We’ve all heard the expression, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” It would be hard to find anyone who has taken that adage more to heart than Stacy Cox, owner of Pampered People Spa in Los Angeles. Cox, who has built a spa business from scratch, weathered professional betrayal, withstood personal heartbreak and faced down a direct hit from the recession, sums up the entire experience with one simple proclamation: “I didn’t fold.” And she wants to stand proudly with other small business owners and shout, “We didn’t fold! We made it through the worst, and we’re going to keep making it.”
Themes of forward motion and perseverance tell Cox’s story. Pursuing a career in television after college, the L.A. native comfortably gravitated toward the hair, makeup and wardrobe departments. She worked in promotions for Donald Trump and his Miss Universe pageant where, she jokes, she begged him to utter the words “you’re fired” so that she could collect unemployment insurance and go to cosmetology school. Beauty school tips and a loan from her mother enabled Cox to buy her first piece of spa equipment and, in January of 1999, she set up Pampered People in the second bedroom of the apartment she shared with her future husband. “I had zero clients,” she says. “But I had faith in myself that I could nurture women’s egos and appearances. “
Cox slowly built a solid reputation while working part-time at another day spa, selling cosmetics, manning the front desk, doing waxing services and makeup applications—and even giving the occasional facial. “I learned how, and how not, to run a business,” she says. She also began to turn her apartment’s living room into a retail space.
“I realized it was important to ask myself over and over again how to make extra money,” she says. “I found that what I liked, other women also seemed to like. I love the idea that I can support other businesses by selling a candle, a lotion, some lingerie. Retail feels like another way for me to nurture.” —Andrea Renskoff
In 2002, Cox and her husband bought a house in Los Angeles and she turned the second bedroom and bathroom into her spa space. Over the next two years, the couple converted the home’s separate garage into what is now the Pampered People Spa: a zen-like cottage with two treatment rooms, a retail area and a bathroom. (Cox still keeps her expenses down by not expanding any further.) A garden with a hammock and comfortable seating creates another peaceful space for clients to enjoy pre- and post-treatment. And the business’s official mascot, Cox’s Tibetan terrier “Pampy,” lovingly watches over the whole operation.
After 2004, business really began to boom. Booked solid with clients, Cox decided to hire an employee to handle the overflow—but as it turned out, that young esthetician was not a good fit for the spa. The naturally nurturing Cox was reluctant to fire her first employee, and put it off for as long as possible. When she finally did let her go, Cox discovered that her former staffer had taken all of the spa’s client records, including personal information, and was proceeding to poach as many of Cox’s clients as she could. To top it off, the esthetician posted bad reviews of Cox online in an attempt to to soil her reputation.
“That was a big learning curve for me,” Cox recalls. “I found out about the cost of doing business. And that you have to keep your head high.” A second employee hire fared better, but that esthetician developed relationships with Cox’s spillover clients so, when it was time for her to move on, she took several Pampered People clients with her.
Still, those weren’t the biggest blows Cox would have to absorb. In 2007, her husband left her. And just as she was reeling from that loss, the economic downturn of 2008 hit. Since then, Cox reports periods in which her business has been down by as much as 40%. “I know we’re taught to build on quality rather than quantity,” she says, “but when you have clients who were coming in once a month suddenly stretching it to every three or four months, that’s pretty drastic to your bottom line.”
The situation forced Cox to take inventory of her life—and her skills. Having done some late 1990s TV appearances as a beauty expert, she decided to put her natural enthusiasm and camera-friendly face back to work. In the past couple of years she has made hundreds of appearances on local and national TV (including a stint on ABC-TV’s The View). She co-created and produced the Lifetime series Blush. And she is now a sought-after beauty, fashion and lifestyle correspondent with big plans for the future. “I want to be the Martha Stewart of the beauty world,” Cox admits.
But an even more immediate dream of this survivor is to marry again and have children. “You need balance,” Cox acknowledges. “Your business isn’t going to keep you warm at night.”
Today, having outlasted the downturn and continued to build her business—which is finally on an upswing—Cox has learned from mistakes. Her weapons against future adversity? Common sense and being honest with herself. Some 20,000 facials into her career, Stacy Cox has gone “back to basics” and “checked my ego at the door.” And she is determined to publicly share what it takes to stay afloat in a challenging environment. To that end, she has come up with six survival tips for other spa and beauty business owners:
1) Plant yourself. Cox learned the hard way not to lose sight of the basics just because things are going well, and has returned to the strategies on which she originally built her business. “It’s all the things you forget about when you’re booked eight weeks in advance,” she says. For instance, Cox originally self-promoted by meeting people one-on-one, then building upon referrals. So these days, she arrives at her cardio class 30 minutes in advance to chat with people, business cards at the ready in her purse. Or she hangs out at a coffee house or farmer’s market—popular spots where “outreach” doesn’t have to mean “hard sell.” “I’m looking for places where people are caring about themselves, where they’re being social, where discussions about spas might occur. And I’m networking with other small business owners. This is no time to be a skincare diva, no matter how much experience I have. This is grassroots.”
