Annals of cheap: QB House

September 23rd, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

QB

Be kind and shampoo before you go

Some people love to get their hair cut and set. They love the scent of shampoo and the touch of the beautician’s hands on their scalps, or the subtle snip-snip of the barber’s shears and the reassuring dampness of a hot towel; the whole sensuous, tactile experience augmented with light conversation and unforced cameraderie.

Then again, some people absolutely hate all that, and for those people there’s QB House, whose business model is as simple as styrofoam: 10 minutes in the chair for ¥1,000. No shampoo, no shave, no small talk. Just a haircut. Does that look OK? Get outta here.

Presently QB (“Quick Beauty”) Net Co., Ltd. runs 401 outlets throughout Japan, as well as shops in Hong Kong and Singapore. The first one opened near Kanda Station in Tokyo in 1996 and the QB approach caught on very fast.

QB keeps costs down mainly by renting very small spaces and doing high-volume business. Profit margins are about 7.4%, which means each shop should ideally serve about 85 customers a day. The cut station is self-contained, with a chair and a tall vanity-like facility that features a sterilizer, an “air washer” (extending vacuum device to remove cut hair strands from the customer’s person), disinfectant and drawers of disposable combs and paper towels made of recycled material. A comb is used only once and then offered to the customer afterward. By having everything in such close proximity, QB not only makes effective use of space but allows each haircutter to clean up quickly so as to save time.

It’s easy for the customer, too. Instead of a barber pole, each outlet features a traffic light set up in the window. A green light means no waiting; yellow means a wait of 5 to 10 minutes; and red says a wait of 15 minutes or more. The customer walks in and inserts a thousand-yen bill in the vending machine (no change is given) in exchange for a ticket, and sits down. When his turn comes up he hands the ticket to the cutter and tells him/her what he wants. Some outlets accept Suica and Edy cards.

In the wake of QB’s success, another haircutting chain with the exact same system called 3Q Cut (Quick, Quality, Quest) started in 2001 and now has 177 stores. In addition, QB has opened three new beauty salons in Tokyo called Quatre Beaute that’s aimed at women who want a bit more from the tonsorial experience: 20 minutes for ¥2,000.

Ever since it opened QB House has faced opposition from established barber shops and beauty salons, who are understandably concerned that the chain will take away business. Local associations have convinced at least four prefectural governments to pass laws mandating that all places where hair is cut have shampoo sinks installed. Supposedly, this regulation guarantees sanitation, but QB doesn’t do shampoos so the sinks have no real purpose. The manager of a QB House in Hokkaido once told the Asahi Shimbun that customers use his sink for gargling.

Business associations have also tried to invoke the Barber and Beautician Law to make trouble for QB. According to this law, barber shops and beauty parlors are distinct businesses, which means only licensed barbers can work in barber shops and only licensed beauticians can work in beauty salons. The distinction between the two professions is clear but rather arbitrary when you think about it. Barbers can handle razors and beauticians can’t, while beauticians can do permanents and makeup while barbers can’t. QB employees don’t handle any of these tasks, but the law has forced the company to license its outlets as either barber shops or beauty parlors, which means they can only be staffed by people with the proper licenses, even though they all do exactly the same job. QB has petitioned the health ministry four times to rescind this regulation and has been rejected every time.

Basically, the barbers and beauticians associations are just being bullies and stick-in-the-muds. People who like to have their hair set and their beards shaved will still patronize their establishments, so why force the rest of us to spend more money and time on something that we find almost as disagreeable as going to the dentist?

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