Why you should care

Forget all the finance jargon. This is what a rapidly developing country really looks like on the ground.

For years, Seema K. Savla got her hair done in the same way hundreds of millions of other women in India did: at home. Not because she’s a fancy aristocrat, but because that’s how it was done here — at a hairdresser’s home or your own. It was comfortable and familiar, and cheap.

On this January day, however, she’s at a place called Just Hair, sitting in a swivel chair in an otherwise empty, simple, no-frills salon. Her hair is arranged in a tin-foil porcupine shape as the dye sets in. She says she’s going for the “modern” look.

Never mind India’s ambitious efforts to jump-start its economy or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest powwow with President Barack Obama. We’re talking about hair. One of the biggest revolutions you need to know about in this country of a billion: A whole lotta women are having much better hair days. In just a few years, many city-dwelling women are going to hair salons, which might not seem like big news if you didn’t know that for decades, most would duck into neighbors’ basements or get a word-of-mouth recommendation for a casually qualified woman to tackle their hair (not all of it on their heads).

Women are increasingly attracted to spending money on a legitimate, organized economy.

The hair movement has spawned a slew of new business that’s long been common in many other nations — classic, fluorescent-lit chains with names like Lakmé, Naturals and Saks Hair. Beyond the business story is a cultural change at work: A new generation of discerning, middle-class Indian women have money to spend and new tastes to refine. And they’re perfectly willing to spend — Savla, for her part, drops three times the amount on a haircut and color than she used to from the comfort of her own home. On the ground, this big-time demographic shift is missable: The women read magazines, take work calls and plan brunch at Olive, at a salon that looks more like an American Great Clips in a strip mall than a five-star joint.

In India, the beauty industry — like catering, cleaning and jewelry purchasing — has long operated as part of the informal economy; in other words, no taxes, no incorporated companies, no uniformed employees, no official-looking buildings and certainly no Yelp (or Zomato, its Indian counterpart). This informal economy still employs about half the country’s workforce, according to a Credit Suisse report.

The $140 billion beauty and wellness industry — including everything from nail treatments to “slimming procedures” — grew by 20 percent between 2010 and 2011, says a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, citing the most recent numbers on the topic. That means it accounts for a surprising 2 percent of India’s gross domestic product. And as India’s middle class booms, there’s more disposable income to go around: Household disposable cash has nearly doubled since 2005, according to the same report. A slew of chains are benefiting in a big way: Lakmé, Naturals and Saks Hair, not to mention beauty product companies selling makeup, skin-lightening creams and more.

Women are increasingly attracted to spending money on a legitimate, organized economy — that is, something more official-looking, says Anand Ramanathan, an associate director with KPMG India, a global management consulting advisory. “Aspiration” — to a new middle class — “is the key,” he says. Major spenders at the salons? Working women with more disposable income, says Pushkaraj Shenai, CEO at Lakmé Lever, which boasts 230 beauty salons, academies, products and fashion events.

Women of lower financial means go to beauty academies; many say they love working in a clean, starched uniform, under bright lights.

Jawed Habib, a celebrity designer, capitalized on his popularity in the 1990s by launching a salon chain that now boasts 414 outlets across 24 states in India. The chain’s original claim to fame was the 99-rupee (about $1.50) haircut, offered at its express salons. The appeal, according to Andrea Alfonso, a housewife in Mumbai’s Santacruz suburb: predictability. No more haggling over prices, nor nepotistic discounts for favorite customers. With her hands and feet lathered in moisturizing cream and a cup of complimentary coffee perched beside her pedicure chair, Alfonso complains: “They’re always trying to scrounge money from you and charge you more.”

Of course, not every part of the corporate experience works out. And the personal touch may be the most important, says Just Hair salon owner Fatima D’Souza, checking in on Savla’s highlights. She says customers hitting up chains sometimes run to her after a botched haircut or with damaged hair. Which is why she wouldn’t franchise out her place.

The scene at these salons is far from what you might have seen on a trip to get your hair cut or eyebrows threaded in India years ago. Once, you’d have entered an unlabeled door and been waved into an ill-defined waiting area before dropping 50 or 100 rupees ($1–2) on a service. Here, dozens of employees in uniform specialize at one particular station, like waxing or hair, and follow a careful protocol. There’s a recipe for the right pedicure, a careful schedule that beauticians adhere to. Some brands, like Naturals, also now hawk their own branded, prepackaged products.

Even the employees are part of the aspirational zeitgeist of the salons. Young women of lower financial means head to beauty academies (for which they pay the salon chains), and many say they love coming to work in a clean, starched uniform, under bright fluorescent lights. Monica Parihar, a spunky 21-year-old beauty school student with dyed dirty-blond hair, chose to move from her smaller town of Pune to Mumbai to train at Enrich Salons and Academy. After learning the 85 requisite beauty services at the academy over three months, she was about to start her internship with Enrich in mid-December. She’s confident she’ll never be unemployed.

She reflects: “When you’re well-groomed and you have style, people look up to you.”

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