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Lessons from Barbershops

January 22, 2009
Just a little above the ears, Sam.

Just a little above the ears, Sam.

Marc Davison’s newest post is, as is normal for him, a wonderful read filled with cool and interesting insights.  Go read it in full.

The key passage, I think, is this:

But over the decades, the love waned. As new competitors grew into the marketplace, these establishments remained still in their own murky waters of services, anchored to old ways and failing to navigate their brands to the new currents of change.

Over time, despite the full array of services they offered, they drifted from the fabric of our culture, replaced by TRESemme, Paul Mitchell, Fantastic Sams, CVS and Starbucks — “interlopers.”

The older institutions suffered at the hands of their own neglect, compounded by their inability to convey the value they offered, the full services they provided and the personal attention they gave. They believed that being moored to an historic tradition is good enough to insure their place in the future. Or perhaps they believed in nothing and let fear of some unknown guide their complacency.

I haven’t researched the how & why of the decline of barber shops in the United States, but much of this does ring true.

At the same time, I find myself differing with Marc on this:

Today’s broker — you might be a barbershop.
You cut hair better than anyone.
You service the customer better than anyone.
And what you deliver is uncommon.

But you’ve created ambiguity around yourselves and these benefits.

Believe that as things get tougher, as money gets tighter, people need what you have but will never find it if you and your agents are sharpening your scissors behind closed doors.

Believe that so much has changed in real estate and in the way consumers interact with it that your message, your brand, your entire marketing campaign is likely dangerously antique.

I don’t think the problem is marketing.  I think the problem is the actual services being offered, and the ways those services are being delivered.  Marketing campaign is the least of a real estate broker’s concerns.

[To be fair, I don’t think we have real disagreement here.  I think Marc would actually agree with my analysis here, because the steps he recommends under the name of “Davison Realty Group” have less to do with marketing and advertising and much more to do with actual operations.]

On Barber Shops, Old and New

Marc is right that the old barber shop was a part of the American cultural fabric.  It was just something that American men did. However, why did barber shops decline and fall out of the cultural mainstream?  Was it because of a failure of marketing?

This article I found on the Web is actually a pretty nice summary of the history of barber shops.  Key points:

From the 1880’s to the 1940’s, men tended to hang out in unisex, all-male establishments from country clubs to saloons to barbershops.  Going to the barbershop, then, was a weekly — even daily — ritual for men.

During this period, barbershops are not the cheezy plastic-chair and old geezer affair most of us remember or see around the neighborhood.  They were luxurious, classy places:

Marble counters were lined with colorful glass blown tonic bottles. The barber chairs were elaborately carved from oak and walnut, and fitted with fine leather upholstery. Everything from the shaving mugs to the advertising signs were rendered with an artistic flourish. The best shops even had crystal chandeliers hanging from fresco painted ceilings.

The decline of barbershops had quite a bit to do with technological change – sound familiar, brokers?

The first blow to barbershops came in 1904 when Gillette began mass marketing the safety razor. Their advertisements touted the razor as more economical and convenient than visiting the barbershop….  Companies like Sears began selling at-home haircutting kits, and mom began cutting Junior’s and Pop’s hair. Then the Depression hit, and people cut back on discretionary spending like barber shaves.

Then in the 1960’s Beatlemania and the hippie culture seized the country, and hairstyles began to change. Men started to grow their hair longer and shaggier, and their visits to the barber became infrequent or non-existent.

Let’s also note that the 60’s was a period marked by rebellion against everything old and familiar: family, church, government, schools… and yes, that extended to barbershops.

Even when short hair came back into style during the 1980’s, men did not return en masse to the barbershop. Instead, a new type of hairdresser siphoned off the barbers’ former customers: the unisex salon. Places like “SuperCuts” which were neither beauty salons nor barbershops, catered to both men and women.

Part of this change, I believe, has to do with how our society and culture have changed.  Men no longer tend to hang out in unisex environments, only with other men.  In some cases, there have been lawsuits to force those types of changes.  In other cases, it was the cultural norm that changed.

