When times are tough, it seems we go to the hairdressers. Suzanne McFadden investigates our spend at the salon.

A woman's crowning glory, her richest ornament, her beauteous tresses; it's more than just hair.

So it's no head-scratcher that despite this era of monetary troubles, we're not content with letting our hair grow out and our greys creep in. In fact, the business of styling hair appears to be flourishing in a receding economy.

To afford her habitual haircut, Donna-Michelle, a 42-year-old sales rep, will happily forsake a new pair of shoes or a night out. "But then I wouldn't go out anywhere if my hair looked bad," she says by phone from Wanaka, waiting to wash out the DIY dye she's painted on. "We want to feel good about ourselves, don't we?"

Having worked in hair salons, she knows the worth of a well-styled head and will make sacrifices to keep her locks coiffed - wearing them a little longer in an edgy cut and stretching her monthly salon appointments to six weeks, sometimes eight. She will even colour her own dark hair at home to "feel better" between cuts.


"I've made the odd cock-up, but I've learned to get the colour right and avoid anything fancy," she says. "But I just won't skimp on a haircut. I'll wear my hair up, or grow it a little longer until I can afford it, or until I can get into the salon. I've just had to wait three weeks to see my stylist, she's so busy."

Over the past decade, the beauty world has offered some surprising economic indicators during downturns. First it was the lipstick effect - a theory promoted by Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder, when lipstick sales rose distinctly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks deflated the United States economy. The phrase now stands for cash-strapped consumers buying smaller indulgences - like a decent lipstick - to feel good and look good in tough times.

When women had stocked up on enough Ruby Woo and Rouge Allure to paint a small town red, nail polish became a new indicator in this latest global economic downturn, with women happy to save a little by giving themselves manicures.

There are signs that hairdressing, too, may be recession-proof. In Britain, hair salons are opening at record rates and business hasn't been clipped for established salons.

"Hair is the number one investment for a person," Vincent Mercier, of L'Oreal Professionnel told the Times.

"A suit is a suit, and you can change your outfits as many times in a day as you like, but you wear your hair the same way every day. It looks back at you in the mirror and is the first thing people notice about you."

Salons here seem to be surviving too, with many doing better than before. The number of people employed in hairdressing and beauty salons in Auckland last year equalled the pre-recession high of 3260; over the past four years, the number of salons in the city has stayed steady at just over 1300.

And we're spending more on a decent do, too. The average cost of a shampoo, cut and blow-wave, from a 2010 Retail Trade Survey, was $58.48 - an increase of nearly 350 per cent since the 1980s, when it cost $3.96 ($17.88 in today's dollars).

"I think the most important thing a woman can have - next to talent, of course - is her hairdresser," actress Joan Crawford, Esquire, 1957.

Paul Serville, founder of one of the country's most successful string of salons, says this recession has been the best thing to happen to Servilles since he started the business with wife Jacci in 1984.

"The recession first hit us in May 2007 and it absolutely forced our guys to perform," he says. "Some of our top stylists on commission dropped $15,000 from their income in that first year, so they had to change - provide the best quality experience, or put up with earning less. Value for money is what everyone wants right now.

"Over the last five years for us as a company, it's only got better and better."

It's the second recession Servilles has worked through, and this time its owner, with the help of computerised systems, has been able to keep close tabs on the effects. For the first two years, business dropped by 9 per cent, but by 2010 it was back to normal ... and growing.

"The biggest difference has been people leaving their hair appointments longer, but expenditure has been greater. People are looking more for quality, so that their cut or colour lasts longer," Serville says.

It's not about the haircut so much, he says, but the experience (especially when you pay $128 for a cut from a "platinum" stylist).

"I travel a lot and meet the top hairdressers around the world, but a lot of them are still living in the old days, where they think it's clever to be offhand with clients," he says. "Years ago it used to be about the hairdresser. Now, our big focus is on getting everything right: from the time you ring up, to your first impression walking in the door, to how you are looked after - cafe-qualify coffee, the best magazines. You are treated with respect."

"If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle," Hillary Clinton.

There's a new air of optimism in Lucy Vincent-Marr's place of work - from the customers who frequently walk into the three Auckland salons she runs with husband Stephen, and in the coiffures those clients walk out with.

"We've all probably been through what feels like a really long, difficult time, and now we want a level of fun, playfulness and optimism in our hair," Vincent-Marr says. "It's fun, bright colours - peaches, hot pinks, lavenders - and diverse styles, hippie, long, natural hair, with not a lot of detail but excellent condition, and mod, '60s-style short graphic women's cuts. It's nice to feel this buoyant again."

The Stephen Marr salons, whose senior stylists charge between $95 and $145 for a women's cut, haven't suffered a conspicuous impact on business, but Vincent-Marr has noticed clients extending the gap between appointments.

