CHENNAI:Fifteen-year-old Vijay looks on intently as his uncle Srinivas shaves the beard of his first customer of the day. Vijay, lean and unusually short for his age, says he wants to have 300 regular customers like his uncle someday. Srinivas, from the barber caste, forces a smile to make sure he doesn’t kill his nephew's positivity and enthusiasm.
“Things have changed drastically since I started my first salon 18 years ago,” Srinivas says in private, explaining that Vijay won’t achieve his level of growth if he merely follows in Srinivas' footsteps. Thirty-six-year-old Srinivas, a Maruthuvar, migrated from Peranambakkam village in Tiruvannamalai district in 1996. He now owns three small salons in Selaiyur. “The barber caste prioritise accuracy but most customers just want a cool salon with a nice ambience for selfies,” he says.
N Bhaskaran, another barber from the caste, who has a shop near Medavakkam agrees with Srinivas. He is the joint secretary of a barbers’ association. Bhaskaran claims that salon chains have started eating into their middle-class customer base.
“When salon chains like Naturals and Green Trends came up, they took the high class but now even the middle class are going there to just prove a point,” he says, claiming that going to a chain salon has become a status symbol.
When the barber caste realised they couldn’t compete with salon chains, some decided to join them. Srinivas says most of those who became salon franchises failed. “My brother-in-law opened a top salon chain franchise but failed miserably,” shares Srinivas, hinting that there is more at play than just colourful lights, brand image and heavy investment.
Franklin D, who was a manager at salon franchise in Vanagaram says that franchise owners also prefer a workforce from the Northeast because they look good and can also be exploited.A few salon franchise owners contacted by Express deny these allegations and claim that more North Easterners go for hairstyling courses and they can only hire people with a qualified diploma. “We hire anybody with the right qualifications,” said a salon chain franchise owner from Velachery, not denying that barbers' appearance and looks also matter to the overall growth of the franchise.
Srinivas is shielding Vijay, his thirtieth apprentice, from the realities of the hairstyling business for now. But he says, at some point his “above average” student will have to realise that he will have to make do with a small shop playing songs from yesteryear and not dream of owning a big salon chain, much less working for it.
Exotic salon experience
According to a few former managers at top salons, the key is not in the accuracy of haircuts, fancy lights or branding. It is all about giving the customer an exotic experience — employing barbers who don’t resemble the barbers they had been frequenting. Salon franchisees prefer employees from the North East because they look stylish. “However, most people from the Maruthuvar and Navithar caste are usually dark and don’t look stylish enough,” says Srinivas.