How Pro Nail Technicians Are Rising Against Non-Standard Salons

Hannah Gay investigates what are non-standard salons, and what qualified nail technicians are doing to stand out from the crowd.

What is a qualified nail technician?
What does a nail salon look like to you?
Ultimately, what does it matter?

From one beauty salon to the next, clients are typically well-versed on what to expect. Skin and cosmetic treatments are performed by qualified therapists with an assumed degree of training. For business owners, the attainment of relevant qualifications by their staff is deemed a necessary condition of employment.

The ratio of licensed and qualified nail technicians operating in Australia versus the number of shopfronts is less balanced. This is due to the surge in what has been dubbed ‘non-standard salons’ (NSS) setting up shop in shopping centres and residential strips across the country. Ultimately, NSS are primarily recognised for their employment of under-qualified staff.

Non-standard salons

NSS are often, but not always, operated by franchisees, granting individual business owners the power to hire and fire, set pricing, and manage salon standards despite operating as a chain. Such standards are said to be too lax, with various problems ranging from poor customer service to bouts of infection making headlines both nationally and internationally. 

In 2023, Nail Salons (combined with Personal Waxing providers) account for 6,685 businesses in Australia – an increase of 2.2% from last year. This increase is reflected on a global scale, whereby the Nails market is expected to grow at an annual compound growth rate of 2.91% between 2023-2027.

Issues with a lack of regulation

While business is expected to remain on the up, regulation around training remains stagnant. This issue has come to the forefront for not just nail clients, but for the nail technicians who have attained adequate qualifications and serve as industry competitors.

“Apart from inconsistent results for the client due to procedures being performed incorrectly, this builds reputation which affects many other nail technicians actually doing the right thing; even defamation of reputable brands and products,” argues Samantha Elliott of SEIR Beauty School – a nationally-registered training organisation.

The consequences

For Samantha, businesses that opt not to adhere to safe standards risk a series of problems for clients: “spreading contagious diseases, disorders and infections through poor infection control techniques and unsanitary items; causing permanent damage to the matrix at the birthplace of the nail plate due to incorrect cuticle cutting [procedures], resulting in a deformed growth of the nail or the nail falling off completely; [the nail may not be] able to grow back; serious issues with clients bleeding excessively due to underlying health conditions not addressed by the practitioner and needing to be hospitalised… It is important to have training and gain qualifications from a reputable registered training provider to protect not just yourself but the integrity of the industry as a whole.”

Samantha’s concerns are echoed by Lynda Leigh, owner/operator at Fleur De Lisa Nails, Bega in NSW. Lynda sites an article that ran last month on The Conversation. Warnings to readers of unhygienic practices, allergic reactions, chemical burns, and product toxicity are peppered throughout. And while informative, Lynda stresses that such incidents are not to be expected at licenced establishments to the same degree.

“[The article] often mentions fungus, viruses and unhygienic conditions. As a professional nail tech, I adhere to infection control measures. Plus, my Development Application approval requires it.  I no longer use plastic foot spas as they cannot be sanitised properly,” Lynda adds.

“There are concerns around the toxicity of products used, for example methyl methacrylate (MMA) versus ethyl methacrylate (EMA). MMA is a poisonous chemical that can cause allergic reactions and permanent nail damage. It is banned in the USA but not in Australia, where it is often used in NSS. NSS bulk-buy products directly from China with unreadable labels decanted into small jars at the nail desk. All our products are bought through Australian suppliers and therefore TGA-approved.”

“[The article] also warns that some ingredients in nail care products may also lead to allergic contact dermatitis. That’s why we don’t smother clients’ fingers in polish and make sure we cure the gel completely. We ask lots of questions before we commence a service, have an anti-allergy base coat, and use resin base hard gel for our overlays and enhancements.”

Some rumors surrounding the practices of NSS are less relevant and more sinister. Lynda expresses concern around NSS acting as a front for ‘sexual services’, suggesting sex slavery and immigrant trafficking can occur in these environments. While such claims are extreme, the concern for Lynda again falls back on the grouping of such environments with licensed establishments.

Pricing inconsistencies

For Sydney-based nail technician and business owner Laura Wilkes, the presence of NSS takes its toll on the industry at-large when it comes to setting treatment prices. “The pricing these salons have is so unrealistic for a qualified nail tech using quality products. I’ve been a tech for 12 years and work fast, but still wouldn’t make much money at all if I charged the same. This sets a standard for the cost of nail [services] that isn’t realistic, making us look expensive when my prices are still low compared to other beauty treatments.”

Lynda also flags the likelihood that income generated from NSS can be undeclared and staff underpaid, with little to no access to superannuation and workers compensation. 

The role of the media

Media outlets and consequently, public discourse, has been called out for adding fuel to the fire, generalising nail salons and their services. The standards and qualifications held by staff based in non-standard salons versus those held by educated nail technicians can vary significantly from business-to-business. 

For Lynda, the actions of some are having an impact on many. She believes the onus should rest on the media to distinguish the roles of skilled nail technicians and unqualified “manicurists”.

“[The] media is focusing on the lowest common denominator, which is unfortunately the non-standard salons found in suburbia,” Lynda explains. “NSS are also known as ‘chop shops’ or ‘nail/beauty bars’ – fast turnaround, walk-in, multiple manicurists (for want of a better word, as they are not qualified), working side-by-side in a confined space. [Because] the media does not differentiate between professional nail technicians and these unqualified manicurists, ‘nail salon services’ are perceived as a ‘bad thing’ by the general public.”

