Press-on Nails Grow as Conventional Salons Struggle

The pandemic has proved a boon to makers and sellers of press-on nails

By Sven Larsen | May 26, 2022

While people were spraying their hands with sanitizer during the pandemic, the chance to get them manicured slipped away as the nation’s 27,000 nail salons shuttered. And the industry still hasn’t recovered fully. Only 46 percent of nail salon workers returned to in-person work in 2021, according to a New York Nail Salon Workers Association report. That fact, combined with the spike in unemployment, created the prime environment for a new type of nail artist to grow outside of salons, on the online retailer Etsy.

The Brooklyn-based website experienced record-breaking profits during the pandemic. Its revenue doubled to $1.7 billion in 2020, and by the summer of 2021, Etsy garnered 3.2 million monthly site visits — more than Target, WayFair and Costco combined.

Press-on nails, or premade nails that customers glue on themselves, proved to be the perfect alternative to regular manicures and a trip to the then-closed salons. These nails are less time-consuming, cheaper, socially distanced and just as eye-catching.

For Detroit-native Liliana Salas, “the pandemic was a blessing in disguise.”

Before the pandemic, the 31-year-old worked as an assistant manager at a clothing store until her company filed for bankruptcy, leaving her scrambling for a new source of income alongside the over 20 million Americans who became unemployed in 2020. She had previously made custom press-on nails for a family member and decided to turn her hobby into her new job.

Salas used her savings to invest in gel polish, nails, cards, labels and other items for her business. “On my last day working for the company, I said my goodbye to a life I thought would always be there and thanked it for everything. The next day, on August 1, 2020, I launched Savage Mood Nails.”

Today she has completed over 1,300 sales and produces a monthly profit of $800 to $3,000.

She prefers the privacy of her home workshop, which is a common and sometimes lifesaving perk for press-on nail artists on Etsy, like 37-year-old Danielle Mika. She had to quit her part-time job as a nanny because she has a compromised immune system. Mika began watching YouTube nail tutorials and started DivaDeeCreations at her home in Astoria, Queens. Like Salas, the pandemic proved to be profitable for Mika and her press-on nail business.

With her business’ popularity, she can charge $35 for a simple set that costs her less than $6 to make.

Despite this, the influx of new nail artists and Etsy’s recent hike in transaction fees are setting up a competitive and expensive future.

“After the selling fee, re-listing fees and taxes that Etsy charges, I am sometimes lucky if I make $23 on [a $35] set,” Mika said.

The survival for both in-person and Etsy nail artists relies on the choice of consumers who now have many more options.

For in-person nail artists like 30-year-old Wenting Zhou, owner of Ting’s Beauty Studio in Downtown Flushing, regular customers make up the bulk of her clientele. During times when COVID-19 case numbers spiked, like in January 2021, Zhou said she prioritized clients she’s been with for over a year since “they know me and my staff like family so they care more about our health.”

But other salons are struggling to get customers. Xuan F., owner of Woodhaven-based Finessed Nails, says she had to raise her prices to make ends meet. She has since been able to make $5,000 a month while working in her mother’s basement.

Some customers have been trying to help in-person salons by using social media to boost awareness about their favorite businesses.

Hannah Eddins, a fitness coach and marketer, posted a TikTok highlighting the work of Elegant Nails, a West Village nail salon, to her 27,000 followers. The post got 168,000 views and brought in new customers, allowing the salon to increase its prices. 

The bond salons share with loyal customers may be strong, but they’re facing a test as customers also share financial hardships from the pandemic.

Tamanna Saidi, 21, has been getting her nails done since she was in middle school. Now in college, she opts for press-on nails from Etsy over the $300 acrylics she used to get at her local Flushing salon.

“It hit me, like, whoa maybe a 21-year-old college student shouldn’t blow this much money on nails that last a max of five weeks,” Saidi said.

Because of the harsh financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are starting to reevaluate how they spend their money. The median household income dropped by 2.9 percent in 2020, with nearly 18% of households with children in the U.S. not having enough food to eat.

“Just the juxtaposition of me spending that much on nails while Afghan organizations were posting that just $50 could feed a family in Afghanistan affected by COVID made me feel icky,” said Saidi, whose family is from Afghanistan.

“I don’t like the idea of spending that much money on something so temporary and unnecessary during a global pandemic.”