Men’s grooming pioneer Grooming Lounge celebrates 20 years in business

Founder Mike Gilman on the company’s origin and where he sees the market going

Grooming Lounge is a two-location barbershop operation offering skincare, spa and shaving services for men. What started online as a place to discretely buy men’s grooming products has steadily grown for two decades. Mike Gilman founded the company in 1999 shortly after realizing a market void for men’s grooming products. He wasn’t a stranger to beauty — his family’s business distributed high-end brands like Paul Mitchell to salons.

Today Grooming Lounge offers products with cheeky names such as Super Powder body talc, Greatest Pits deodorant and Our Best Smeller, a black pepper body wash. Its first location opened in Washington, D.C., in 2002. A second followed a few years later at Tyson’s Galleria in Tysons Corner, Va. Services range from haircuts to shaves, manicures to pedicures and skincare to waxing, all in a male-friendly environment with barbers, stylists and aestheticians focused on helping men look and feel their best. NRF recently spoke with Gilman about the men’s grooming market, the company’s target customers and his favored state of facial hair.

Mike Gilman, founder of the Grooming Lounge
Grooming Lounge founder Mike Gilman

What was the inspiration for Grooming Lounge?

After graduating from college, I was living in California but returned home to Virginia for a beauty tradeshow. At the show, I grabbed a bunch of samples from a variety of brands. Later, when I got together with high school friends for a few drinks and laughs, I shared the sample products — everything from body washes to shampoos. They gladly gobbled them up.

A few months later I had conversations with two of these guys, both of whom I would categorize as beer-drinking, football-watching regular dudes. Both commented how much they were enjoying their products and asked how to get more. That was surprising, but it was the products these guys were asking for more of — bath salts and under-eye creams — that really sat with me. When I asked why they didn’t just go to their local salon or department store, both replied they loved the stuff, but were too embarrassed to ask for them. That was the lightbulb moment. I realized there was an enormous amount of men out there who probably felt the same way. From there, I did some research and saw the huge void and potential in the men’s grooming market.

Did you hit any roadblocks when trying to open your first location?

We always wanted to create a barbershop and spa for men. In fact, it was our number one priority, until we quickly realized that the timing might not be right in terms of the concept’s acceptance or our financial stability to convince a high-rent landlord to partner with us. While we tried to secure space in the Central Business District of D.C. in late 2000, the general response from landlords was “Clever concept for a store, but it will never work as no guy is paying $50 for haircut or getting a manicure on a Tuesday.” With those [responses] in our way, we put more efforts into the website, all the while still looking for space and a willing landlord. About a year later, with a lot of media coverage and my house on the line, we were able to convince our current landlord to give us a shot.

In 20 years, how has your target customer grown or changed?

It may sound bogus, but we really never specified target demographics back when we started. We really just lumped our potential customers into “any guy who really wants to look good and feel good” — and those guys covered the spectrum. That said, we did know we were going to carry items and offer services in the “affordable luxury” category, so that narrowed it down a bit to men with higher-level incomes.

Over the first few years of being in business, our inaugural thoughts and ideas about who would purchase our products and services seemed to hold true. We had men of all ages and all walks of life purchasing with us through our different avenues. What we can say is that from what we’ve gathered over the last 20 years, our key demo has been funneled to something like the following: It’s gotten much bigger for all business outlets as more and more men are open and willing to try men’s grooming products and services.

In our shops, the vast majority of guests are 32 to 55, white collar gents with upper-income levels. Online, it skews a little younger. Because of the nature of online business, we’ve learned that it’s not just “big city” men who are into selfcare, but also men in smaller, rural cities. The market for men’s grooming has clearly exploded for us and the hundreds of other companies who have entered the space.

One of your key differentiators is your product. What can you tell us about the private-label line?

How our proprietary products came to be is a great marketing story — but it’s also true, and that’s the best and most marketable part. After our D.C. shop was open for a few years, we started getting requests from our barbers that they wished we carried a product “that did this or that,” or “smelled like ’x‘ or ‘y.’” It became clear that we should be making our own products, so we began the slow process of working with our team and a few labs to create the products our barbers wanted and needed to use on their guests to get the best results.

Efficacy was our top priority, but we also wanted and were committed to using the best ingredients required to produce the results men desired. As for testing, we had and have real working laboratories in our shops, with our “chemists” being the folks who cut hair and take care of men’s skin on a daily basis. With each of our 20-plus Grooming Lounge products, we spent six months to two years developing in conjunction with our team and guests. None are approved until they get sign-off from our professionals and a few of our top guests. Our top-performing products in terms of sales tend to be more generalized products, items that pretty much any guy can use. We know most of our online customers purchase four to five times a year and their average order is around $70.

Besides the stores and website, what are your primary marketing vehicles for Grooming Lounge?

From day one, we’ve always relied primarily on word of mouth to market our business. Whether in the shops or online or with products, we’ve aimed to make the experiences so great that guys can’t help but tell a friend or two or six. But with the market becoming more saturated, we’ve started to put more efforts into digital marketing, including pay-per-click and social media. Our biggest marketing effort to date launches soon. We just created a series of videos talking about our shops and products that will be shown through online marketing vehicles and in-store.

Mike Gilman has been both a clean-shaven and a bearded entrepreneur. Tell us about your current state.

Currently bearded. It changes about once a year. Contrary to what many might think, growing and maintaining a proper beard isn’t much easier than regularly shaving. For me, it’s all about family feedback. My wife usually likes it and last time I shaved, my youngest son said I look “weird and scary.” I haven’t shaved since.

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