What Amazon Did to My Hair – The New Yorker

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The first time I went to a fancy hair salon, the hairdresser found a wad of dried green gum in my hair. “Is this gum?” he asked. It was. I was twelve, and only at the fancy hair salon at all because my aunt, who took grooming seriously and had probably never been caught with gum in her hair in her life, had booked me an appointment. Most likely, she had taken pity on my scruffy locks, or at least on my parents, who tried to tame them with gallons of Garnier Fructis. When the appointment was over, after what felt like hours, I looked in the mirror shyly and hardly recognized myself. I couldn’t stop touching my hair, which was unbelievably soft—it seemed to have a different texture altogether—with floaty, wafer-thin layers. I looked more grownup, more responsible, like I could walk into any Abercrombie & Fitch store in the world and say, without hesitation, “I’d like to try on the ripped denim shorts and the push-up bikini top, please.” (This was the early aughts.) As Nora Ephron wrote, about getting highlights for the first time, “From that moment on, I was hooked.”
Even now, perhaps because I visit them so rarely, I associate good salons with the kind of time-efficient transformational experience promised by a yoga retreat or a sugar cleanse. A good salon will leave you cleaner, sharper, with a renewed sense of optimism about the world. It will get the gum out. Every time I have moved in the past decade, I have displayed a kind of pathological loyalty to the hairdresser left behind, travelling for an hour on the train or going for as long as possible without finding a new one. I have made time, even on flying visits to see friends in cities where I no longer live, for trips to my old salon. (I slink into these appointments casually, as if no time has passed.) Eventually, these visits become unsustainable, and maybe a little undignified, and I’m forced to ask friends in my new city for tips on where to go. These are intimate conversations. In my experience, a salon recommendation is an overture of friendship: here’s my home, here’s my hairdresser. You haven’t really moved in until you’ve found someone to cut your hair.
All of this is to say that when, earlier this year, Amazon opened a salon in London, where I had moved a few years ago, I took note. The Amazon Salon is situated in Spitalfields Market, in a gentrified, nearly corporate part of East London populated by cocktail bars, co-working spaces, and luxury candle shops. The market itself is one of London’s oldest; it dates back to the sixteen-eighties, when traders would hawk fruits and vegetables in Spital Square. These days, it is known mainly for its proximity to the City of London, the financial hub, and for attracting flashy new retail ventures, such as the U.K.’s first Eataly, a forty-two-thousand-square-foot space that opened in May. Amazon’s salon sits snugly between the skin-care brand Malin+Goetz and Benefit, the San Francisco-based cosmetics company. It has a black façade and a sign on the window that reads “Hello Spitalfields.”
In April, Amazon announced the opening with a blog post that promised “a new salon where customers can experience the best in hair care and styling.” It would be open only to Amazon employees at first, before opening up to the general public. Spread across two floors, with fifteen hundred square feet of space, it would “trial the latest industry technology, from augmented reality (AR) hair consultations to point-and-learn technology.” “We have designed this salon for customers to come and experience some of the best technology, hair-care products, and stylists in the industry,” John Boumphrey, the U.K. country manager for Amazon, was quoted as saying. “We want this unique venue to bring us one step closer to customers, and it will be a place where we can collaborate with the industry and test new technologies.” The post also touted “entertainment on Fire tablets” and the opportunity to purchase products from Amazon at the store. I didn’t know what point-and-learn technology meant, or how someone might go about augmenting the reality of my hair, but I was intrigued.
Inside, the Amazon Salon looks pretty much like any other salon: mirrors, potted plants, whirring hair dryers. A friendly stylist at the door said hello and showed me to a chair. I accepted a can of seltzer with a paper straw. I had planned on a cut and blow-dry, but at the last second I panicked and skipped the cut. (“Beachy waves?” I said tentatively, when asked what I wanted.) The stylist led me downstairs, into a basement-like room, for shampooing. While she washed my hair, we made small talk about the difficulties of the past year and the urgent need for a vacation. She said that the lockdown had made her customers more likely to take big risks when it came to hair. They’d come in asking for bangs, or a new color, a radical change. Everyone was bored. “It’s a stylist’s dream,” she said.
Back upstairs, I scrolled through a list of magazines on a Fire tablet. I opened one and clicked the Forward button repeatedly, until I reached a travel feature on the Dorset coast. My phone was dying, so I asked to use the wireless charging pad. When I put my phone on top of it, nothing happened. The stylist took out a curling iron, which she said wasn’t yet on the market, to speed up the beachy-wave process. We talked about the challenge of middle parts (“not for everyone”) and why my hair was so dry (“the price of blond”). She said that the salon’s early customers had mostly been Amazon employees and bloggers. At a certain point, I became aware of the number of pedestrians outside who slowed in front of the salon’s large glass windows. Sometimes a group of teen-agers would peer inside curiously. A woman in sunglasses and a stylish wrap dress stopped and mouthed “What?”
