Owner of Degran says setting up was difficult, but that he is in Phnom Penh for the long haul
Thirty years ago, Japan was like Phnom Penh is now. The city will grow, and I want the beauty industry to grow with it.
Establishing a top hair salon in Cambodia has been a challenging experience fraught with unexpected pitfalls for Jun Kikuchi, director of Phnom Penh’s Degran salon.
Kikuchi has been in the high-end hair salon business for over 30 years, a period during which stylists in his native Japan defied convention to pioneer the use of hairstyle as an often-eccentric art form.
Kikuchi still runs three cutting-edge salons in Tokyo, but these days you can find the man at his Cambodia salon, an experiment that opened its doors last February in Boeung Keng Kang 1.
Kikuchi combines a long-term vision for the Kingdom’s beauty industry with a touch of audacity in entering the market.
“If I opened the business in a place where everything was easy to do, it would not be interesting,” he said, “Here, I find it very interesting.”
The salon is housed in an ultramodern building designed by Kikuchi himself with assistance from a friend, interior designer Suzuki Kuniaki.
Construction cost Kikuchi nearly US$1 million, and cost overruns forced him to double his original budget for establishing the location.
Fitting in with the business realities in Cambodia has been an eye opener for the director.
“It makes operating in Japan look like it’s without problems,” he said, citing the Kingdom’s poor utilities, difficulties with the construction of the building, and the huge cost of importing specialised equipment and designer furnishings from Japan among the stumbling blocks overcome in order to make Degran possible.
Watching the locals
Before breaking ground, Kikuchi spent two years journeying to the Kingdom every month to research the industry, closely observing local salons in operation.
What surprised him most was a tendency among hairdressers not to ask their customers what they wanted, a far cry from Kikuchi’s previous experience where customers drove the choice of styles.
Degran consequently focuses on consulting with its clients, guiding them towards a decisions that fit their image.
“It’s very important to look at customers’ clothes, shapes of their heads, etc before we suggest a haircut that suits them,” he said.
“In Japan, people can get a lot of information from the Internet and magazines. Some Japanese are better informed than beauty professionals these days.”
When the doors finally opened, Kikuchi was very surprised by the makeup of his clientele.
Over 50 percent were foreigners, of whom most were not Asian expatriates, as he had anticipated, but Westerners looking for top-end hairdos.
Attracting Cambodian clients was also difficult during the salon’s first few months of operation.
Initially, pricing was consistent with high-end Japanese locations, but it quickly became apparent that costs were beyond the means of most of the Phnom Penh market. To improve sales, prices have recently been cut in half.
Despite the occasional setback, Kikuchi remains optimistic about the future of his Phnom Penh venture. “Thirty years ago, Japan was like Phnom Penh is now,” he said. “The city will grow, and I want the beauty industry to grow with it.”
Kikuchi expects his expertise to be useful in improving the less-developed Cambodian beauty industry.
He acknowledged that Degran was playing a long-term game, and anticipated that the business would begin realising positive returns in three to five years.
The company has not advertised so far, relying on word-of-mouth interaction to woo customers, but plans to roll out a campaign in the coming months.
After the Phnom Penh business becomes more established, Kikuchi will contemplate expanding both domestically and into Cambodia’s regional neighbours.
He considers Siem Reap a likely contender for another salon, given the cosmopolitan makeup of the tourism-driven city.
However, he said he plans to stick to his tried and tested recipe for expansion and conduct further studies on the local market before taking the plunge.