Furthermore, our workplace has changed. Gone are the days of long, leisurely lunches.  Gone are the days when men can work till 3pm, then head to the club, or to the barbershop to fraternize with other men.  We now work in 24/7 cycles, from early in the morning with barely time to grab breakfast, till late at night, commuting ever-longer distances from our jobs.  I know I personally have trouble even getting to some place to get my hair cut regularly; being able to go to a classic, traditional barbershop for a leisurely hour or two of chatting with other guys about the Jets and Yankees, while getting my hair cut seems luxury difficult to imagine.

Just get me in and out, as fast as possible, at as low a cost as possible.  That seems to be the modern mantra of the working male.

The Relative Uselessness of Marketing

If the decline of the barbershop was driven by technological change (e.g., introduction of the safety razor) and by society-wide cultural change (e.g., Age of Aquarius, feminism, etc.) and by fundamental change in lifestyle, then honestly, how much would have a new marketing campaign helped?

I just can’t imagine a barbershop able to market its way out of a decline, when all of those forces are arrayed against it.  When everyone wants to grow their hair out long, and thinks barbershops are part of the ‘authority’ they are supposed to question, positioning the same set of services in a different light makes no difference.

The customer simply does not want the services being offered.

The Product First, Marketing Second

And yet, in recent years, we are beginning to see a resurgence of the old barbershop in dramatically different form, offering a whole new set of services that at least a segment of the customer does want.

Companies like Miles & Lyle and Truman’s are offering an updated barbershop concept that reaches back into the golden age of barbershops on the one hand, while offering services that the barber of the 1930’s wouldn’t have imagined.  For example, Truman’s offers pedicures and “Deep Cleaning Skin Treatments” to its “members”.

And they do it in a luxury surrounding, evocative of the original classy appeal of the barbershop.

These changes are not merely marketing; they are fundamental changes to the service offering itself.  And they are aimed at a particular kind of consumer who doesn’t mind paying a ton of money to be pampered.

Lessons for Real Estate

As I’ve noted above, I think Marc would actually agree here, that what real estate brokers need to do today isn’t simply a new marketing campaign.  His suggestions are operational in nature more than they are promotional.  For example:

I would take a hard look at my backend system. Does it have lead management? Does it have lead routing? Does it offer my agents the ability to run comparative market analyses on the fly? Does it allow me to distribute incoming inquiries to my agents via text messages and supply them with the tools to respond immediately and properly rather than with canned nonsense?

Backend systems are marketing, of course, since everything can be traced to marketing one way or another.  But note that having things like lead management, lead routing, and ability to run CMA’s on the fly are productivity enhancers that enables a brokerage to offer services it could not before.

These types of changes are, in fact, precisely the kind of changes that many of us realestistas have been advocating for some time.  Improving agent quality is a common battlecry; I’ve pointed out that “your brand is in the hands of your worst agent.”  Improving the website to be more consumer-friendly is something every broker and agent should be thinking about.

But note the similarities here.  Real estate brokerage is being challenged by technological changes.  The web is to brokerage what safety razors were to barbershops.  In some cases, there are societal and cultural changes as well.  As hippies did not want to go to Dear Old Dad’s barbershop, the Gen-X and Gen-Y consumers don’t want to call some agent before having researched neighborhoods, houses, prices, and mortgages thoroughly.

If barbershops declined from the 1940’s till today, it was not because of a failure of marketing.  It was because they failed to adapt their core service offering to the new environment.  The same holds true for real estate brokerage.

No amount of brilliant marketing, no amount of TV advertising, no amount of social media, or blogging, or video, or whatever clever marketing scheme can get around the core service offering.


So it is that as barbershops are reinventing themselves as a new kind of social-club for men, perhaps brokerages will need to reinvent themselves as a new kind of real-estate services firm.  Marketing is important, of course — critical, even.  But even as a marketer myself, I do think that the lesson to be drawn from the decline of barbershops is that changes must be dealt with first at a core operations level, and then from a marketing and messaging standpoint.

In the meantime… Marc’s post reminds me that I very badly need a haircut….


