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Your hair looks gorgeous. It cost ... what?!

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)

Over the pandemic, I did what many anxious and bored women did: I messed with my hair. By which I mean I bleached highlights and then toned them. After watching approximately 20 million YouTube video tutorials, I thought I had it down. But after two or three tries, my medium-brown hair would not lift to the pale yellow required to tone it to something other than the color of a banana. A stubborn orange undertone remained.

Eventually I gave up and went to a salon. There, I was informed, I would need a “color correction.” And I would be charged by the hour. I sat in the chair and anxiously watched the clock, as if it was a meter in a taxi. The stylist stripped the demi-permanent gloss with a special treatment, added highlights and lowlights, and gave me a haircut and blowout. I steeled myself for the bill. $398, including tip. The results were fine, though certainly not life-altering.

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Women who want dimensional blond extensions, or are seeking transformational haircuts, may be in for a sticker shock when they visit the salon this year. Hair stylists are giving themselves a salary bump - one they say is long overdue. Some are doing this by adopting hourly pricing: charging at least $100 an hour for cuts, color, bleach and balayage. Others are billing more for basic services, and redefining once-included perks (blow dry, toner) as costly add-ons.

“One of the things that our industry hasn’t done in the last 50 years is give itself a raise,” said David Bosscher, the co-founder and CEO of Destroy the Hairdresser, a coaching company he started with Cyd Charisse in 2012 with the aim of disrupting the salon business model. “You still have people out there charging $25 or less for a haircut in 2024,” Bosscher said. “I mean, that concept in itself needs to be destroyed.”

Professionals say the old model - double- or triple-booking clients (giving a haircut while a client’s color is processed), skipping lunches or breaks, and working 10 or more hours to fit clients’ last-minute scheduling needs - was unsustainable. Stylists worked from a place of scarcity - most make money on commission and don’t have 401(k) accounts, vacation time or sick days. Time lost due to cancellations or illness meant a giant dip in unrecoverable income.

This push for change comes on the heels of pandemic-triggered upheaval in the industry, which saw burned-out stylists leave the profession en masse. “We lost about 10 percent of our industry,” said Britt Seva, a hairstylist turned marketing expert on her podcast, The Thriving Stylist. “We’ve never experienced such a massive walkout.”

By the time life opened up again, the decline in stylists was met with a glut of clientele, ready to get their roots done after a year of home haircuts and bad box dyes. And suddenly, the laws of supply and demand hit the hair industry in a way it had never seen before. Instead of being everything to everyone, a growing number are now specializing in particular services and charging a premium for them.

Social media has also provided a way for stylists to share prices and techniques, creating an online community that stretches from small towns to big cities. And when they started talking to each other, they realized they could look at their business differently. They were barely making any money: the median annual salary for a hairstylist in 2022 was $33,400 per year or about $16.06 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pre-covid, it was even worse; in 2019, $12.54 per hour, or $26,090 annually.

They didn’t have any money saved for vacation, and if they got sick, they didn’t get paid and had to work overtime to get back on track. Charging more or going hourly (with the same rates regardless of gender) allows for stylists to create a safety net for themselves.

“We are specifically talking to hairdressers that are sick of being service providers and want to get back to the artistry of what they do,” said Bosscher, who works with salons around the country. “And make real money doing that. Because being a hairdresser should not be a hobby career.”

Robie Leonardi of Carlsbad, Calif., has been dyeing and highlighting her hair red for more than 30 years. But Leonardi, who works at a spa and wellness facility, decided to leave her longtime stylist after she changed her pricing structure two years ago.

“She was fine,” Leonardi said, “Until she started charging by the minute.” Did she mean by the hour? No, she said, by the minute. “She would leave, so I’m sitting in a room all by myself. I wasn’t getting a foot rub. I wasn’t drinking champagne. I’m overlooking the dumpster in the parking lot for 45 minutes while she goes on a walk somewhere. And I’m sitting in this room by myself. And I’m paying her for it,” she said.

The price went up as a result. “And I was like, ‘She is not Jose Eber,’” the celebrity hairstylist.

After her most recent stylist retired, Leonardi called a handful of salons in her area, asking what it would cost to do color and an I-Tip hair extension installation. Most quoted her around $600, but one spot in a strip mall said the work would run $960.

She finally settled on the least expensive salon she could find, which still charged $460 to move up her extensions and do color. Meanwhile, her short-haired friend she said, “almost lost it” after she paid $520 for highlights and a trim.

Others are complaining about the “a la carte” pricing structure that is contributing to price creep.

A woman who goes by the handle Dani Baby Duh on TikTok posted about a recent experience at a New York City salon she’d been frequenting for seven years. She got her color done and after her shampoo, she said she was directed to a chair at the blow-dry station so she could finish the job herself - a first. She was even more surprised when she got the bill - $100 more than she’d previously paid.

“Is this normal? Has this happened to anyone else?” she asks viewers.

Instead of including a blowout with a cut or color, numerous salons now consider it an “add on.” Rather than shell out $50 or $60 for a service that was once included, some are opting to leave the salon looking like a wet dog.

These experiences, say proponents of hourly-based pricing, is why most of their clients actually prefer to pay the higher hourly rate, which includes gratuity and all services.

At the Rosewood Salon, located in Arlington, Va., customers can choose from stylists who charge $100 to $150 an hour. If they opt to see the big boss, owner Kat Scott, the hourly rate goes up to $250. Scott specializes in extensions and color - and decided to define her skill set shortly after she opened her salon in 2020.

At the places she had previously worked, “you did all the services for everybody. You couldn’t say no to anybody. And it was just work, work, work, work, work, hustle, hustle, hustle,” Scott said.

