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Spring 2002 Faux Hair is Back!

I can’t do a thing with my hair.” It’s a time-honored lament uttered in front of mirrors everywhere. But thanks to some new tricks (and technology), the proverbial “bad-hair day” may soon be old hat.

That’s because a growing number of women of all ages are discovering that with a flick of the wrist, they can clip on one of today’s new hair extensions or pop on a wig before heading off to work, leaving the gym, or painting the town.

For years, wigs and other hairpieces were not only uncool, they were somehow déclassé. The only women who wore them were actresses in costume, or women with severe hair loss due to age, conditions like alopecia, or medical treatments like chemotherapy. Wigs for these everyday women were usually purchased “quietly” through salons or via mail-order. And unless she had a Hollywood-size budget, she had to settle for affordable wigs that were poorly made, ill-fitting, and not natural-looking—in short, not attractive.

New wave

Today, things are greatly improved on all counts, starting with the hairpieces themselves. Not your granny’s stiff synthetic or coarse real-hair toppers, today’s hairpieces look as natural as the best real hair. In fact, many are made from human hair; others are made from new synthetics that are softer and shinier than ever.

Also improved is the perception of faux hair. Any stigma formerly attached to wigs and other “fake” hair is fading, as hair extensions and wigs show up on the heads of fashion-forward, trend-setting celebs. José Eber, the renowned hair stylist to the stars, says the mass market follows the lead of the entertainment world, which has made hairpieces not only acceptable, but cool. “Musicians took the lead,” he says. “Watch the music videos and you’ll see that one day the singers have long hair, and the next day they have short hair.” Young pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera wear them in videos and ads. At last year’s Oscars, Julia Roberts wore hair extensions to top the elegant look of her black and white, 1960s Valentino gown. The buzz she created among media, fans and fashionistas wasn’t because faux hair was unheard of or (Hollywood heaven forbid!) unattractive, but because it looked fabulous.

It’s precisely that kind of exposure and effect that sends consumers hurrying to the mall for hair extensions to replicate a look. “Wigs and hair extensions are really, really acceptable now,” says Paul Reynolds, chief operating officer of Jon Renau, a hairpiece wholesaler based in San Diego. In fact, the trend didn’t start in France or Italy, as these things often do: this time, American women are leading the way, and Europeans are following their lead. More and more women today see hairpieces as a fun accessory, using it to change their look at will. And sometimes it “saves” them from a bad-hair day. “People want to think of hair extensions and wigs as another accessory they have in their closet, one more thing a woman owns that can make her feel desirable and beautiful,” he says.

Sonia DiMaria Poole, co-founder of HairDiamond, a hair-jewelry and accessory company (Scottsdale, AZ), says much the same thing. “I have a friend, a redhead, who felt plain until she put on a longish wig. She looked in the mirror and said, ‘I feel like Hollywood!’ It made all the difference.” She predicts that before long, inexpensive hair extensions such as clip-on pony-tails, braids, twists and scrunchies will become a standard in every woman’s closet, like T-shirts and shoes. “These won’t replace going to the salon,” she says. “But this is a different way for a woman to feel confident”. Just as important, especially to time-starved American women, is the convenience. Doug Poole, president of HairDiamond, says they also have a very practical purpose as a beauty item. “They’re for practical, professional usage,” he says. “It’s an easy way for women to do their hair quickly and get on with business.”

imageAnd finally, hairpieces aren’t bought and sold “quietly” anymore: there they are in the mall for everyone not only to see, but try on and play with.

Cart and kiosk retailers are in an excellent position to carry fashion hairpieces for two reasons, say the experts. Wigs and hair extensions are relatively inexpensive impulse items and as such, they sell best with the high level of customer contact that small retailers can provide. Roberta “Bobbi” Burns, owner of the Gigi’s Hair Gallery franchise in University Towne Center (LaJolla, CA), is an example of the effectiveness of personalized service. “I always thought hairpieces were for entertainers, or people with cancer,” she says. “Then I went to a Gigi’s kiosk and within 30 minutes, I wanted to buy $400 worth of hair. I loved everything!”