8 Comments leave one →
  1. brandieyoung permalink
    January 22, 2009 5:07 pm

    Wow, Rob. Great post.

    I’d like to chime in on a few things that resonated with me.

    “… they (the barber shops) failed to adapt their core service offering to the new environment”

    I think that’s absolutely parallel to today. The events over the last 18+ months, coupled with an up and coming generation of future buyers is quite likely to have an impact on the way in which owning real estate is considered. It will be interesting to see all that attitude entails, and that it may not be “The American Dream” of years gone by. Someone will get it right.

    “ … perhaps brokerages will need to reinvent themselves as a new kind of real-estate services firm”

    The Gillette analogy raises another interesting thought: Will the new attitude toward real estate force a commoditization of the services? I don’t mean a discount brokerage per se, rather the reinvention you mentioned.

    Finally, I am also of the mindset Marketing is critical, and yes, there does need to be something behind the curtain to market, right Mr. Wizard?


  2. January 22, 2009 8:36 pm

    Great analagy, Rob. “Improving agent quality is a common battlecry; I’ve pointed out that “your brand is in the hands of your worst agent.”

    So true – its not only about the core services offered, but an ongoing education to master the skills required to execute those services are what is really key. Top stylists go to shows in Paris, and top realtors are constantly staying on top of their game with education as well.
    Next week I’m getting my CDPE designation ( distressed properties). Why? Because if I don’t, I’m just a barber.

  3. January 23, 2009 1:15 pm

    Another great one Rob…
    I earned my first dollar and saw my first porno mag in my grandfather’s barber shop “Shear & Razor” in the Bronx. There were lines out the door and everyone smoked and cussed. It was all of a saturday morning.
    It was an experience. Real Estate is an ordeal that must be endured for too many of the participants. That’s the difference.

  4. Marc permalink
    January 23, 2009 2:56 pm

    Firstly, well done Rob. Thanks for taking notice, analyzing and challenging the article respectfully. It’s a considerable compliment coming from such a highly regarded writer and thinker as yourself.

    As you noted, you and I do not disagree at all. Your analysis is clear and precise and does a great job in illustrating other critical issues for today’s real estate company which all can be derived from a historical look at brands of old that withered over time.

    I content that if these old school businesses employed marketing department who kept a diligent eye on their brands, did usability studies, did consumer focus groups, etc., they would have learned that what they were offering was slowly going by the way of the dodo and could have remained viable and current and could have better protected their tuf from being over run by interlopers.

    Had they employed marketing, they would have learned that their own messaging such as $5.00 Haircuts – were not strong enough calls to action or a clear enough differentiators as the marketplace evolved and new brands emerged.

    Time and space are limiting here and there is so much more to discuss within this topic. But between both our perspectives and general takeaways from history, some valuable lessons going forward can be acquired.

  5. Sam permalink
    January 23, 2009 5:51 pm

    I think a large part of the problem is that technology has changed the market, so that a lot of the “value” the real estate agent used to supply, can be gotten by the consumer for free from the internet.

    Combine this with an %age based model, and a housing price boom, customers rightly question why should they pay agents a fee thats significantly larger than inflation for potentailly less work as they can do a lot of the purchase leg work themselves.

    I don’t think redfin is the answer, but maybe more of a fee for services model. The internet-izing of the MLS has removed a lot of the proprietory information agents used to have, so they are no longer adding the value they did 15 years ago.

    Agents are not employees of the mega-firms. The firms just take a cut of their sales. Its in the firms interest to have as many agents as possible, which in the boom years has meant that there are far too many, chasing after clients. They spend so much time/effort chasing leads, that they the profit of an actual customer needs to be high to justify the effort of finding them.

  6. January 23, 2009 9:09 pm

    @Marc –

    Thanks man — and again, thanks for writing that original post.

    You are right that one of the key functions of marketing is to stay on top of trends, and identify threats — such as safety razors and hippie lifestyles — before they become serious problems. Of course, the barber has to listen to his head of marketing that they might want to start looking into operational changes… 🙂



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