Butter London Plans Expansion

Butter London is more than just a nail salon.

Butter London is more than just a nail salon.

It’s where flyers on a layover at Washington’s Sea-Tac International can turn to for a manicure. Passengers-in-waiting at airports in San Diego and Sacramento are about to get a Butter London location, too. Or, if a manicure is better attained during lunch, Butter London will open at Starbucks’ headquarters in two months, and the chain is planning to plant itself at other corporate offices in the near future.

Butter London’s business model is based on a standard retail concept: Put units where the people are. In this case, the people are professionals — one in five customers is a man — who seemingly have more discretionary income than discretionary hours and, in the few minutes they can spare, seek out expedient services that don’t scrimp on the luxury to which they’ve become accustomed.

“We wanted to go for these unique, high-traffic areas. After 9/11, with the increased time you had to be at the airport, it seemed like a natural fit,” said Sasha Muir, who moved to Seattle from London four years ago and founded Butter London in 2005. “Heathrow has had the most wonderful brand offerings and consumer shopping experiences for years. The American airports are just at the beginning of understanding how to service their passengers in an enjoyable and meaningful fashion.”

Airport units put Butter London at the crossroads of two burgeoning industries: nail care and airport concessions. Sea-Tac estimates that an airport visitor spent on average of $10.35 on concessions before boarding a flight last year, an amount that’s up 16 percent from the year before and that’s projected to increase 10 to 12 percent this year.

Convenience is not all Butter London provides. Muir stressed that convenience can snag a customer once, but repeat patronage isn’t built on that factor alone. Butter London’s goal is to catch its customers on their return trips, entice them to buy the company’s nail products online upon their arrival back home and draw them to Butter London spots outside airports as well.

Butter London’s value proposition beyond convenience is its positioning between spas and bare-bones neighborhood nail joints. “There is a huge polarization in the [nail] market,” said Muir. “There are high-expense offerings, then you have low-end, low-quality offerings. There is a gap in the market to offer low-cost, high-quality services.”

This story first appeared in the August 24, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

How does Butter London signal to consumers that it’s not among the two polar opposite nail service camps? Muir, a business-savvy graduate of France’s Insead, outlined that branding Butter London as “bringing London chic” to Americans is integral to the strategy. The branding begins with the name Butter London, which instantly suggests that the nail salon is different and more upscale than “X Nails” down the street.

The branding is continued inside the physical locations. They are made to resemble London apothecaries with black lacquer fixtures containing Georgian accents and a black chandelier. British rock music plays in the background. “The experience should be extremely British. The locations have a real sense of atmosphere,” said Nonie Creme, Butter London’s creative director. “We are very much not a spa. We encourage our staff to engage the clients, have fun. This is a quick, upbeat experience. There are no waterfalls.”

The Sea-Tac location is 900 square feet and has six manicure-pedicure stations. But Butter London’s size flexibility — it can move into spaces ranging from 200 to 1,000 square feet — enable it to spread easily. There are currently two locations, an additional five are expected in the next six months, and Muir projects the company in five years to reach 100 units across 15 metro markets seeded first with airport nail salons. “We are growing a business to be a national and international brand,” said Muir. “It is not like Nonie and I are clubbing together and having a couple of shots. We want this to be huge.”

To date, Muir reported Butter London has raised slightly under $2 million to fund the company, largely from angel investors in the Seattle vicinity, and she added the company would need to raise more to fuel its 2008 expansion. Muir said that she and Creme are “significant owners” and together hold more shares “than any other unit holder.” She declined to disclose annual revenues, but said the Sea-Tac store “is outperforming expectations.”

Full manicures, which are waterless and take 20 minutes, cost from $15 to $20, and full pedicures, which likewise are waterless and take 40 minutes, are from $35 to $40. Nail lacquers start at $10, and nail treatment products are primarily between $15 and $25. At Butter London salons, product sales account for one-fifth of revenues on average, although Muir indicated that the company aims for products to make up around half of each unit’s take.

Nail polishes are another point of differentiation for Butter London. The company touts that they are “3 free” or without formaldehyde, touene and dibutyl phthalate. Creme, a manicurist with an extensive editorial résumé (her work has been seen in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Elle, and on Kate Moss and Sadie Frost) designed the packaging along with Muir, who described the casing as “a cheeky younger sister of Chanel.” Creme also handles the colors.

Butter London developed the domestically produced nail product line last year and kicked off wholesale distribution this year, when it is slated to enter 10 to 20 spa doors. Eventually, Muir said the wholesaling business could match or surpass the nail salon business. The best-selling color at the moment is an opaque beige called Yummy Mummy, and Creme mixes in fashion hues, such as a metallic gray titled Chimney Sweep for fall-winter, to spice up the polish selection.

“Nonie is known for her bespoke colors. To see people’s reaction to the color range, it is something you have to see to believe,” said Muir. “They are just these beautiful, vibrant and fashion-forward [colors.] It is really unusual.”

Nail care employees, dubbed nail consultants by Butter London, are trained for four days to two weeks, depending on their prior background in nails. Butter London has broken down nail service into steps to make training easier and ensure customers receive the same treatment no matter what Butter London salon they go to. Muir and Creme are emphatic they want customers to be attracted to Butter London itself, not simply one technician who happens to buff nails well.

“Every other part of their [customers’] lives, whether they are shopping or buying latte, they are used to high-quality, quick customer service. The only compromise they usually make is their nail service,” said Muir. “We fit the mold of what they look for in every other aspect of their life.”