The Cybercritic: Professional Beauty Supplies

When shopping for professional beauty supplies, The Cybercritic expected the home pages of the distributors to look professional and beautiful. In that regard, the Website of Cameo Beauty Supplies (www.cameobeauty.com) disappointed. A few blah colors, a circa-1950 logo, several product shots, and a generic typeface — yawn.

But the merchandise directories running down the left side of the page made up for the lack of esthetics. The first directory, organized by product category, offered roughly 40 options, from appointment books to waxing, with selections such as furniture, retail bags, and sanitation in between. Below was a directory organized by manufacturer, with 50 brands represented.

The home page also offered a search function, so I typed in “backwash” — the sink against which customers lean back to have their hair washed. No matches apppeared. “Sink” brought me better luck — one match. I clicked the link and was led to a nondescript product page, with a grainy photo and a just-about-serviceable description: “Cultured man-made marble bowl is highly popular for its all around efficiency and client comfort. Includes mounting bracket, strainer assembly, shampoo spray (#1676) and ‘Dial-Flo’ fixture (#1659).”

Skeptical that this particular model was the only one Cameo was selling — the brand, Takara Belmont, is on the high end — I went back to the search function, this time typing in “shampoo bowl.” Aha! Three matches, including the one cited above. Though why Cameo decreed that two of the shampoo bowls weren’t also sinks had me scratching my head.

Then again, one of the two new product matches wasn’t a shampoo bowl at all, but rather the apparatus to control the water flow and temperature. The other product was absolutely a shampoo bowl, however, with a product description more detailed and effusive (“The perfect bowl for any salon!”) than that of the first sink. This bowl was also $70 cheaper. So Cameo ended up making the cheaper bowl sound better than the more expensive one.

Ordering from Cameo was easy — too easy, in a way. True salon suppliers are supposed to require prospective customers to submit their state cosmetology license numbers before completing the sale. Cameo asked for no such thing, making it a hybrid cataloger rather than a true b-to-ber. The site did require me to register before completing my order, though, and once I did I was told that there was a $50 minimum order. Not a very nice surprise to spring on an already testy Cybercritic.

No backwashes were available from New Life Systems (www.newlifesystems.com), but that’s because it caters to spas rather than full-line beauty salons. The institutional copy on the home page displays some welcome energy; after touting the company’s house brand of bodycare products, it notes that “the New Life Systems team is made up of dynamic Customer Service Staff who actually answer the phone during business hours (no voice mail here!)…” The copy goes on to promote New Life’s team of consultants and spa planners who can help clients design facilities, select services and products, and assist with staff training.

Links to the nine product categories appeared on the left and the bottom of the home page. I selected Massage Tables and Chairs, which led me to a page with four subcategories and a message declaring that “equipment financing is easy, just ask. It can be done over the phone!”

I selected the Tables subcategory and was presented with pages of product choices — how many pages, I’m not sure, since there was no indication along the lines of “page 1 of 14” that I could see. And some of the items weren’t tables at all, but accessories such as Pneumatic Adjustable Rolling Stools and Table Warming Pads.

For the most part, the product descriptions provided useful details. For instance, the Natural Bristle Brushes for Body Treatments “don’t shed!…Feel their balance and quality. They’re a pleasure to work with.” Some of the differences among similar items of different prices could have been promoted more visibly, though. For instance, the $478 Body Support Pro System and the $334.80 BodyCushion System 4-Piece had nearly identical descriptions. Only carefully reading to the very end of the copy blocks showed that the more expensive option came with additional accessories.

Each of the product categories included a Customer Favorites subcategory. This provided shoppers with a benchmark of sorts against which to compare their own choices. It also added a sense of community to the site. Another nice touch: First-time customers received $25 off their order if it came to at least $150. Though I’m not sure why New Life tucked the offer under the On Sale and Close-outs product category.

The home page of Cache Beauty (www.cachebeauty.com) took several minutes to load (even via a cable modem). And the page that finally appeared proved that good things don’t necessarily come to those who wait. The home page was in sore need of a makeover.

Most of the more than three dozen photos strewn across the page accompanied category headers and links (which were presented in inconsistent type fonts). But these categories weren’t presented alphabetically, or in any other logical order that I could make out. Fortunately seven tabs along the top provided broader shopping categories, such as Appliances, Hair, and Manicure. Rolling the cursor over each category produced a pull-down menu of subcategories.

I selected the Shears category and the Tweezerman subcategory. The Tweezerman page offered a two-paragraph background of the company and links to its other products, such as tweezers and manicure tools. Generous-size photos of three models of shears and product copy followed. The descriptions were surprisingly useful in pointing out the differences among the items, though bullet points would have been even more helpful.

No subcategory for shampoos appeared under the Hair category; they appeared under the Style & Finish category instead. What’s more, all of the hair products in the Style & Finish category were the same brand, Paul Brown Hawaii.

While grumbling to myself, I noticed the Wholesale link on the far right side of the page. Clicking on it delivered me to a page that required me to sign up to receive e-mail and register. Then it asked if I were a professional hairstylist or manicurist.

I said yes and was led to a page cluttered with text links to dozens of professional brands. It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s black-and-white world explodes into Technicolor — though not as lovely to look at.

The product descriptions provided just the bare facts — for instance, which perms didn’t require heat for processing, and which were suitable for porous hair. I suppose Cache felt that pros are already loyal to their brands and are interested primarily in price. And the site did offer volume discounts, as well as a flat $6.80 shipping fee.

I loaded up my virtual shopping cart and headed to check out. But apparently The Cybercritic wasn’t the only consumer who, tempted by the prospect of buying professional haircolor at wholesale prices, told a little white lie. Before I could complete my order, I had to submit my cosmetology licence number. Dang! I knew I should have attended beauty school all those years ago rather than waste my time getting a journalism degree.

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