In a sense, she did buy everything: today, Burns operates her own Gigi’s kiosk and is just as enthusiastic about the products. “When you want to buy a hairpiece in a department store, it’s locked behind a glass case, and the lighting is poor. Our kiosk is located in natural light,” she says. “At the department store, you put the wig near your face, and no one helps you style it. We have customers try on our hairpieces and show them how to style it four or five different ways.”

Amy Shimek, a fashion-conscious attorney from Anchorage, AK, became convinced of the appeal of fashion hairpieces after she bought one from a Gigi’s kiosk. “I love fashion and clothes and makeup,” she says. “When my mom was in high school in the ’60s, girls were wearing lots of ‘falls,’ and I thought that was a cute look.” After trying on her first $89 hairpiece, she was hooked. “This is a great product,” Shimek says. “I’ve had other hairpieces, but they haven’t stood the test of time the way these do.” She helped her sister select a hairpiece to wear at her wedding. And later, on a whim, she went to the Gigi’s Web site and requested franchise information. Last November, she and a partner opened their own Gigi’s kiosk.

Back on top

Fashion wigs are notorious for having cycled in and out of favor. The last heyday of hairpieces was in the 1960s and early ’70s. “They were very popular then; every woman had at least one,” says Steven Margu, whose grandfather founded the hairpiece wholesale firm Henry Margu (Yeadon, PA) a half century ago as a hat business.

Women eventually abandoned wigs because they were hot, heavy and stiff. Wig caps were tight, and hairpieces like the falls, braids, coils and “Grecian curls” of the day required some serious hardware: giant metal bobby pins and handfuls of hairpins. And while a young lady might never let on in public or on a date, it was no secret among women that hairpiece plus hardware added up to headaches and stiff necks—and mad dashes to the ladies’ room to repair slippage, or just take the darned thing off and stuff it in her purse. No wonder they vanished.

But thanks to new technology, they’re back and better than ever, and the excitement is just beginning. Gigi’s products, for example, are made from a synthetic called toyokalon, which is as soft and silky as real hair, and doesn’t crinkle. Features like these make hairpieces more appealing than ever. Exact sales figures aren’t available for wigs and hairpieces, but Doug Poole says sales of his products increased by 500 percent last year. And that confirms Christina Mangin’s take. Mangin, the president of Gigi’s Hair Gallery (Carlsbad, CA), believes that rather than having peaked yet again, hair extensions and wigs are just starting to gain real momentum in the marketplace—and this time, they’re here to stay. Today, the cap construction is lighter, and the hair is shinier and comes in a greater variety of shades.

Who’s buying?

Retailers who want to brush up on the hairpiece market need to be familiar with the market first. Eighteen- to 39-year-old women are the largest group of purchasers of fashion hairpieces. A location in an area that caters to that demographic—such as near university campuses and office complexes— puts you near your target market and helps assure that you’ll reach them.

But that’s not to disregard those who are younger and older than that. Women of all ages are falling for “fun hair.” Burns says her customers range from pre-teens splurging on simple scrunchies with attached braids, to octogenarians purchasing full wigs.

Specialty retailers entering the market also need to consider who their own target customers are, and stock up accordingly. Suburbanites and soccer moms tend to be more conservative, preferring simple twists, ponytails or extensions. Blonde is the number-one color preference for most of middle America. Urban and downtown women are often more fashion-forward and sometimes experimental. They tend to prefer darker shades with auburn highlights, even fluorescents and spots.

Hairpiece styles cycle according to trends, which often first appear in magazines like InStyle. The chunky razored look is hot at the moment, as are dreadlocks, especially among young city-dwellers. Burns sells a hairpiece with as many as 40 braids, a style that hairdressers would charge more than $200 to produce but wouldn’t last as long as the artificial braids.

Styles also change with the seasons, says Sonia Poole. Clip-ons are popular in the summer; wigs or falls in cooler weather, worn much like a hat. Still, many looks are perennial favorites with customers. “Long pieces are timeless, and the ‘shag’ is still extremely popular,” Reynolds says. “Braided pieces are always big with younger people.”