2) Log in Internet time. There’s no escaping social media, so Cox schedules regular time to update her Facebook and Twitter presence. “People love free tips, so that’s an easy thing to post that draws attention to what you’re doing, who you are as a spa owner. It defines your brand,” she says. Cox also blasts an info-packed monthly email.
“When you talk about how important consistency is with skin care, and that facials aren’t just a luxury, it’s all in how you say it,” she notes. “You can be warm and helpful, or you can be a nuisance. It’s all in the semantics.” Cox also sends out occasional emails listing some open appointment dates. “Clients are busy and they get sidetracked. Sometimes they appreciate a non-aggressive reminder. And emails are an easy thing for someone to forward to a friend or family member.”
3) Work the freebies. “I’ll give a local hairstylist a 35-minute introductory facial and she might refer her clients to me over and over again,” says Cox. “Give freebies to people who are in contact with potential clients.” Understanding that her business was built one client at a time, Cox considers it a success if 10 people show up to an open house where she’ll offer refreshments and discounts on pre-paid bookings and retail. She even provides a free five-minute “zit zap” when an open-house guest’s blemish needs immediate attention. “That’s five minutes of my time, and it can lead to another booking or referral,” she points out.
4) Price it right. Cox hasn’t raised her prices since January, 2008. “We hear that we’re supposed to work less and make more, but that’s not the reality right now,” she says. With regulars already coming less frequently, she doesn’t want to push them out the door with higher prices. And she’s taken notice of how little business she now receives from third-party outlets like SpaFinder. But Cox does offer incentives, which, she says, “show clients that you want their business. Even 10% off makes a difference.” However, she also advises fellow spa professionals not to undervalue themselves by setting prices too low, as it’s hard to raise them later. “You don’t want to resent your own infrastructure,” she reasons.
5) Amp up the client experience. Cox built client loyalty with her signature treatment elements. “It’s the art of the detail,” she says. Some of her facials include unusual extras, like hot stone massages to arms and legs, even an eyebrow tweeze for a loyal client, or a paraffin hand dip. “No one is paying 20 bucks for a paraffin add-on these days, so if you believe in it, build it into your cost,” she says. “I’ll spend $5 on a dry brush to use on a client’s arms during the treatment. Five dollars, and I’ve stimulated her blood flow, sloughed off dead skin and relaxed her muscles. It’s something she’ll remember. And if she goes to get a facial somewhere else, she’ll miss it.”
From cold beauty globes to hot towels, Cox looks for small ways to make big impact. “Even think about your parking,” she says. “What are the first things clients see, hear, smell or feel when they arrive? Can you play some music outside or burn some incense in your entrance hallway?” Browsing at industry trade shows, Cox looks for new ways to excite clients—“There’s always an inexpensive new piece of equipment or idea to take home,” she says. She also doles out the product samples. “It works two ways: Clients love getting something for free, and I want them to try a product first so they don’t buy something and then return it.”
6) Accept and adjust. As with most small business owners, the instability of the last four years created a make-or-break situation for Cox. She finds herself booked solid one week and seeing just a few clients the next. “You have to learn not to panic,” she says. “Accept that your clients who are moms are busier in summer, accept that no one is booking treatments during tax time and so on.”
Cox’s survival tactic has been supplementation, which can be a bitter pill for an experienced spa professional to swallow. “You have to sit down and face it, that maybe to stay in business you’re going to have to make money doing something else for a while,” she says. “So dig deep to find what inspires you because that’s the only thing you’ll have energy for. Ask yourself, what in health or beauty or spa made you want to get into this business in the first place? Maybe you can teach a class. Maybe you make great handbags or bake muffins, so you start selling them. Maybe only three people buy them. But that’s how it starts. You begin by devoting a few hours a week. After all, you can’t just sit around wondering where everyone went.”
Pampered People Vitals
Location: Los Angeles
Size: 500 square feet (indoor space)
Facility: Two treatment rooms, bathroom with shower, retail/waiting area, outdoor space with garden and hammock
Founded: January 1999
Staff: Esthetician/owner-operated with two massage therapists brought in by appointment
Products used/retailed: Bioelements, Epicuren, GlyMed Plus, Vi Peel, Yon-Ka, gift items
Average service ticket: $150
Signature service: Ultimate European Facial (90 min./$115)
Philosophy: “You’re only as good as your last facial. Bring your ‘A’ game to each treatment that you undertake.”
Andrea Renskoff is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
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