By electing a NSS for treatment, Samantha stresses that the public are often none-the-wiser. “[The public] need to know they are putting themselves in a high-risk environment when it comes to complications. I think the public needs to recognise the hard work and effort qualified nail technicians have put in to gain their qualifications. The fact they have been formally assessed and approved to be of a certain standard ensures they will be looked after by a specialist in their field.”

“The media gives us plenty of warnings but does not provide an access point whereby clients can report issues,” Lynda adds. “Clients merely leave a bad review and it’s [a case of] buyer beware. Oddly, the more reviews you receive – good or bad – the higher Google SEO ranks you!”
* CONTENT WARNING: footage of strong language and verbal abuse *

The hashtag #venusnailsnorthrocks has accrued 3.7 million views on TikTok after footage of the nail salon’s owner was allegedly abusive toward a staff member. Allegations of verbal and sexual assault, intimidation, and no set pricing by the owner have circulated by clients online. The business is currently temporarily closed. Venus Nails’ franchise manager was contacted for comment, with no response.

How to distinguish yourself as a professional nail salon:

1. Make it known your staff is qualified and highly skilled

It’s essential any client walking into your business feels confident that the service you provide will meet their expectations. “Client demands are becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain as they themselves have so much knowledge about these services with everything being so accessible on social media,” Samantha flags. “So, a high level of training and recognised qualifications are the most important foundations when it comes to any nail technician.” Samantha says the training sector is becoming more compliance-based, with approvals by monitoring bodies and insurance companies occuring more frequently. “They are tightening up their policies and mostly only accepting qualified technicians with recognised qualifications.”

SEIR’s examination boards consists of ITEC and VTCT. “Our Acrylic Nail Fundamentals (SHBBNLS009) is one of the most popular courses studied here. At SEIR Beauty School we want to give [individuals] the best entry into the industry. As well as following the Australian standardised curriculum, we [share] additional learning resources… to ensure no stone is left unturned when it comes to ‘what you need to know’ to put the right foot forward post-graduation.” Compliance and standards, infection control, fashion nail trends, troubleshooting, and multiple techniques are taught within small class sizes, Samantha adds. “E-file training is now a mandatory unit in the Beauty Diploma and has to be completed prior to basic mani/pedi, which many will be surprised to know!” 

Once on the salon floor, Lynda says “my first role as a professional nail tech is to educate my clients,  starting with [the fact] that a brand name product (SNS, Shellac) is not actually a service [in the way] acrylic dip, glue manicure or gel polish is.”

2. Publicise your dedication to health and safety standards 

In addition to displaying your qualifications, consider allocating wall space to messages around good hygiene practices, OHS rules followed in-salon, and calls-to-action encouraging clients to “Ask Us!” about your standards. You can even keep print-outs of government fact sheets in view of clients and included in employee manuals.

3. Ensure your website and social media pages are user friendly and updated regularly

It’s worth ensuring business owners consider their online presence an extension of their bricks-and-mortar salon. Consider enlisting the support of a website developer and social media manager if these areas are beyond your scope.

4. Utilise a booking system so clients will know they will be seen on time

One gripe clients often recount of walk-in only businesses (typical of NSS) is that wait times are often unpredictable. Working with a booking software (like Fresha, Podium or Kitomba, to name a few) means clients are granted greater control over their schedule and have confidence in the business knowing they’re more likely to be seen on time.

5. Reflect your skill level in your pricing

As daunting as it may feel to offer nail services at prices beyond those offered at NSS, it’s important to impart your competence onto incoming clients. Your treatment menu and pricing will suggest to clients that what they see is what they’ll get, with the aim of attracting clients to your business who are after a high-end service. Research what qualified nail salons in similar areas to your own are charging, familiarising yourself with your neighboring clientele along the way. Operating out of prime locations will naturally incur higher rents and therefore, reflect on treatment menus. If performing nail art, consider charging per nail, or charging per add-on.

6. Invest in marketing

As suggested above, ensuring all touch-points of your business – especially digital touch-points – are kept up-to-scratch is essential. “There are always a few key areas of content that needs to be produced to help any salon build their brand authority and assert themselves as the experts in their niche,” explains Socials for Salons founder Kayla Zigic. “Generally speaking, many salons tend to create ‘nail content’ in the form of posts and short form video content that is distributed via reels or TikTok. While these are all great pieces of content for helping to grow your brand awareness and showcase your skill set, it isn’t enough to educate an audience on what the salon’s points of differences are and why their follower should visit their salon over an NSS.”

Kayla insists on jumping on the educational content train to warn clients on what to avoid when choosing a nail salon. “Yes, an NSS may offer a cheaper service, but they also potentially offer a cheaper customer experience. For example, if you ensure each client takes home their own nail file [as a means of limiting contamination], or you use an in-salon autoclave, use these to your advantage. You may think it’s boring content because it’s not ‘nails’, but you’re educating the audience on why they should choose you.”

“Sometimes it’s not about the content, but how you deliver it. You could use a hook headline, like ‘Do you know what red flags to look out for when you’re visiting a nail salon?’ I do recommend not using any passive aggressive or condescending tones. Try to keep it professional and nurturing – you don’t ever want your audience feeling attacked.”

Kayla also flags the importance of showing your face and the faces of your staff. Professional Beauty UK referred to a survey by Superscript, flagging that 43% of local shoppers prefer to get to know staff on a personal level when they visit. “Talk about your training, your qualifications, and your core salon values. If you are completing new courses or staff education days, document it and tell your audience why ongoing education is so important to you and your salon. Not only does that help your engagement (clients love seeing your face), it also helps you to educate your audience on your training and places you in a superior position over your ‘non-standard’ competitors.”

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