Automation of a Haircut – the coming decline of barbershops

Automation in the barbershop indsutry

You walk into a mall and see what looks like a photo booth. On the side of it, you see “Men’s Haircut.” You step in and sit down, insert your payment for an amount which is less than what most hair stylists charge. Next, the screen in front of you shows you your head in a three-dimensional model. You swipe right and see all the options available, given the type and length of hair you have, before your hair gets cut.

You pick a style, tap the screen, and when your automated haircut is done, you walk out of the booth satisfied with the results.

Industry snapshot (USA)

The hairstylist business in America is in every local neighborhood. Just consider the facts:

  • There are over 100,000 barber shops in the United States.
  • 75% of the hair stylists are men, while 25% are women.
  • Total employment is estimated at over 135,000.

Note:  While there are over 984,000 hair salons in America, this industry has an advantage over automation given the complexity of women’s hair. To get the machines right – never mind if women would actually want a machine to cut their hair – would require a much larger investment resulting in lower margins. Hair salons will thus remain a viable business employing stylists for far longer than the classic men’s barbershop.

What is the main objective of this business?  

To make a profit in the hairstyling business you need to increase your repeat customer base. In other words, turn as many first-time customers into long-term clients as possible. While advertising might bring them in for that first cut, you gain long term clients by producing quality results, one cut at a time. That takes time, especially when you take into account the costs of running a barbershop.

What is the growth model right now?

Independent barber shops. Their main objective is to increase or maintain their existing client base, keep rent at a manageable rate, and diversify their revenue streams by renting a chair to other independent barbers.

Franchise barbers’ shops can be lucrative with relatively low maintenance needed to run the day-to-day operation. Their corporate office looks after the new location and implements useful technologies and standards. Growth comes from getting new franchises to buy in.

How good is the technology right now?

Not yet good enough. But it’s coming. A barber is closer to a surgeon than an automobile assembler that used to do the repetitive tasks that robots have now been doing for decades. And while surgeons can use robotics to do long-distance surgery, the surgeons themselves are still the ones making the countless decisions that are required when opening up a patient and operating on them. The robotics is a tool they use.

That’s not to say that cutting hair is brain surgery, but human hair is fairly complex and programming a robot to cut it will require highly skilled robotics engineers working alongside skilled stylists to develop and streamline the technology into a product customers will trust.

So, what will happen to this industry depends on trust?

Yes, and the level of trust needed to sit down and let a robot cut your hair depends on what type of customer you are.

  • For example, many, if not most men are not that fussy and will embrace this new technology quickly.
  • The salon industry which tends to deal more with women is a little more insulated in the short run, as these clients will require better technology and more time to foster the trust they will need before they take the plunge.
  • Despite the different rates of adoption, both Salons and Barbershops will eventually start to pivot towards this new technology, but it will be expensive, and there’s no guarantee they will get their investment back.
  • In the case of barbershops, the price of a cut is around $20 to $30 – sometimes less. An automated barber will have to charge no more than that or even a little less to gain market share. If a fully functional hair-cutting robot ends up being more expensive than expected, that means a long wait to get your money back at $20 a cut. With Hair Salons, the price is closer to $100, so your return on investment will be higher and you are much more likely to get your money back. Once you convince your Salon clients to go for the machine that is.

What are the Positives here?

  • Well, you get a faster haircut. And because robots don’t need to have a bathroom break, or sip a cappuccino, or gossip with co-workers, you won’t have to wait as long anymore for your turn.
  • If you have a hairstyle that you’re comfortable with, you can have the same haircut every time, without having to depend on the barber’s mood that day to see what kind of cut you end up getting.
  • You’ll also have a much larger selection of haircuts available to choose from. Human stylists have their preferences for what cuts they like to do. You won’t have to deal with that anymore. Just choose your cut and sit back. Every time.
  • Hopefully the costs will be somewhat lower. However, expect some growing pains until the barber bots get better and cheaper to produce and allow the price of bot cuts to fall.
  • Again, while the equipment at a certain point in the future will end up not taking up very much space, it may take a little while to get there. But this will have to get done. Bots will not only have to produce consistent quality quickly and safely for people to trust them – they’ll also have to look good and be unobtrusive.

Ok, now let’s see the Negatives

  • Self-employed barbershops will close, unless Uncle Swatsworth in Poughkeepsie leaves you his fortune from his used car business and you can buy a couple of bot barbers and open some booths.
  • Will this be an end to an industry that is as old as civilization? It will at least be a radical transformation with plenty of losers.
  • With technological advancement in barber robot design and cost, hairdressers will also see an end to their industries, even if it takes longer. The catch? The cost of these machines will have to fall so prices offered to customers can remain attractive.
  • As is the case with any vanishing industry, there will end up being more vacant commercial real estate on the market.
  • However, you might not want to invest your uncle’s fortune in booth bots because given ceaseless technological advancement, the home unit will then replace most of the booth models as well. It might even work in combination with an app on your smart phone that uses the phone’s camera to instruct the bot on how to cut your hair.
  • Maybe the only survival strategy is to sell your barbershop now before the industry collapses and invest in robotics companies.

No way will I let a bot cut my hair! – the final snip

We do admit that there could be a scenario where some older people will neither be willing to give up on the human hair cut, nor want to submit to an automated cut. They will provide a shrinking market for human stylists or end up looking like Gandalf. Unfortunately, they will not save the industry in the long run.