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Summer 2011 Ethnic Art Moves Mainstream

Entrepreneur Syed Ali is looking to the art of eyebrow threading to shape his growing business into a runaway success.

Eyebrow Designer 21 is at the forefront of a beauty trend sweeping the country. The Chicago-based retailer is helping to introduce the Indian art of eyebrow threading to mainstream America.

Company founder Syed Ali opened his very first eyebrow threading boutique more than a decade ago at a street-front store in Naperville, IL. Today, Eyebrow Designer 21 is one of the largest eyebrow threading retail chains in the country with more than 75 mall locations across 17 states and plans to open an additional 70 stores by the end of 2012.

The booming business is a practical marriage between Ali’s business education and a tradition that women in his family have practiced in his native India. “I used to see my mom and my aunts and other family members doing this, because it is very common in India,” says Ali, president and CEO of Chicago-based Eyebrow Designer 21.

Eyebrow threading is a way of removing unwanted hairs. The tradition has been passed down for generations among the women of Ali’s own family. The technique uses a length of thread, which is twisted back and forth along the hair to be removed. The twisting action of the thread traps the hair and lifts it out of the follicle. The method is supposedly more effective and less painful than other hair removal methods such as waxing and tweezing.

Mall-based expansion

Ali recognized the opportunity to introduce eyebrow threading to American women when the practice was still a relative novelty. He also realized the tremendous market potential in launching a business that would cater to women and tap into the multi-billion dollar industry that caters to women’s beauty products and services.

The success of his initial boutique prompted Ali to expand into a market where he could reach a larger customer base—the shopping mall. Eyebrow Designer 21 opened its first kiosk at Gurnee Mills Mall, Gurnee, IL in 2004. At that time, eyebrow threading was still a relatively new retail business. “It was very hard to convince mall management to launch this concept in mall common areas,” Ali says. In fact, it took Ali seven meetings with the specialty leasing representative to explain the concept, and convince mall officials that eyebrow threading would be a good addition to their mall.

Eyebrow Designer 21 has since opened more than 75 kiosk and traditional store locations at malls across the country in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Illinois, California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware, Texas, Louisiana and Missouri.

Capturing repeat business

One of the keys to success for Eyebrow Designer 21 is attracting a high volume of repeat business. Women typically return every three to four weeks for follow-up treatments, which cost between $10 and $12. Sales vary depending on the individual stores, as well as the unique demographic and traffic patterns of a particular mall. However, some of the busier stores see an average of 4,000 customers per month.

“When we started in Gurnee Mills Mall in 2004, we had to educate each and every woman,” Ali says. Now that threading has become a nationally recognized trend, women understand what it is, how it works and what the benefits are. Ali is even seeing doctors recommending threading for patients who are sensitive to chemicals.

Eyebrow Designer 21 tries to set itself apart from other salon competitors by training employees to not just perform threading, but also to spend more time in shaping the eyebrows. “Excellent customer service is my main goal,” Ali says.

In addition to providing threading services for eyebrows and other facial hair, Eyebrow Designer 21 offers other services such as eyelash extensions, henna tattoos and herbal facials. The stores also sell related products, including eyebrow pencils and brushes. Although women make up 95 percent of the clientele, about 5 percent of the customers are men who come for eyebrow threading or henna tattoos.

Shaping a national brand

One of the differences that sets Eyebrow Designer 21 apart from its competitors is that it invests time and money in the store décor as it strives to create a nationally branded image. Many competitors don’t spend a lot of time or money on their stores. Oftentimes, they want to put on a fresh coat of paint and open the store, Ali notes. “I try to give our stores a total look, and I use the same colors and building [design] at every store,” he adds.

In fact, Eyebrow Designer 21 has emerged as one of the few nationally branded threading boutiques in the U.S. Although the company continues to offer kiosk options, the current focus is on expanding through inline stores that typically range in size from 500 to 1,200 square feet. Eyebrow Designer 21 is emphasizing the permanent store format, because it offers the advantage of a more private setting for customers.

“A lot of women don’t like to have the treatments done in the common area, especially when they are doing the upper lip or full faces,” Ali says.

Eyebrow Designer 21 is continuing to target locations in top malls around the country, and these days mall owners are much more receptive to the concept. “They know what threading is. So they want threading in their malls,” Ali says. Landlords also are welcoming Eyebrow Designer 21 and its new upscale design, which features a sleek black and orange décor that was introduced in 2010.

Ali is considering adding franchising to spur growth in the future. For now, Eyebrow Designer 21 remains a family business with his family members totally involved in it. “It is less like a business to us. It is a tradition of India. We are totally involved in it, and it is a part of our culture and our life,” Ali says.

Ali is convinced the stores’ superior customer service, modern, chic look and comfortable atmosphere give Eyebrow Designer 21 a leading edge.

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Beth Mattson-Teig

Beth Mattson-Teig is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. She specializes in covering the national commercial real estate industry.

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