For the first three months at Rosewood, she did it the old way - with an assistant and double booking. Even with the high volume, she said, “I realized that it just wasn't enough money for me to be sustainable.” After Scott found Destroy the Hairdresser, which advocates for stylists to charge hourly, she adopted the new pricing structure and her life got a lot better. She is able to work a normal shift instead of long hours, plus she’s making more money.

Though Scott and her employees are women of color, they have customers from all walks of life, which she says is uncommon in the D.C. area. “You still see salons segregated so much. Like, if you have locs, you go there.” But the pricing model should fit any type of hair - whether it’s natural and textured hair or pin-straight blond. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or getting done at all. It’s all the same value.”

Mandy Pike, one of Scott’s loyal clients, said she was initially concerned by the hourly pricing for her natural looking extensions and color, thinking, “Wow, this is going to be more expensive.” But that hasn’t been the case. “I think it shakes out to be the same for me, honestly, especially when you add the tip in.”

And she’s not leaving the salon looking like she just got out of the shower. “Everything that you need is included in there,” she said.

Some salons that cater to clientele with textured hair offer membership services for regular upkeep and maintenance. The DC-based Thrive Hair Salon offers three monthly price points, from $219 to $349, designed for customers who come twice a month to upkeep natural hairstyles like braids, silk presses or coils.

After Jayne Matthews developed sensitivity to the chemicals in hair dyes a few years ago, she stopped doing color and began specializing in razor cuts. The co-owner of Edo Salon, who counts Molly Ringwald and Zooey Deschanel as clients, has since become Instagram famous for her unique take on retro shags and French bobs and charges a flat rate - $300 for a haircut in her salon, and $500 when she’s traveling. (She also does many free cuts to post on her Instagram.)

Many of her haircuts are transformative makeovers, she said, which are more time-consuming. And since she is based in the Bay Area, with one salon in Oakland and another in San Francisco, Matthews raised her price to meet demand and cost-of-living increases.

She uses the analogy of a Starbucks coffee when it comes to the pricing of haircuts: “It used to be $3.50; now it’s $6.50.” But in that time, haircut prices hadn’t been doubling.

Some clients, Matthews said, “just want you to be the help,” and don’t see hair as an art form worth paying for.

But not all stylists are on the same page. Some, like Ashley Brace, who owns the Theory Collective in Charleston, South Carolina, thinks that the idea of hairstylist-as-artist is over-the-top. She has hair styling in her blood - her grandmother worked in salons her whole life.

“It takes some art and creativity, but, like, you are not a painting artist,” she said. “You’re there to give somebody a blow out, there to get somebody a shampoo, there to give somebody a haircut.”

Brace does a cross between package pricing and a la carte - foils start at $130; haircuts at $50 for long hair; and a blow out is $30.

“My close friends in the industry that did go to hourly pricing, they all quickly exited within a year or so of switching,” she said. Brace said that many of the coaches who preach hourly pricing don’t work day-to-day in salons, and that as a result they are out of touch.

Like bartenders, stylists are often layman therapists to their clients. Brace recalls spending extra time with a client who just lost her husband and was grieving: “I sat with her and she cried. Where does the human connection come in, like, am I charging her for that time?”

Social media may be playing a part in fueling the price hikes. There is a genre of TikToks and Instagram Reels showing extravagant hair transformations purportedly costing thousands of dollars, seemingly designed to get clicks and generate outrage.

“I call it a scam,” said Brace of those videos, adding that in many cases the clients are not really paying for the service; it’s the brands that want to be featured that are underwriting some of this content.

“They basically are paying them for product placement,” she said. “I can tell you, I’ve been in a ton of salons [and] people aren’t coming in and paying $1,500. It’s just not a thing.”

One of the reasons for the sticker shock is that color especially has become more sophisticated. “In the ’90s and prior, they were literally just putting a foil on, taking it out and then blow drying,” Scott said. Now, “there’s so much more customization to it.”

There are techniques like “root melt” and “root tap,” which result in more natural looks and take an additional step or two, plus more product.

Still, the increased pricing trend may be hitting a wall.

Nina Edgell of Austin has been going to the same salon for 10 years to get her highlights and haircut. She initially paid $185 for the work, then about $300 for a higher-level stylist.

During her most recent visit, she left $506 poorer, feeling unsatisfied. She had been upsold on a moisturizing treatment, and an assistant had given her a blowout, burning her ears in the process. Worst of all, she had asked for a rooty, dimensional blond, and what she got was an allover blond look. She took to Reddit and asked the forum: “$506 Later. Did I Get Ripped Off?”

Commenters agreed she had certainly been ripped off. She complained on Yelp, leaving a one-star review, and the salon eventually reimbursed her. But the experience has made her wary. “I keep not going as often as they say that I should because I can’t afford to,” she told The Washington Post.

Recent social media posts from stylists noting that salons aren’t as busy as they used to be have been met with clap backs from the general public, who say that hair has just become too expensive. In fact, that’s what prompted Dani, the woman who was left to blow dry her own hair, to post on TikTok.

“Seeing on my For You page, hairstylists … lamenting that people aren’t coming in at the rate that they once were, it’s hard for me to empathize because the prices are going up, but the experience of luxury doesn’t feel luxurious,” she said in her video.

Scott said she initially lost five customers when she shifted her business model. And Matthews has seen some clients balk: “I’ve had people tell my receptionist, ‘That’s too much money. I’m going to have to move on.’” But both said the vast majority of their clients stuck by them.

Meanwhile, Leonardi said that while she liked the way her hair turned out, she doesn’t see the $460 price tag as sustainable.

“After yesterday, I was like, I’m calling Madison Reed,’” the at-home color service.

For the cost, she said, “I’d rather buy a Gucci purse.”

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