The Salon Index as Spain's Economic Indicator

The World

The Cinema Nails salon is almost always fully booked. Opportunities are scarce during this economic crisis; manicurists say ugly hands could make the difference in landing a job. (Photo: Gerry Hadden)

In Europe, the markets have returned to punish debt-ridden countries just days after their latest summit to save the euro. The interest Italy and Spain pay on bonds has spiked dangerously, stoking fears for the currency. Spain is about to swear in a new government promising swift labor reform to reduce the country's 22 percent unemployment. Hotel owners say bookings are down. Construction companies are idle. But there's at least one sector that is actually growing: health and beauty. On a Barcelona street a tandem of beauty-related businesses thrive. One of these shops is the Marco Aldany hair salon. Inside, a bank of chairs is occupied, mostly by middle-aged women getting their hair washed, cut and dyed. More women wait on seats by a window. The manager here, Patricia Marquez, darts from station to station, keeping her stylists, and her clients happy. "The truth is we can't complain," said Marques. "We're lucky. It's a good salon, and our clients are faithful. And more keep coming." This is a place that thrives in Spain precisely because times are otherwise tough. Marquez said that's because people feel out of control, insecure. Here, she said, with unemployment nearly 23 percent, inexpensive ego-boosts go a long way. "A person needs to feel handsome, to feel comfortable with themselves. If they don't look good it doesn't matter what they do. You have to feel comfortable in your own skin," Marquez said. And Marquez said clients are seeking such comfort in her chairs more often, as the economy grinds on. According to a leading Spanish consultancy, the country's beauty industry is on track to grow 3 percent this year. The overall economy, by contrast, is flat. One client here today is Francesca, an auburn-haired retiree. She's on a fixed income, but said she'd never give up her weekly coif. "Because of our culture and upbringing," she said, "we older woman feel better with our hair done up rather than letting it get all messy. It's a question of feeling good about yourself. If it means spending 50 bucks of your pension per month, well, we can allow ourselves that." Fifty bucks is a relatively cheap deal for the full treatment, by the way. Economists and sociologists say that makes treating yourself to a new hairstyle or make-over, or manicure, nearly crisis-proof. "Haven't you heard about the recent survey in Spain?" a client named Mariona asked at a different salon. "It found that if a Spanish woman were forced to choose between a meal or a make-over, she'd go hungry." It's even more true, given Spain's grim economic backdrop. The government is slashing spending from healthcare to education. The jobless rate keeps rising. One clue to explain why such gloom would cause people to spend more on their hair or nails can be found on the lips. That is, the Lipstick index. It's a term coined by Leonard Lauder, of the make-up giant, Estee Lauder, in 2001. Lauder observed that in times of crisis his company sold more lipstick. The index was hardly scientific but Analda Santano, who runs the cash register at the Cinema Nails salon, said it's accurate. But its not just about the gloom, she said. She said people here realize one day the crisis has to end, and that the well-groomed will be well-positioned when opportunity knocks. "If your hands are a mess," she said, "people will look at you badly. A woman should have her nails painted. If you're a man your nails need to be smooth and without any flaking skin on the fingers." Haircuts for self-esteem, manicures for jobs that might materialize — businesses selling good looks and grooming come out on top.