The Future of Fingernails is Now

Weeks before full service salons reopened in San Francisco, the robots stepped in.

On a recent Friday afternoon, two young women emerged from under a pink awning on Chestnut Street and beamed as they showed one another their freshly painted nails. Crystal Hsieh and Ishika Nimmagadda agreed they had just wrapped up the quickest — and cheapest — paint job ever.

At Clockwork, a new popup in the Marina, AI-assisted robots paint 10 nails in just 10 minutes for less than 10 bucks — $8 to be exact — and the machines won’t even give you a dirty look if you fail to leave a tip. Less than a block away, both Ciao Bella Nails and The New Nails charge $16 for the same service, and gratuity is expected. 

Thanks in part to a TikTok by Elissa Maercklein — one of Clockwork’s first customers — the fully automated salon has generated some serious buzz in a short period of time. Clockwork opened at 2209 Chestnut St. on March 28 and is booked through the end of July, although those interested in checking it out may be able to sneak in if there’s a no-show.

Maercklein, who goes by the username @elissamaercklein on TikTok, posted a video of her visit to Clockwork a day after the store’s opening. In the clip, which has been viewed more than 8 million times, Maercklein sits in front of the pink robot, which scans her nails and applies a single coat of maroon polish — its automated arm, which recalls the nozzle of a 3D printer’s extruder, moving in tiny clockwise circles. As of now, the robots can’t cut, shape or buff nails.

Clockwork, a San Francisco- based startup, claims to have the “first robot manicure for unstoppable humans,” but it surely won’t be the only one for long, as New York-based startup Nimble and Los Angeles-based startup Coral aren’t far behind. With millions in funding from investors in the beauty and robotics realms, the companies are developing smaller machines for home use. All three startups incorporate the use of computer vision and intelligence into their nail-painting bots.

HYPE MACHINE

The viral video and others like it have generated mixed feelings and added fuel to the ongoing debate over the role of robotics in society. Is Clockwork a flash in the pan, or will artificial intelligence one day drive human-operated nail salons out of business?

In reaction to the video, which Maercklein captioned “Living in the future,” some viewers were enthusiastic about the technology. User @workinonit2 commented, “As a socially awkward person this would be bliss for me.”

But others worried about the future, including user @alexandrahunter10, who replied, “This is kind of sad, I love my nail lady. She works so hard for her business.” User @singulartime chimed in saying the Clockwork robot is unlikely to “fully replace human nail techs since it can only do the basics.” 

The popup on Chestnut was designed as a sort of “lab” where the company could place the robot in front of the general public for the first time, says Clockwork’s co-founder Aaron Feldstein. But due to its popularity, Clockwork may be here to stay. 

“We have this location for six months with an option to extend, and given the demand we’re seeing I think that’s likely,” Feldstein said. The company also plans to get its bots in corporate buildings, retail stores and airports.

Feldstein says the conceptualization of a robot nail tech originated years ago with his female business partner and the company’s founder and CEO, Renuka Apte, who found beauty routines and upkeep to be far too time consuming and expensive. 

According to the San Francisco Business Times, the two met as software engineers at a startup and later worked together at Dropbox. They launched Clockwork in 2018, raising $3.2 million in first-round fundraising in 2019. Within a year, they began testing their first prototype robot, which uses artificial intelligence to recognize nail shapes and learns as it goes. The more nails the machine sees, the more accurate it gets. 

Feldstein says the overall response has been one of amazement, but some of the most-asked questions involve robots taking jobs from nail technicians at small businesses. He deflects such critiques by saying the company offers an express service that cannot replace the salon experience and that there “is room for both.” 

“I think it’s a natural question whenever a robot appears and does a thing that people have been doing,” Feldstein says. “The reality is it’s just not practical for nail salons to offer a quick, cheap nail polish-only service. In order to actually make margins they have to bundle all these services and upsell you on a lot of other things. When you want all those other things it’s great and when you don’t it’s kind of annoying and inconvenient.”

He suggests Clockwork’s machines may serve a supplementary role — providing a solution for quick touch ups in between full manicures.

STILL GELLING

In a world where nail artists have been the subject of reality TV shows, a “manicure” can mean much more than just a regular polish change. Acrylic, gel, dip powder, and various other long-lasting formulas often are more appealing, albeit much more expensive. According to Marketglass, the size of the nail care market is close to $10 billion and could reach $11.6 billion by 2027.

The 19-year old Hsieh and 20-year old Nimmagadda traveled from the San Jose area to the Marina after seeing Maercklein’s TikTok. Both say they regularly opt for gel or acrylic manicures but wanted to see what the robot hype was all about.

“I feel like if you choose to come here you know it’s something quick and you want to be in and out or you have a busy schedule,” Hsieh says. “Personally, I’d still rather go to a salon, but if I needed something quick then I might go to Clockwork.”

Because the selection at Clockwork was scarce, the women weren’t keen on returning in the near future. But Nimmagadda says if the technology continues to develop, she might go full bot. 

“If they offered gel I’d definitely just go there instead,” she says. “I think our entire future is based off technology and that’s not going to change. There’s nothing you can do to stop it so it’s just something cool that’s there, but I feel like people will still want nail salons.” 

While the company claims the robots’ limited capabilities don’t pose a threat to salons, Feldstein doesn’t deny Clockwork is looking to expand the capability of its machines.

“We’re looking at some of the feedback and trying to understand what would make this most valuable for our users,” he says. “Gel is something that is very technically feasible and if we find that users want it, we will do it.”

Clockwork opened shop just three weeks shy of San Francisco’s official reopening, when local nail salons could welcome back customers without capacity limitations or social distancing protocols. Within a mile radius from Clockwork, there are more than 10 nail salons with technicians skilled in nail art, from traditional polish to intricate acrylic patterns.

Less than a block away from Clockwork, a typical manicure at The New Nails can take more than half an hour depending on the choice of service. And you’ll likely throw in a tip. 

Marina resident Molly Macgillivray is a longtime customer of The New Nails. She says the highlight of getting her regular manicure is the hand massage. “This place also gives you a back massage if you pay extra and I always do that. I love it and I think it’s important for the experience,” Macgillivray says.

Macgillivray’s reaction to the nail robot was similar to that of many TikTokers. She fears if the technology keeps developing, robots could run her nail techs out of business. 

“I think it’s kind of scary how far we’ve come with technology,” says Macgillivray. “I like to support local businesses and I know a lot of them shut down during COVID and it hit their industry pretty badly. I don’t love the idea of replacing nail salons with machines.”

According to the Mayor’s Office, San Francisco’s 94,000 small businesses make up over 93 percent of total businesses in the city and support more than 364,000 jobs. And according to data gathered by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, nearly 50 percent of small businesses had remained closed in May. With the city’s official reopening on June 15, many local salons are now offering full service — if they survived the pandemic.  

Next door to The New Nails, Ciao Bella Nails owner Trang Dang, and her husband, Fong Doan, are relieved to still own their store after a troublesome year. Their salon, which was typically packed with customers on most afternoons and weekends, shut down in the wake of the pandemic.

Since their initial March 2020 closing, the couple had to continue paying full rent for their salon even while its doors remained boarded up for over 6 months. They attempted to reopen in September when Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the go-ahead — Dang paid for all new supplies and the plexiglass they installed between chairs to meet pandemic protocols — only to shut down again in early December. 

“It was so hard. We couldn’t do anything,” says Dang. She and Doan have two small children, and their salon is the family’s main source of income. 

Dang and Doan couldn’t procure any government aid for more than a year but in May secured a PPP loan. Without their regular business during the pandemic, they accumulated significant debt. Ciao Bella Nail’s doors have now been open since late January, and the couple is still working to break even. 

“It’s better than the first and second time we closed. But it’s not back to normal,” says Dang. “I still have a big debt. I didn’t have income at all so I still owe them the rent.”

Since mid June, Ciao Bella has rarely been quiet. And Dang says she’s no longer wracked by anxiety. She’s grateful to invite customers back to the salon without capacity limits just in time for pre-vacation pedicures. 

“I’m not worried because summer is coming and people have come back,” says Dang.

Word about their new robot competition spread quickly. But Dang says after talking to some of her regulars, she isn’t too concerned just yet. 

“The first time I heard about it I was worried. It’s cheap, only $8,” says Dang. “But when I asked the clients, they still prefer people working with people better than just the machine. They can tell us what they like.”

Still, the future looms, and Dang says if the robots could ultimately provide more services, that could be worrisome. 

“It’ll be a big challenge if they have gel or even a file.” she says. “But we’ll see, I guess.”


Lily Sinkovitz is a contributing writer. Twitter @LilySinkovitz

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