From women in colorful kimonos to schoolgirls in plaid skirts and "salarymen" in conservative ties, all heads in this city's fashionable Ginza district seem to be turning to take a gander at the long lines snaking out of a salon called Shampoo.
With good reason: The eye-poppingly cheap price of just 1,800 yen (about $14) per haircut stands out as much in high-priced Tokyo as would a geisha strolling Malibu Beach.
It's the kind of attention that entrepreneur Tetsuya Taya hopes will propel his chain of 28 discount salons into a nationwide force in just a few years. He's introduced efficiency--prized on Japanese factory floors but lacking in much of Japan's service industry--to his beauty salons.
Taya, 60, aims for speed--if you don't factor in the long waits--and low price, while providing what he says is a decent, if not particularly fancy, cut.
Several Japanese retailers these days, from discount sushi shops to 100-yen chains, have successfully applied similar formulas. Many are thriving, despite the weak economy. In fact, getting a good deal has become trendy in prestige-conscious Japan.
The inspiration for Taya's shops is Starbucks rather than U.S. haircutting chains such as Fantastic Sam's, although he is quite familiar with those. In just five years and with little advertising, the Seattle-based coffee chain has managed to colonize Japan, which has become Starbucks' second-largest market, with 259 cafes going gangbusters.
"I aimed for convenience and a nice experience rather than luxury," Taya said. "Even though Starbucks' sales per customer are low and it charges relatively low prices, the stores have a fashionable layout and decor, with minimal investment."
Salons here haven't offered much price competition or differentiation. For example, most charge the same $50 to $60 for a cut, regardless of the salon's reputation. For the most part, customers seek out a salon based on the prestige of the shop rather than the skill of any particular stylist.
Moreover, most salons are obsessed with new styles, but most customers want only a trim or touch-up, Taya says. For those customers, he says, Shampoo is ideal.
He also runs a high-end chain called Taya for those customers who want a unique hairstyle or perhaps want to relax with the neck and back massage that accompanies many haircuts in Japan.
Taya says he doesn't worry that the sales of the 2-year-old Shampoo chain will cannibalize those of his pricier salons. There's room for all types of beauty parlors, he says, noting the variety in Japan's restaurants: One can partake of an exquisite kaiseki meal of artfully cut delicacies for hundreds of dollars or go to a ramen shop, where fast food can be had for just a few dollars.
Taya has plenty of firsthand knowledge of the beauty business. He started as a hairdresser about 35 years ago, acquired his own salon, then began building an empire that now consists of about 50 high-end salons in addition to the Shampoo shops. He took the company public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange about two years ago, the first and only publicly traded hairdressing company in Japan. It reported profits of about $9 million on revenue of $107 million for the fiscal year ended March 31.
Masumi Oishi, a senior analyst at Ichiyoshi Securities in Tokyo, says Shampoo's success lies in standardization. "They know exactly how many seats each salon should have and how many beauticians are needed to achieve the target," he said. "Their skills and techniques are standardized too, so they know what satisfies customers."
To make as much profit as Taya, Shampoo's hairdressers must be speedy. Beautician Naomi Shimura, 33, says she does three times as many customers as she used to at a Taya salon.
Taya gives incentives to those who serve the most customers--there are no tips--so she earns a "little" more working at Shampoo than Taya, the stylist says.
No appointments are taken--it's wasteful if one hairdresser is fully booked and another idle.
Taya also figures that most clients wash their hair daily anyway, so shampooing isn't necessary. Those who want one pay an extra $4. So too with the blow-dry: It's also $4. A counter with combs and blow-dryers is available to those who prefer to dry their own hair.
To figure out the most efficient way to speed the haircutting process, Taya studied videos of various hairdressers cutting hair and realized that there were many wasted motions. For one, hairdressers would comb a hair section several times before making a cut; he instructs is stylists to run the comb through only once.
Taya developed a 128-step system by which his recruits--usually fresh out of vocational beauty schools--learn several different cuts each for the front, sides and back.
On a recent evening, at least 30 people were waiting in line for the services at the most crowded Shampoo salon, in Tokyo's tony Ginza section. The brightly lighted salon has a white, contemporary decor. The young hairdressers, many sporting hair dyed in colors not found in nature, were clad in white T-shirts emblazoned with the salon's name.
Two engineers at a telecommunications company wound up waiting two hours for their 12-minute or so cuts. "I had a critical shortage of cash, so I could only afford this," Jun Kishikawa, 28, said as he waited his turn. Added his colleague Noboru Nihei, "We came out of curiosity" after seeing the lines.
Later, the two men said they were satisfied with the cuts they got for the price. But they weren't thrilled with the long wait. "Two hours is painful for a salaryman after work," Nihei said.
Still, they said they'd go again if they found another Shampoo branch with a shorter line.
Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.