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    VIP Treatments: Why China’s Beauty Salons Need a Makeover

    Consumers are tired of constant membership card pitches and deceptive sales practices, but the industry leaves beauticians little choice.

    Walk into any beauty salon in China, and you’ll almost certainly be asked the same two questions: “Do you have a regular beautician? How about a VIP card?” If the answer is no, get ready for the hard sell.

    VIP cards are offered by an assortment of Chinese businesses, ranging from beauty salons to massage parlors and bars, and are an increasingly common way for stores to increase their sales. At the same time, the cards — or more accurately, the sometimes deceptive, high-pressure tactics used to sell them — have started to come under fire from frustrated consumers. In a much-publicized incident from last month, a salon manager in the eastern city of Hangzhou allegedly convinced a customer to charge 70,000 yuan ($10,300) to his VIP card by promising to set him up with one of the salon’s beauticians. Instead, the manager reportedly took the money and disappeared — which is unfortunate, but not uncommon.

    Chinese VIP cards are a combination of prepaid cards and discount programs. The cards are divided by level, and the more money you charge, the greater the discount. For example, a salon might offer to let clients choose from three VIP cards worth 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000 yuan, which give their holders discounts of 20, 50, and 80 percent off of all salon services, respectively. The idea is to bind customers to that particular shop: Once a customer has paid for the card, they either have to keep being a patron at that store, or chalk the money up as a sunk cost.

    Yet while customer frustrations with salon tactics are well-known, less understood is why beauticians push the cards so relentlessly in the first place. To get a better idea of how the industry works and why these cards are so important, in 2015 I spent the year conducting fieldwork at a branch of a popular beauty salon chain in Beijing. What I found were exploitative, harsh working conditions, as well as employees forced to use every tool at their disposal to sell VIP cards just to stay afloat.

    Most beauticians in China don’t receive a salary. At the store where I conducted my study, I met 17 beauticians, all of whom were young, unmarried women. They were expected to work 13 hours a day, six days a week — all without a regular paycheck. Instead, they primarily made their money off commissions, receiving a 10 to 12 percent cut of each service they billed, on top of an eight to 12 percent commission on money charged to VIP cards. In other words: If they wanted to make money, they needed to sell customers VIP cards and keep them coming back for expensive services.

    To accomplish this, beauticians spend a great deal of time establishing, building, and strengthening their ties with clients. The goal is to transform a simple business transaction into an emotional relationship.

    The first step in establishing a relationship they can convert into a steady stream of commission-based income is to make customers feel respected and important. A lot of money goes into decorating beauty parlors to exude a high-end, exclusive atmosphere, and the beauticians themselves are all smartly dressed in slimming dresses and tasteful makeup. They offer their guests tea — their usual brew, if it’s a repeat customer — and a light dessert. When a new customer enters the store, they are greeted by a row of beauticians who all smile and call out: “Greetings, distinguished guest!” The customer then chooses which of the beauticians they would like to work with.

    The dance continues once the client is seated. This is when their beautician will attempt to convince them of their need for a personalized course of treatment for some ailment that the beautician has identified. Usually, both the beautician’s diagnosis and prescription are grounded in concepts from traditional Chinese medicine, and neither is necessarily scientific. Conveniently, the beautician will inform their client, they just so happen to offer a “treatment card” for this condition. Treatment cards are prepaid, good for 10 rounds of a given therapy, and are offered at a steep discount — a hook to turn a first-time client into a repeat customer.

    If the customer can be convinced to buy the treatment card, the beautician can collect a commission fee, but that is far less important to them than the intangible benefit provided by 10 additional sessions with the client, during which they can try and convince them to upgrade to a VIP card. The VIP card offers bigger discounts and can be applied to any service the salon offers, though it also requires more money upfront — anywhere from a few thousand yuan to tens of thousands of yuan. Once a customer has been convinced to purchase a VIP membership, the beauty salon creates a personalized profile for the customer, furthering the illusion of privilege and exclusivity. At that point, having already invested so much into their care, customers now feel tied to their salon — and their beautician.

    A hidden benefit of the prepayment system is that it helps obscure the transactional nature of the beautician-client relationship, allowing clients to pretend their beautician is more of a friend than a service provider. Interpersonal ties and networks have traditionally been key parts of Chinese society, and beauticians seek to replicate them by making their clients feel at home. Skilled beauticians familiarize themselves with their clients’ individual needs, and they regularly send personalized health tips as well as well wishes around major Chinese holidays.

    This is important, because once a customer has been convinced to sign up for a VIP card, the next step in the process is to convince them to keep adding money to it — the more, the better. This often requires a more personal touch.

    To begin, beauticians adopt a less formal tone. When the client first walks in the door, the beautician’s careful to refer to them as a “distinguished guest.” Once they are regulars, however, the beauticians start treating them like family. The beauticians at the shop I studied divided their customers into four broad categories, according to which they addressed them as either “uncle,” “auntie,” “big brother,” or “big sister.” The category a client fell into also determined how their beautician acted around them, since the beauticians consciously played defined roles — such as daughter, younger sister, wife, or close friend — depending on their assessment of the client’s particular emotional needs. As with everything, this is designed to put the customer at ease and off-guard, making them more willing to spend their money.

    Other ways beauticians build bonds with their clients include offering them special treatment and helping them win extra discounts from management — who are generally happy to go along if it means more money upfront.

    While some of these tactics may seem manipulative or deceptive, it’s important to remember that beauticians only go to these lengths because they have little alternative. Without card commissions, beauticians generally make just 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month. With them, they can earn double that — on par with other low-end service industry jobs.

    Shops also enforce high quotas, requiring each beautician to bring in tens of thousands of yuan in business every month. This is why relationship-building is so important. The work beauticians put into making clients feel at home and cared-for pays off when they need help meeting their quota, as they will ask loyal customers to add money to their cards or come in for more visits.

    Beauticians are as much victims of VIP schemes as their clients. Cultivating the relationships necessary to stay afloat in their industry requires beauticians to perform exhausting emotional labor. Many of the beauticians I researched saw the industry as a way to learn valuable skills before returning home and opening their own salons; but over time, it’s common for them to burn out, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation.

    The profits they bring in, meanwhile, remain with the salon owners and managers, who not only take the lion’s share of service and VIP fees, but also benefit from a captive workforce and clientele. Once a beautician has built a client base, they become as trapped as their customers: If they leave, they cannot just take their clients with them, as the latter are tied to the beautician’s original shop by their VIP cards.

    Venting anger at salespeople will do nothing to curb VIP card schemes and scams. Unless the salon owners themselves are held accountable, they will continue to operate with impunity, underpaying beauticians and exploiting beauticians’ carefully crafted emotional connections with consumers for their own gain.

    Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: A beautician chats with her client at a beauty salon in Jinhu County, Jiangsu province, Oct. 6, 2016. Yang Bin/VCG)