Meet Buff, a modern nail studio with big plans to expand

For Emma Forrest, getting her nails done every two weeks has long been part of her routine. Like many Australian women, she simply feels more professional and put together with a fresh manicure, and her regular salon visits provide a welcome bit of self-care.

Unlike most salon customers, however, Forrest recently decided to open her own nail salon business.

That business, Buff, currently involves just one studio on Church Street in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, but eventually, Forrest hopes to see dozens of studios on high streets across the country.

“We have two tiers of salons here,” Forrest, who previously worked in e-commerce at Aesop, told Inside Retail.

“There’s your cheap and cheerful, which is located on a high street, and you’re in and out, but the quality is not necessarily good and the staff are not necessarily trained.

“Then you have your high end salon, where you’re paying a premium. The quality is great, but it’s not affordable to go every two weeks. It’s more of a pampering experience.”

In recent years, Forrest had started to encounter a new type of salon in the US and Europe that fell somewhere in between these two tiers. These salons offered good quality manicures from trained technicians in well designed surroundings at affordable prices.

After researching the local market, Forrest realised there was an opportunity to launch a similar concept in Australia.

The result is Buff, a modern-looking studio with a strong focus on customer experience and hygiene, two areas that Forrest felt were lacking in the average salon in Australia today.

Buff doesn’t look, sound or smell like the typical nail salon.

A new look

The first location in Brighton, brought to life by Golden and The Melbourne Builder, serves as a blueprint of what future Buff studios might look like.

Unsurprisingly for someone who spent five years at Aesop, there is a strong focus on the design, including the sound and smell, of the studio.

“The music in the background feels cool and has a bit of vibe to it, without being high energy. You can take a deep breath and it doesn’t smell like chemicals. The lighting and everything was chosen so that people walk in and think this looks and feels amazing,” Forrest said.

One of the first things customers see when walking into the Buff studio is a large, custom-built basin, where they are invited to wash their hands.

It’s an idea Forrest borrowed from Aesop, and it serves several purposes at once. It signals the start of the customer journey, helping to ground customers in the moment and differentiate Buff from other salons, and it embodies the brand’s focus on hygiene. The studio also features a dedicated ‘Hygiene Lab’ where all tools are sterilised using hospital-grade equipment.

Customers are invited to wash their hands at a central basin, signalling the start of the Buff journey.

A fortuitous decision

This focus on hygiene was built into the Buff concept from the beginning – in her research, Forrest found that hygiene was the top concern for most nail salon customers – but it has proved to be a fortuitous decision given the timing of the brand’s launch during a global pandemic.

“That’s been the silver lining – that hygiene was always at the core of our DNA,” Forrest said.

The Buff studio in Brighton was originally scheduled to launch in May, but had to be postponed after beauty salons were forced to close due to Covid-19. The studio opened in early June and traded for about a month before Melbourne went back into lockdown. Forrest said she plans to reopen as soon as restrictions ease.

“We were consistently busy those first four weeks [we were open] without a doubt,” she said.

Forrest envisions opening a Buff studio on every high street in Australia.

And she remains committed to opening Buff studios in other cities and suburbs beyond Melbourne.

“You’re never going to travel more than 10-15 minutes to get your nails done,” Forrest explained, “so if you put a pin in a Buff studio and draw a 5-7km radius around it, that’s where we’ll be [located] across a city.”

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