"Hair is so very visible, and people who appreciate quality tend to make it more of a priority than things less obvious. Grey roots are something that can't be compromised," she says. "A lot of people are going without the new car, the holiday, the renovations and sticking with lipstick and chocolate, the psychological feel-good factor. Hair is in the same camp.

"We've really noticed people making decisions want to know they are absolutely getting value. People are a lot more critical when it's harder to part with money. So we are pouring money and resources into service and education delivery, and making sure clients walk out of here with a 'wow' factor."

"A woman's tongue is longer than her hair," Russian proverb.

Jenny Aitken is experiencing a new phenomenon in her colour-only salons - men phoning to make appointments for their wives and partners.

"We get a lot of men ringing and asking about the cost of a colour. Even though it doesn't always seem like it, they're listening to their partner's complaints about their hair," she says. "They realise that for a woman, getting your hair done is a little bit of 'me time', it's a treat."

Aitken started Hue, a chain of specialist colour salons, in April 2008 as the screws were tightening on New Zealand's economy. This month she will open her fifth Auckland salon, in Albany.

"When we started, we couldn't cope with the demand. We missed 1000 phone calls in our first month. We've been consistently busy ever since."

But when the purse strings are pulled tighter, isn't a colour treatment one of the first indulgences to go? "Sure, some women are doing box colours, and alternating those with salon treatments. But we have a steady stream of business from fixing home colour botch-ups," Aitken says. They can be expensive mistakes - where a full hair colour is $80, a correction is $360.

Getting value from a visit to the colourist is becoming more important for clients, Aitken believes: "Even among my friends, the focus is on value. You don't have a label on your hair, like you would on a dress, so no one knows if you've spent $80 or $180.

"We jumped on board one of the first voucher websites, Daily Do, and did a deal with them in the first week. The response has been remarkable.

"Essentially, if things are tough women still want to feel good and appearance is intrinsically linked to that. In the same way women drew black pencil lines down their legs during the war when stockings were scarce, we will find ways to get rid of our grey hair. I liken getting your greys done to the exhilaration of buying a new pair of shoes."

"There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine," P.G. Wodehouse.

Reigning New Zealand Hairdresser of the Year, Sara Allsop, would go without other things to have rid her long, dark tresses' grey imposters.

"My hair is out of control ... and it's grey. I don't want to be grey at 40. I would go without a pair of shoes or a new dress if it meant getting my hair coloured," she says.

At Dharma, the Mt Eden salon she runs with stylist husband Jock Robson, business has prospered largely due to them setting an affordable price point: a cut is $110 and a cut, colour and blow wave $195.

"That way people can afford to come in every time and have a cut and colour. When times get a little tougher, you've got to stop and go back to what you set up for. We had an awesome year last year, our best Christmas yet."

But Allsop has noticed clients aren't buying a lot of product - professional shampoos and hair straighteners - from the salon. It's a trend stylist Abby Martindale, at the Ministry of Hair in Auckland's Heritage Hotel, is also seeing.

"We are more frugal, not fully stocking our shelves with products because they're just not selling," she says.

The demand for blow-dries has burgeoned among their executive clientele. "Some women will have a blow wave now instead of a cut. The functions they have to attend don't seem to have cut back in the recession," says Martindale.

At Wellington's longest-running hair salon, Taboo - hairdressing on Karori Rd since 1932 - co-owner Chris Fox says very few clients would let on if their financial situation was forcing them to change the way they treat their hair.

"But I think [hairdressing] is pretty recession-proof. It's important for our clients to look good - when you're presenting yourself to the public, you don't want to look like your hair hasn't been cut for months," he says.

"When it comes to colour, clients are stretching it out a few weeks. But it's a false economy - the longer the regrowth, the harder the job. At one stage coupon deals stripped a few clients from us, but they're coming back. It's important to have a point of difference, especially now."

"The hair is the richest ornament of women," Martin Luther.

At least 50 salons were lost in the Christchurch earthquake a year ago. Some salons relocated, some stylists moved cities to get work. Their clients are also prepared to travel to get the best attention.

Two Christchurch women, clients of personal stylist Stacey Beatson, flew to Auckland last month to shop and be pampered. "The first thing they did was have a cut and colour. Both bought hundreds of dollars' worth of product at the hairdressers and the next day they went back for a shampoo and blow-dry before they flew home," she says.

"I stress so much the importance of your hair as the ultimate accessory."

A former hair and makeup artist, Beatson runs seminars for L'Oreal Professional, training hairdressers on personal styling - understanding clients' colours, body types and style personalities. "With this tightening up, it's the assurance of getting the best for our clients and hairdressers who continue to learn and grow in leaps and bounds. They have to really focus on their client's desires, but sometimes they can be show ponies and not good at telling people what they need to hear."

But even if they don't tell us we have beautiful hair, we will return. As Donna-Michelle points out: "Hairdressers can sleep easy. We'll never be able to get our hair cut over the internet, so their jobs are safe."