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What Price Hair? : At Salons, You Get What You Pay For--Pampering or the Basics

September 02, 1990|DAVID COLKER | David Colker is a Times staff writer.

THIS IS A TALE of two types of hair salons. Yes, you can get a haircut at both, but the similarities end there--as you might expect when the cost of a cut at one is $35 to $75, while at the other it's $9.

What differentiates these places is what's known as attitude--specifically, your attitude about your hair.

For those without major hair anxiety or the cash flow to indulge it, bargain shops such as the ubiquitous Supercuts are just the thing.

"I don't think our customers are as ego-involved," says Pat Ferrin, marketing vice president for the San Rafael-based company that has almost replaced the corner barbershop. (There are 600 franchised Supercuts salons nationwide and 78--usually in mini-malls--in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.) "We don't tend to get people who want to experiment or who need a lot of pampering," Ferrin says.

At Supercuts, your haircut will be executed in a no-nonsense manner. It'll take 15 to 20 minutes, max, for you to whip into the chair, be draped with a plastic sheet and emerge freshly coiffed. Your $9 will buy you a cut, and for $2 to $4 more you can have your hair shampooed. Add $5 for blow-dry styling. Or pay a package-deal $16 for the top-of-the-line experience.

Your hair will be in the hands of a stylist who may double as a cleaning / stock person and who probably just got a cosmetology license. A week of training in Supercuts' cutting techniques made the stylist a full-fledged member of the Supercuts team, a distinction that comes with a starting salary of $5 to $6 an hour, plus tips.

"The technique we developed provides a mistake-proof haircut," says Patricia Traba, director of technical training for the company. "It's a method that can be adapted to any head of hair. At most other salons, the stylist goes freestyle, starting in at different points and moving around. Our technique is systematic to eliminate the guesswork.

"We provide convenience," she stresses. "It's a haircut for the '90s."

There is, of course, that other haircut for the '90s, the one sought out by such clients as Paula Abdul and Lionel Ritchie. At a salon such as Umberto in Beverly Hills, pampering and experience, not price, are the selling points.

The salon has 71 stylist stations equipped to indulge, with specialists who can color, curl or extend your hair. If you are a first-time customer at Umberto, you get a consultation with Umberto himself, who matches you with a stylist whose style and personality will mesh with yours. "If we have a state senator come in," salon coordinator Babette Beja says, "we are not going to put her with someone who might be a bit on the progressive side."

Typical Umberto clients, says Beja, "expect to be taken care of, but they work hard for their money and they want to get out and get back to work." So you needn't budget a large block of time--unless you want to.

You'll leave your clothes with an attendant after you change into a custom-designed, body-hugging black, peach or purple smock (they cost the salon $24 each, in bulk), then be led to an assistant, who will give you a shampoo and scalp massage, offer you coffee or tea (and on some days, a piece of complimentary Miss Grace cake). Then you'll be shown to a stylist's station for the hourlong big event--the haircut.

Your stylist, who likely has a regular clientele and a reputation riding on the quality of his or her work, may trim your tresses with a $400 pair of scissors rather than the $50 variety used at some less-pricey salons. (That's no surprise, considering that a top stylist at Umberto, according to Beja, can gross $250,000 a year.) And you'll be at the center of a daunting army of support troops: Umberto has full-time cleaning people, manicurists, colorists, makeup artists, facialists, supply attendants and a laundress. Remember that you'll be tipping everyone--from the stylist on down--who serves you.

So, the choice is yours. If you have great hair, a simple style--long, straight hair, say, that needs an occasional trim--or a family full of heads to be coiffed, the fast, low-cost convenience of a chain salon may be just what you need. Working people will appreciate that such shops are typically open long hours and weekends and will be happy to take you without an appointment.

If pampering is what you're after--and you can afford an environment with amenities such as fresh flowers, a wealth of attention and the work of specialists--enjoy! It can be a truly heady pleasure.

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