New haircut chain challenges salons

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In a country where a haircut can routinely cost as much as going to the dentist, Norwegians are flocking to a new chain that offers only quick haircuts for a fixed, relatively low price. The arrival of Cutters has left established salons tearing their own hair out over the new competition that they claim violates professional standards.

Cutters started with one outlet in Bergen in 2015 and had expanded to more than 20 outlets by last summer. Now it’s expanding into Sweden, offering 15-minute haircuts on a strictly drop-in basis that’s clearly threatening established full-service hair salons that charge much more. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

On a recent Saturday morning, customers were lined up at the small Cutters outlet that opened last winter in the heart of Oslo. It’s among the more than 20 that have opened around Norway during the past year, starting in Bergen and expanding to other cities including Kristiansand and Oslo, with an outlet at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen as well. Cutters’ success, reports newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), is prompting its founders to explore the market for quick haircuts at international airports all over the world.

Cutters is a no-nonsense and rather un-Norwegian operation, with all written instructions for customers presented in English. Those walking in the door are met with a sign reading “Pay to start” that points to a self-service screen and terminal where men and women alike pay exactly the same fee of NOK 299 (USD 37) with a debit- or credit card. That’s cheap by Norwegian standards, and also firmly does away with an old, if legally questionable, habit at full-service salons of charging women more for a haircut than men. After signing up and paying the fee, customers get a 15-minute haircut when their name is called. No appointments are taken at the purely “drop-in” Cutters, but customers can check waiting times online at outlets in their area.

“Sit down and relax,” reads the next sign that points to the few seats offered for those opting to wait. Another sign on the floor points to the nearest hair-cutting chair and reads “Your turn to shine.”

There was only one woman on duty when the Cutters on Stortingsgata in downtown Oslo opened at 10am on a recent Saturday, and she had one customer in the chair and three others already waiting by 10:15am, but she was joined by a colleague at 11am in the outlet that has four chairs. “Cut time. Cut hair. Cut cost,” read more lettering on the wall. It’s also possible to sign up and pay for the cut, head out on another errand and then return in time to hear your name called.

Upsetting the establishment
While customers, many of them men, were willing to wait and expressed enthusiastic satisfaction with their haircuts, the Cutters chain has upset the national organization representing traditional hair salons (Norske frisør- og velværebedrifter, NFVB). They were clearly relieved when authorities shut down many small immigrant-run hair salons a few years ago. Those salons, many of them of the “mom-and-pop” variety, offered shampoos and hair cuts at prices much lower than the established salons, but several ended up being charged with tax evasion and using undocumented workers. The crackdown by authorities was applauded by NFVB, since the small shops had posed a clear threat to established salons that often charge NOK 750 for a shampoo, hair cut and blow dry, or more.

Cutters now poses a bigger challenge, because it was founded by Norwegians in Bergen, appears well-organized and has transparent, non-cash transactions that would made any attempted tax avoidance difficult. Anne Mari Halsan, director of NFVB, does not welcome the new competition.

“The concept is not innovative and it’s undermining the profession,” Halsan fumed to DN. She claims that Cutters is not adhering to the same rules that apply to the rest of the branch, and she has even accused Cutters of violating health and hygiene standards because they don’t offer shampoos, only hair cuts.

Brushing off rivals’ criticism
Cutters’ founders brush off the claims as criticism from an organization steered by its rivals. “Ever since we started (in 2015), the rest of the branch has criticized us,” Andreas Kamøy told DN. “We’ve gotten used to it. It’s nothing new.”

He doesn’t agree that hair-washing is mandatory. He and his partners have studied regulations closely, been in contact with the state health directorate and contacted one of Norway’s experts in prevention of contagious disease. Professor Bjørg Marit Andersen at Ullevål University Hospital in Oslo, also told DN that a hair wash is not a critical factor in limiting contagion. “There is no greater danger of contagion in a salon that cuts hair without washing it, than in a salon that cuts and washes, as long as combs and towels are cleaned and general hygiene is the same,” Andersen told DN.

Kamøy also brushes off the NFVB director’s claim that Cutters’ outlets don’t adhere to ventilation rules imposed on full-service salons that use various chemicals. Since Cutters only offers haircuts, it doesn’t use any chemicals.

Halsan was undeterred, asked authorities in Kristiansand to inspect Cutters’ outlets last summer and also criticized Cutters for not using interns. She accused both Innovation Norway (the state agency that promotes and supports new business ventures) and local media that have written about Cutters and its popularity for not being critical enough. “If people (hair-cut customers) opt against elements in a branch that is responsible and has costs to carry, that’s not innovative or creative,” she claimed. “This does not represent value creation at all. This isn’t just disruptive, it’s destructive.”

Kamøy notes that Cutters has created more than 100 jobs in less than two years. “We think we’re creating value,” he told DN. His customers seem to agree. One woman writing on social media said she doesn’t want or need the styling, hair dying, permanents or other services offered by established salons. “I just want a hair cut, for myself and my child,” she wrote. “Why should I pay for anything more?”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund