updated 12 Jul 2012, 00:07
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Wed, Dec 16, 2009
The Sunday Times
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Lure of the luxe package
by Chua Mui Hoong

I knew I was a goner the minute the sweet-tongued and sweet-faced manicurist told me: 'Today's treatment will be F.O.C. And we will throw in the treatment products for free as well, usual price $199.'

She took out a calculator and started punching in the numbers. 'See, it's only $X if you sign up for the package. Can use for 10 sessions. Plus today's treatment free, So each treatment is only $Y.

'And you can pay by instalment with your credit card, interest free.'

Then came the clincher as she pursed her lips, did some more numbers crunching and pronounced with a triumphant cry as she thrust the calculator face towards me: 'Only $154.62 a month!'

I had walked into that nail salon looking for a pedicure. I walked out a long-term customer, having succumbed to yet another convincing salesgirl to sign up for another 'package'.

And to think I went there because my usual pedicure package with a Holland Village salon had finally been used up - a feat which required marketing and logistical skills as I canvassed friends to get pedicures on my account, and brought not only my niece but also a string of her friends for a manicure and pedicure treat, to use up the credit before it expired.

Buying a 'package' at a nail, hair, massage or body treatment spa is a happy thing. You go into what behavioural economists call a loss frame of mind, as you gleefully tell yourself you are saving 50 per cent off the usual per-session rate.

You feel full of anticipation for all the treats you are going to enjoy in future. And you walk away with that special glow that comes only to those who know they have blown fairly serious hard-earned money on something nice but unnecessary.

Not too long ago, after I used up my nail and massage packages, I heaved a sigh of relief and swore to myself in capital letters: NO MORE PACKAGES.

Alas, the best intentions often fail and a fool and her money are soon parted.

Back at my regular massage place, the receptionist asked me once again: 'Want to take up a package?' I looked at the table of prices again for 'package' and non-package holders.

Oh well, I always come back to the same place. Might as well sign up, each massage will cost much less. And it's 'only' $66.66 a month on my card.

Upstairs, I had my eyebrows groomed and face contours threaded. Receptionist: 'You know, it's much more worth it if you get a package. If you pay $X, you get $X+Y worth of treatment. And you can use the package for any treatment here: tweezing, plucking, threading, eyebrow shaping, eyebrow colour, eyelash extension, eyelash perming, brow reconstruction...'

Eyelash extensions? I succumbed and signed up.

I am follicularly challenged around the eyelid. I have no visible eyelashes, unless you stand near and peer very closely at my face. Even then, I have to tilt my head at a certain angle before you can spot the minuscule strands.

My sister-in-law, who is in the beauty business, once tried to put mascara on me, twirled her trusted eyelash curler near my eyelids, then declared I had no eyelashes. I have accepted my lash-less fate since. Thing is, I love long, curly eyelashes. I once had a doll with beautiful, thick, brown, curly lashes and eyes that opened and shut.

Hope springs eternal. For my 41st birthday, mindful that mid-life is a time to give voice to our alter egos, and knowing that underneath my 'serious political commentator' demeanour lurks an inner bimbo, I got myself a set of eyelash extensions, courtesy of one of those 'packages'.

My new look stopped no trains but a few friends in their strides as I batted my new lashes and they commented on how nice I looked. It was gratifying albeit uncomfortable while it lasted.

Most times, women who part with their money for such packages don't think of the downside, of how their funds can come to nought if the company they handed money over to went bust.

I read with sympathy reports of customers left in the lurch with unusable 'package' dollars of up to $6,000, after spa company Wellness Village closed down last month. Over 500 have gone to the Consumers Association of Singapore. That could be me, I thought.

I try to observe some rules before signing up for beauty 'packages'.

First rule of thumb: length in business. I stick to companies that have been around for at least several years.

I'm a fan of the Spa Esprit group and hold a few packages with their various chains. They were the first movers in the fledgling spa industry in the early 1990s and continue to hold their own in an ever competitive and fickle industry.

Rule two: number of outlets. I tend to favour companies which have managed to sustain and expand their business. I signed up with that nail salon when I realised it had been in business seven or eight years and had a chain of outlets in the heartlands.

But the number of outlets can cause the downfall of a business if the owner expands ahead of demand.

Rule number three kicks in: I trust the evidence of my senses. If a company has 10 outlets but the one you are visiting has few customers, you may legitimately wonder if it is expanding sustainably.

The nail salon I signed up with was packed with aunties getting nail and feet treatments, working girls spreading their toes and fingers for a complete mani-pedi do and even a handful of men having calluses filed.

If the company passes the first three rules and I think it's likely to survive in business long enough for me to use up my package, I go on to rule four: ease of use.

Is there an expiry date for the package? Is it transferrable - can your family members use it and can you use it to buy gift vouchers? Is it hard to get an appointment? Is parking convenient?

Guess I have to accept my limits. Despite my NO MORE PACKAGES pledge, I've succumbed and signed on to several more packages since.

But I hold on to a tiny modicum of will power: So far, I have successfully resisted softsell for bodywax treatments.

That is where I will draw the line.

For now.

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This article was first published in The Sunday Times.

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