News / Asia

Vietnamese-American Nail Industry Hangs in the Balance

Vietnamese-American Nail Industry Hangs in the Balance
Vietnamese-American Nail Industry Hangs in the Balance

Fashion nails have provided a tried and true path to the middle class for thousands of immigrants in the United States, but today the industry is at a crossroads. Low prices, which allowed Vietnamese-Americans to dominate the $6 billion industry, are proving unsustainable and forcing salon owners to innovate new ways of doing business.

Trang Nguyen, who came to the U.S. in 1980, exemplifies the success Vietnamese-Americans have enjoyed in the nail business. Like most Vietnamese refugees, he arrived with virtually nothing and spoke very little English. After a stint as a hair stylist, he found his calling doing nails, a skill he learned from a relative who owned a salon.

Nguyen now owns Odyssey Nail Systems, a multinational company that sells nail products and offers training to salon owners. His drive to succeed is obvious - Nguyen has nabbed four world championship titles in nail artistry as well as numerous other awards along the way.

Odyssey Nail Systems
Nail artist Trang Nguyen would like to see more Vietnamese-American nail salon owners have passion for their work.

But Nguyen is concerned the industry that gave him a start in a new country is in trouble because of old habits.

"The new generation doing nails needs to have passion," he said. "They need to be really proud to be a nail artist."

Early days

The history of Vietnamese-Americans in the nail and beauty business dates back to 1975, when actress Tippi Hedren, most noted for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” arranged for 20 refugees from Vietnam to receive training as manicurists.

Those 20 women became the core of a nationwide industry, which now includes tens of thousands of nail salons operated by Vietnamese-Americans.

According to the trade publication Nails Magazine, Vietnamese-Americans make up 40 percent of the U.S. nail industry.

Early on, their main edge over competitors was price. They could charge less because their workers were willing to accept less pay. This meant that with a relatively small amount of money, basic English skills and some cosmetology training, Vietnamese immigrants could open up a salon, count on a steady flow of customers and earn enough money to own a home and educate their children.

But as the market has become more saturated, Vietnamese salon owners have found themselves knowing only one way to compete: slashing prices. The cycle of constant cutting is proving to be unsustainable over the long run.

Diversifying the approach

Duyen Hang, who used to own 25 nail salons in Florida, now spends most of her time consulting salon owners. She says they need to think of new ways to compete.

“They should learn more than just trying to lower the price,” she said. ”Any mom and pop can open a shop, but these days, almost 50 percent have problems. Many are [running the business] the same as 20 or 30 years ago."

Nguyen agrees.

“They focus on getting people in and out. It’s like a machine. They forget it's a service business. You can’t do that anymore," he said. "It’s easy to get the customer in one time with a cheap price, but are they coming back? Are they coming back with friends?”

Ripple effect

Failure to innovate in the nail business could have negative ripple effects throughout much of the Vietnamese-American community.

At a recent best practices seminar organized by the Vietnamese-American National Chamber of Commerce and held in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, many of the attendees weren’t even in the nail industry. They were members of the community affected by its success or failure.

“The nail business affects my business a lot,” said Thai Hung Nguyen, a real estate agent who said 60 to 65 percent of his clients are Vietnamese-Americans. “If they start losing money, they can't afford the mortgage.”

He was interested in seeing if the industry can revive and reinvent itself, and if so, what the future will be.

Customer is king

Customer service will be the key, said both Nguyen and Hang.

“Price is important, but it’s not more important than service or quality,” said Hang. She advises salons to make small changes like creating a frequent customer reward system, creating an inviting environment or making sure everyone in the shop also has their nails done.

John Ho, who owns Yvonne’s Day Spa in Northern Virginia, is making an effort to do things differently.

He and his wife opened Yvonne’s 16 years ago and then followed it with two other salons. Ho developed the Doctor Fish pedicure, which involves letting little fish swimming in a tank pick the dead skin off customers’ feet while they sit in a massage chair. He has even appeared on a variety of popular American television programs promoting his method.

Ho admits his prices are high compared to the numerous other salons nearby, but he says business is good because he delivers quality, offers a variety of treatments and procedures and never rushes customers.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Patsy Fisher, 42, of Crofton, Md., center, checks on the progress of KaNin Reese, 32, of Washington, with Tracy Roberts, 33, of Rockville, Md., left, as they indulge in a fish pedicure treatment at Yvonne Hair and Nails salon in Alexandria, Va. on Thursday July 17, 2008.

“We get a lot of repeat customers,” he said, even though “around here there are more Vietnamese-owned nail salons than McDonald’s.”

Some of his customers are extremely loyal.

Mary Miller, who used to live near Yvonne’s but has relocated to Tennessee said she comes in for a pedicure whenever she’s back in town, citing all the little extras that are thrown in such as hand rubs, feet rubs and temple rubs.

“They’re great!” she said. “I’ve been coming since they opened. I go to a place back home, but they’re not like this!”

Hang has faith that more Vietnamese salon owners can, like Ho, adapt to the new climate.

“Most Vietnamese-Americans do a great a job,” she said “Their hands are magic.”

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs