Bogus trend story of the week—the Wall Street Journal on home barbering.

Media criticism.
Aug. 31 2009 6:54 PM

Bogus Trend Story of the Week—Recession Causes Home Barbering

The Wall Street Journal's tonsorial blarney.

Cutting hair.
Who's really cutting hair in the recession?

I'm not really the violent type, but when I read a story as bogus and impressionable as the Wall Street Journal's Aug. 31 article "Per Capita Savings: Home Barbering Grows in Recession, With Hairy Results,"I would love to send its writer and editors to Sweeney Todd's for a quick snip and slash.

The piece, which occupies the A-hed slot on the Journal's Page One, attempts to link the recession to a downturn at haircutters. "To help pare their budgets, more Americans are bypassing the salon and opting to lop off their own locks," writes Journal reporter Mary Pilon.

Without a doubt, we are in a recession as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. And, without a doubt, consumers are cutting back on all sorts of goods and services. But has the current recession really engendered a home-barbering trend?

Among the Journal's thin evidence: Regis Corp., which operates corporate and franchise salons under such names as Supercuts, Sassoon Salon, Regis Salons, MasterCuts, and SmartStyle, has reported its first "negative annual same-store sales." Meanwhile, the maker of Wahl hair clippers cites a 10 percent rise in clipper sales in 2008 and projects an 11 percent rise for 2009. The anecdotal evidence dribbles in: a woman who used to spend $200 a month on her locks now does her own, a mother gave her 4-year-old twins "recession haircuts" last month, a guy has started an "I Cut My Own Hair" page on Facebook (145 members), a guy posted a YouTube video of his self-butchery, and so on.

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That sales are off at Regis doesn't tell us much about the total number of store-bought haircuts. Chain clients may simply have migrated to cheaper shops for their trims, as paragraph four of the Journal's pieceacknowledges. A May 14, 2009, Sacramento Bee article, in fact, reportsanecdotal findings that budget salons are having a good year.

Also, the Journal muddies the topic by mixing men's haircuts and women's hairdos in the same story. Not to over-generalize, but most services women purchase at salons—coloring, straightening, styling, perming—are discretionary. That salon sales are down might have more to do with women reducing their total beauty budgets than a boom in home-cutting.

News of an increase in sales of Wahl hair clippers should also be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, people may be investing in clipper and trimmer sets to economize, but how many times are they self-snipping before they return to the professionals? In a Dec. 16, 1991, report in the trade journal HFN, Wahl spokesman Patrick Anello—who talked to the Journal for its story today—wasn't in such a hurry to attribute sales to that year's recession. "I think we've seen our clippers getting a strong, steady growth rate even before the recession," Anello said. In an April 12, 2004, HFN piece, Anello linked increase sales of Wahl products to the "metrosexual" look. Wahl was supplying Queer Eye for the Straight Guy with its merchandise, and its clippers were said to be popular with furry men who trim their body hair rather than shave it. Also, the president of Wahl told the Dec. 1, 1994, edition of Discount Merchandiser that 1994 sales of all of his company's products were up 15 percent, which suggests that its gear can, and does, thrive outside recessionary years.

If recessions really steered the masses away from hair cutteries and toward home cutteries, you would guess that newspapers would have picked up on the trend in previous economic downturns. But in my search of Lexis-Nexis, I found no evidence of newspaper coverage that connected recessions with a home-barbering trend during the four previous recessions. Likewise, a Factiva search of the Wall Street Journal archives came up blank. Maybe the press overlooked the trend, but I doubt it.

Lastly, isn't a Facebook page of only 145 members counter-indicative of a trend?

******

My hair is a rebuke to all stylists. Who had the best hair of all time? I say Little Richard. Send your nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and listen as I let my hair down on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word tonsorial in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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