and open own her own business.

“I was just ready to have more control, to do things my way,” she explained. “My husband and I had been talking about opening a salon for a while and he was very supportive. The original idea was to find premises and build from there, but we just couldn’t find the right property. Buying a salon was almost a plan B at the time, but we found an opportunity and, despite the recession at the time, decided to go for it.”

However, almost as soon as Ellen had the key to Hairworks in her hand, she knew she faced a real challenge if the salon was to be a success: “It turned out the business was taking a lot less money than the accounts suggested, the services were basic, and the interior needed a total overhaul. It was clearly in decline and, to make matters worse, wasn’t appealing to my target market. It was pretty obvious that I would have to start from scratch.”

Undeterred, Ellen rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in, transforming the tired salon into a modern, luxurious setting and, drawing on her status as a colour expert, completely changed the salon’s service offering.

“It was a risk and it was scary to essentially rip it up and start again, but I knew it was the only way to really put my stamp on the place, make it mine, and start to turn the business around,” she explained. “At first, we lost quite a few customers who were used to a ‘cheap and cheerful’ approach, but from there things took off quickly. I was fortunate that clients from Leeds followed me, despite the drive, and that really gave me a platform to build on.”

Since those early days, with Hairworks established as a colour specialist and the go-to salon for colour correction in the area, Ellen has constantly sought to move the business forward. An important part of that has been her focus on training and development – for herself and her staff – and that has proven crucial her success.

“You can never stand still in this business,” she said. “That is why I’m so committed to training and development.  It keeps things fresh for everyone and gives our customers a reason to trust our expertise and keep coming back - we can offer services and techniques customers can’t find anywhere else in the area, not just colour but higher-end services like extensions and permanent straightening too.”

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Along with that constant development, Ellen points to the customer experience as playing a vital role in Hairworks’ turnaround – from marketing and booking through to the in-salon experience. She employs a social media marketing specialist to promote the salon on Instagram, with a focus on highlighting the teams’ training as well as their work.

“That generates a lot of bookings, but we’ve also worked hard to make the whole experience easy and enjoyable for customers” Ellen said, “Partly that is about really focusing on customer service and being proactive when things don’t go to plan – dealing with any problems there and then, making sure our customers’ hair is perfect when they leave.

“But it is also about the small details. For instance, customers can book appointments via our app, rather than having to call us, and the same app automatically asks for reviews – so now we have by far the most reviews of any salon in the area. It’s also about making it easy for clients. People don’t want to take annual leave for a long colour appointment, so we put laptop charging points in each section and make sure it’s a peaceful environment so they can work whilst having their hair done. Customers love that.”

Fifteen years on, Hairworks is thriving, with loyal staff and customers and an ever-growing reputation for offering the latest techniques in a luxurious, peaceful and friendly setting – and, to Ellen’s pride, has achieved 5-star status in the Good Salon Guide.

It is not all plain sailing of course – the business relied on government grants and bounce-back loans to survive the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. Meanwhile, with costs rising across the board, Ellen finds the salon’s margins being squeezed as she attempts to limit price rises for customers: “For now, that means working longer hours, but that goes with the territory of running your own business. It’s hard work and there are always risks and issues to overcome, but it is worth it.”

The right insurance also plays an important role in protecting her hard work, according to Ellen: “Colour specialists like us face some quite specific risks – for instance, if you’re not testing properly or using products without proper training, then customers can suffer reactions or even burns. I’ve seen salons sued for those kinds of mistakes.

“We do everything possible to ensure the safety of our customers, but you can never rule out something going wrong. Then there is the salon itself. I’ve invested a great deal in making it a really luxurious space, so it’s really important that is protected if the worst happens. That is how I see insurance – it’s peace of mind, knowing that someone has your back if something goes wrong.”

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