Hair supply

imageRetailers can find the latest hairpieces at regional, national and international beauty shows. One of the largest shows is the International Beauty Show, held every March at the Javits Center in New York City. Also noteworthy are the Women’s Wear Daily Show in Las Vegas, and the Fashion Accessories Expo in New York.

Doing your homework to find the right supplier is an essential element in sales success, Reynolds says. He suggests that retailers examine a supplier’s track record and length of time in business, look at the size of their premises (smaller warehouses mean less variety), and ask the owners of other hairpiece kiosks their opinions about product quality. “Carry more than one person’s merchandise,” he suggests. “The true winner will be [apparent] in the end, and you’ll have products to fall back on if something goes wrong with one of the suppliers.”

The greater the selection of styles and price points a retailer can offer, the greater the chance of attracting buyers. About two-thirds of the stock should consist of hair extensions and pieces, experts recommend; the rest of the inventory is a selection of full wigs. Retailers should provide a variety of synthetic and human-hair pieces. Burns launched her kiosk with 200 hairpieces in a variety of colors; after one year in business, she now has about 800 pieces. She displays every style in every color, with two back-up pieces of each item in a drawer.

Retail prices range from $15 for a scrunchie with braids to $120 for a long, full wig. Clip-on extensions sell for between $49 and $89, a mark-up of three times over the wholesale cost, according to Reynolds. Many retailers support their bottom line by also selling products to care for hairpieces, as well as hair accessories such as barrettes, combs and hairpins. “People are price conscious,” says Margu, “but just about anyone can afford a small, inexpensive piece or an accessory.” Hairpieces made from human hair can be washed with regular shampoo and treated just like your own hair. While hair extensions can simply be aired out for a day to refresh them, Reynolds says, but synthetic wigs require special attention. Gigi’s sells its own line of shampoo, conditioner and brushes to care for their products.

The personal touch

A hands-on approach is the key to sales. So is the way the products are displayed. “Most [retailers] just hang them out like a sea of scalps,” Reynolds says. Hairpieces can be displayed effectively in their packaging, with a few hairpieces in different colors on a peg or on clip strips. Effective display work is best left to a knowledgeable sales staff.

But the most important element for successful sales is demonstration and interaction: staffers who wear and work with the products while interacting with customers. “Have two people working the cart, and let them put the hairpieces on each other,” Reynolds suggests. “It’s a spectacle that draws people over.”

Similarly, Burns’ employees must wear one of the hairpieces at work, because that helps sell the product. “Customers don’t know they have them on,” she says. “Then the girls just unclip their extension and show them how easy it is to take on and off.” They match the customer with a hairpiece that suits her coloring, and each hair color has the name of a yummy dessert or snack. “We tell people they’re a perfect Boisenberry Twist or Cream Soda, or a Butterscotch or Popcorn,” Burns says. “The only hair colors we can’t match are those with purple and green streaks.” Then once customers try on the hairpieces, most will buy.

An eager sales force of enthusiastic high school girls help Shimek move the hairpieces out of the kiosk and on to the heads of customers. “You have to coax people to try them on, but once they do, they buy them,” Shimek says. “High school girls let people know it’s OK to wear a hairpiece. It’s a cool thing, not a need. It’s a quick and easy way to look better and feel better about yourself.”

“These products sell themselves.” Burns says. “Most people who approach our kiosk have no intention of buying, but they usually leave with something. Some start small, then return to buy more. Some get excited and buy three of four hairpieces at once,” she says. “I believe it’s all because of the personal touch.”

Mangin shares a similar overview: “We want to educate women that these are for everyday use,” she says. Many women really don’t know how to use these products, but they will: the more they see them, the more they’ll want to. “We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of how big these products will get.” For retailers who want in on the faux-hair wave, the time is now.

Pamela Rohland

Pamela Rohland often writes about the joys and tribulations of entrepreneurship for a variety of regional and national business publications.

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