The long and short of it: Why women’s cuts don’t cost 2 bits

Why are women’s haircuts so much more expensive than men’s? I set out to answer this question and find out if a decent woman’s haircut under $20 was as elusive as finding a unicorn to ride to the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

I started by asking unisex salons their prices: a woman’s cut averaged $35 and men’s $18. Children’s cuts were even cheaper, from $8 to $14. “Why are cuts more expensive for women?” I then asked. The first answer I got was “because men would leave if we told them it would cost $35.”

Pricing by willingness to pay is nothing new, look at airline fares and hotel fares and you’ll see plenty of examples of price discrimination, ooops, I mean … yield management. I don’t want to believe that men are given a lower price simply because they won’t pay a higher one, because this would mean that women unfairly have to subsidize men’s haircuts. Also, considering many a barber does a brisk and profitable business at even lower prices (from $10 to $14), this can’t be the reason for the unisex salon price differences.

Is it price discrimination? Only if it is the same service. Stylists say it is different, and that pricing is based on time/effort, length of hair, and product used.

Baloney! Have you ever tried to cut a child’s hair? A lot more time and work goes into trying to keep the child still and entertained, so that they don’t leave looking like Van Gogh.

I asked the barber I visited the same question: “Why do salons charge women more for their haircuts?” His answer: “Because they can.” Trained in cutting women and men’s hair, he says it doesn’t matter what length/sex of hair he cuts, it takes the same time, unless a man is bald on top.

I pressed further and asked the barber if a guy with long hair like mine wanted a cut from him how much it would cost and he told me he charges the same price for all men ($14 — though he gives seniors and children a price break of a couple dollars). I asked him if he would cut my hair at his men’s price of $14. He said no. I wondered if I should just sit down and wait as a tribute to Rosa Parks, but I didn’t.

I asked the salon the price for a woman’s cut if she had really short hair, and she said the woman’s price of $35. Either men with long hair are getting a great deal or women with short hair are getting screwed if these are the only factors to consider.

In my snooping I did find differences in barber shops versus salons. The primary difference is the assortment of magazines in the waiting room — salons don’t typically carry car, boat, and men’s health magazines, although this is clearly not a reason for higher prices for women. The second difference is that at many barbershops you don’t make an appointment. OK, so maybe women are paying for the convenience of an appointment? No, that doesn’t work, as men going to those same unisex salons can also make appointments for their cheaper haircuts.

A more significant difference is that most men don’t get their hair shampooed before the cut, although it is included in the price at both barbers and unisex salons or styled after (including more product). So I asked if I could just get the cut for a lower price, forgoing the shampoo and style since I go in with clean hair and always go home and restyle my hair afterwards. I was told no. Another theory was debunked.

The last and perhaps most important difference between women’s and men’s haircuts was the topic of conversation with the stylist/barber, although no one acknowledged this as a differentiator. Men seemed to keep it light and fun, talking about weather, barbecuing, travel destinations, and sports. Women were spilling their guts within seconds, about highly emotional events, even to new stylists.

So perhaps it is not price discrimination after all. Like more expensive business class tickets allowing those consumers to board the airplane first, with more bags, perhaps the price fence for women’s haircuts is in the “Lucy effect” (yes I made that up). Women may be paying a premium, willingly, for the value they get from the psychotherapy in addition to their cut.

By the end of the week, I had not convinced a salon to cut my hair at the men’s price even if I forewent the wash and style, but I did find a barber that was. I got a great cut, talked about personal things, and left with a smile, feeling triumphant in my quest for a reasonably priced woman’s haircut.

On my way to the car I was still chuckling about one stylist’s comment: “You win on some haircuts, you take a loss on others, but it all comes out in the wash.” (And no, she wasn’t aware of her pun.)

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