Kay Killmeyer walked into Mitch & Co. Haircutters in Irvine on a recent Saturday morning with short, curly gray hair. Within 20 minutes, she had collar-length, strawberry blond tresses. Then she had a burgundy bob. Soon after that, a waterfall of ash-blond curls tumbled past her shoulders--all without the aid of wigs, dyes or scissors.
Instead, Mitch Mitchell used a computer to create hairstyles for the 52-year-old Huntington Beach woman, who left the Irvine salon after an hour with her hair unchanged, her wallet $30 lighter and a Polaroid before-and-after picture: Kay gray and Kay as a redhead.
But Killmeyer got what she came for, she said, and she vowed to return for a make-over.
That's why Mitchell spent two years and $20,000 to create his Video Image Processor, which uses video and computer technology to give his customers a risk-free way to see how they would look in dramatically different hairstyles.
Entrepreneurs like Mitchell are only beginning to cash in on this, the cutting edge of the health and beauty industry.
The first high-tech personal care gadget--a device to analyze a woman's skin using computer and microscope--appeared four years ago; hairstyling computers have been on the market for an about 10 months.
The few industry analysts who are aware of such innovation say it is the wave of the future for the $19-billion personal care and cosmetics industry. The question today is whether it will be a permanent wave.
"There haven't been rollouts in terms of very large numbers of systems, but virtually everyone who's played around with this stuff has gone forward with a program," said Thomas Rauh, a retailing specialist with the accounting firm of Touche Ross & Co.
Not everyone shares Rauh's positive view. For the hair-care industry in particular, the biggest questions concern costs: Can a salon owner attract enough business using computer wizardry to make the steep computer prices worthwhile? And will consumers pay up to $50 for a Polaroid picture of how they may look--someday?
"Personally, I think it's a limited market," said Sheldon Kasowitz, assistant analyst with Goldman, Sachs & Co. "If it's going to be that costly . . . it's going to have to be one of these fun luxury items. If it can be cost effective, though, it has a place instead of just being a fad."
But cost often is of little import when a person's image is at stake.
Hair, particularly "is an incredibly symbolic thing," said Gary Emery, a clinical psychologist and director of the Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Therapy.
But, he said, people "are afraid to go full bore to see what (change) will look like. They don't want to take the risk. This could be a shortcut to get around that."
Underscoring in a bizarre way the importance some people place on hairstyles, a Florida man was arrested this week for trying to drown his wife by slitting open their water bed and plunging her head into the water. He told officials he tried to drown his wife because he hated her new hairdo.
Most disputes over haircuts are resolved in a less dramatic manner, but systems such as Mitchell's could put an end to even the mildest arguments.
And if the reactions of Killmeyer and La Mirada businesswoman Brenda Solorzano are any indication, high-tech hairstyling is here to stay.
Solorzano recently had her hair substantially restyled at Mitchell's salon--after first viewing a variety of new looks on the computer.
"I once had it cut very short. My husband hated it. . . . He told me, 'Don't ever go back there again,' " she said.
"I'm a businesswoman and I need a specific image. . . . I need to know what a hairstyle looks like before I do it."
Described as Amazing
Killmeyer, who was the first paying customer for Mitchell's VIP system, called it "amazing. It's so hard to conceive that this can be done. . . . Changes are always nice. They give you a lift, but if they're drastic, you wonder how long they'll take to grow out."
Now the wondering is gone--for technology-conscious consumers, at least.
But those who market hairstyling computers, experts said, must rely on consumers' willingness to pay for nothing more than an image--sometimes printed, sometimes not.
"The economics for someone selling this as a service, dependent on people being willing to spend, say, $25 for one of these consultations, is a little bit suspect" without a direct tie-in to a product, said Rauh of Touche Ross.
In addition to making the service affordable to customers, the actual computer systems have to be made affordable to the average salon owner. One way to do that is by manufacturing the computer systems in quantity, as the cosmetics industry has already learned.
New York-based Intermark Corp. is a 3-year-old business built solely on what industry experts call "interactive retailing," using computers to sell products and services. An estimated 75% of its business is from the personal-care industry alone.