When my hair was finished, I asked if I could use the augmented-reality technology to try out different colors. Another employee led me to a high stool in front of a mirror near the salon’s entrance. Inside the mirror, an embedded screen showed an image of my face and my absurd beachy waves. The employee showed me how to select different colors—dark blond, light blond, charcoal gray—by touching little balls of color at the bottom of the screen. By dragging a finger across a line in the center of my face, I could compare my real hair (blah!) to my augmented-reality hair (ah!). It was surprisingly convincing, in the way that fake meat sometimes tastes very close to the real thing. The instant gratification was undeniable, like a makeover reality TV show without the tedious middle. I tried on more adventurous shades: mermaid green, strawberry pink. We agreed that I looked awful as a brunette but surprisingly good in lavender. I turned my head this way and that, marvelling at the violet tones.
Reality, or whatever it was that we were doing, was less fun when it came time to buy things. On a rack to one side of the salon, several different hair-care products were on display. If I held my hand above one just so, information about the product would appear on a large screen. This information seemed to be the same information available on the back of the product. I spotted a shampoo I had used before, and asked to buy a bottle. I was led downstairs and told to scan a QR code, which would add the shampoo to my Amazon cart, and ship it to my home. (The salon did not stock actual products you could take home.) My phone service wasn’t great down there in the basement, and I struggled to open the link. Then I couldn’t remember my password. “Do you have Prime?” the employee asked patiently. Eventually, I mumbled an excuse and said I would do it later. I paid for the beachy waves next to a plate of individually wrapped cookies bearing the Amazon logo, and shuffled out.
Later, I called my regular hairdresser, Alberto. I had met Alberto through the recommendation of a new friend in London with exceptionally nice hair. Alberto grew up in Milan and came to London because he admired the precision-cutting techniques then in vogue with English hair stylists. (He would watch them at home on VHS.) In the eighties, he had a salon called Vision, in the now-demolished countercultural mecca that was Kensington Market. (“Crops, bleach-blond, new romantics.”) In the nineties, Alberto moved his salon to the Old Truman Brewery, on Brick Lane, around the corner from Spitalfields. He spent fifteen years there, watching the area transform into a night-life destination. (“It was a party place every day,” he told me.) When most of the independent businesses there had been priced out, he opened a smaller, quieter Vision a few stops north on the Overground, in Stoke Newington. In his fifties now, Alberto is soft-spoken and lanky, with messy shoulder-length hair and a lilting accent. What did he think about the Amazon Salon?
“I’m a bit old-school,” he said, haltingly. He wasn’t on Instagram, and he tried not to use Amazon. “I think they’re doing whatever they can to get everyone out of business, so they are the only ones selling things and making things.” He said he had puzzled with his staff over why Amazon would get into the salon game in the first place. “I’m sure they can sell shampoos even without having the place in Spitalfields.” I told him, a little sheepishly, about the magical screen that showed my hair in different colors, about the mermaid green, the strawberry pink. “I guess the selling point is the technology,” he said. “But I’ve got eyes. I can suggest colors to clients. When clients come to me, they trust my taste more than what the screen would say.”
On the day that Jeff Bezos went to space, I went to the new Amazon Fresh store in my neighborhood. Amazon Fresh is the company’s new name for Amazon Go, its chain of cashier-less grocery stores, where patrons can practice “just walk out” shopping. Like Amazon’s other brick-and-mortar forays—the bookstores, the salon—the grocery stores have the air of an experiment. They feel like a whim, or a place for data collection, rather than a place for buying eggs. Before entering, I stood outside and downloaded Amazon’s app, which I did not have on my phone. The app offered up a QR code, which, when scanned, prompted a plastic turnstile to open. Inside, I wandered around the aisles picking things up and putting them directly into my purse: quinoa, arugula, beer. A plastic-wrapped cucumber labelled “Cucumber: By Amazon.” A prepackaged side labelled “Indian Style Aubergine Masala by Amazon.” I tried to picture an enormous, amorphous entity named Amazon in the kitchen, chopping herbs for the Indian-style aubergine masala. When I asked an employee whether I was shopping correctly, she smiled reassuringly. “The first time’s very strange,” she said. “You’ll get used to it soon.”
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