I Got Scalped in Phnom Penh Barber Shop

Tokyo Barber Shop

Tokyo Barber Shop – The Ultimate Clip Joint

Last week I did something outlandish and kinda lavish.

I got my haircut.

But this time. it was different.

Instead of paying $1.60 to $2 for a short back and sides at the local barber shop, I decided to go to the most expensive barber shop in the city (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). I resisted going previously because of the high price for a simple cut, but last week I finally succumbed.


I was curious.

As a marketer, I wanted to know how they get a full shop most every day, and yet charge top dollar for a simple haircut in a poor country like Cambodia.

After going there I now know, and that’s why I decided to write this post. It’s a fascinating story and represents a powerful marketing lesson.

So how much did I pay? I know it will seem like a total rip-off, but the most expensive barber shop in Phnom Penh ‘scalped’ me for the princely sum of $5.

Before I give you the lesson, it’s important that you know the backstory, so let’s take a look at that……….

How It Started

Tokyo Barber Shop was started two years ago by a Cambodian national who had a vision for a different kind of barber shop.  Like many parts of the world most men’s barber shops are dead boring.  Of course, some guys enjoy going to their local barber shop because they have a good relationship with the barber who cuts their hair.

But like a lot of men I equate the experience as something slightly less unpleasant than going to a dentist, although a lot cheaper.

So Tokyo Barber Shop was launched so that more discerning people can experience something different.

After a shaky start, the business solidified and today has become quite a local success story.

The business is now being run by an impressive Cambodian lady of Chinese descent, called Sothy.  Here is me with Sothy (on the left) and one of her assistants…….

Tokyo Barber Shop Manager

7 Lessons From the Tokyo Barber Shop Experience

1.   Make It Fun

As stated, for most of us going to the barber is not a fun experience.  And that’s one of the points of difference with this barber shop.  Being surrounded by (mostly) smiling faces made this an enjoyable experience for me.

2.    Make it Aesthetically Pleasing

The Shop.  If you have a physical business, make it look right for your market.  Requirements will vary from region to region and from one industry to another, but if you want to attract more high-end customers, add some style to give it more visual appeal.

The Website.  Take a look at their website.  It’s clean, uncluttered and packs a punch.  Lots of pics and easy to navigate, this site is a cut above (pardon the pun!).  Indeed, most barber shops don’t even have a website – such small thinkers.  The only thing I would do to improve it is to get the guys to smile more.

Other things I like……

Online Booking.  If it’s good enough for other time-sensitive businesses such as airlines and restaurants, why not for an old fashioned men’s barbershop?  Why not indeed.  What is remarkable is that they’re using progressive initiatives like these in a third world country like Cambodia.

Testimonials.  Testimonials from other happy customers give prospective customers the reassurance they need to spend money with a business.  They call it social proof and this business offers plenty of that.

So the message to other barbers or indeed any old style offline business is this:

This is the internet age, so either get with it or continue to make small money as a commodity supplier.

3.     Offer More Than the Basics

More than a barber shop…….

Sure they’ll cut your hair – short back and sides if you want it.  Or perhaps something more fancy.  But this little barber shop has gone way beyond being a mere clip joint.

Some of the basic add-ons include a hot towel shave.   The manager told me their customers tell her it’s the closest shave they’ve ever had.

But more than that they also have an array of salon and spa services.  Take a look…..

Barber Services:

  • Many Haircut Styles
  • Beard Trim
  • Hot Towel Shave

Salon Services for Men:

  • Tokyo Shampoo
  • Ear Cleaning
  • Manicure nd Pedicure
  • Hair Coloring

tokyo barber shop ear cleaning

Spa Services For Men and Women:

  • Facial Massage
  • Oil Body Massage
  • Foot Massage
  • Foot Scrub
  • Coffee Body Scrub
  • Waxing

Steam Room:

  • Body Scrub and Massage

Don’t think that men will avail themselves of some of these fancy add-ons?  Think again.  When I was there a big, macho guy was having his scalp massaged as well as a hot towel shave, while another guy was having his hands manicured!

4.    Make Your Customers Feel Special

Picture this.

You’re a man who needs a haircut.  You open the barbershop door and instantly you are greeted by a smiling, pretty girl (with big boobs!) who then directs you to your chair.  You wait a minute, and she delivers a sealed cup of fresh, cold filtered water.

She then tells you that your barber will be ready for you in 12 minutes, and invites you to have your hair washed.  She takes you into the salon room, and two lovely girls proceed to wash your hair while massaging your scalp at the time time.

Got the picture here?

Tokyo Barber Shop - Facial Massage

5.    Upsell At Every Opportunity

When I went there for a basic haircut, I soon got clarity about their agenda.  It’s to move customers beyond a basic haircut into the higher value services that are listed prominently on the wall.

The upselling experience often starts before someone visits for the first time, for the simple reason that many people visit their website before they visit the shop for the first time.  And their site makes it very clear that their business is really about all of the additional services on offer.

After my hair had been cut, I went over to pay for it.  The manager, Sothy, turned out to be a first class sales lady.  She wanted me to try a hot towel shave then and there.  She also sold me on the wonders of a full scalp massage shampoo.  So next time that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.  But you know something?  She did it in such a way that I got excited about it!

6.    Surround Yourself With Good People

To me, the girls are the backbone of this business.  They are so nice, so friendly and know exactly how to make their customers feel special.  The barbers themselves do a good job but maybe need a touch more personality and warmth.

7.    Eschew the Commodity Pricing Model

With few exceptions, undifferentiated businesses are relegated to the back of the pack.  Their margins are lower; they make less money overall because they have no idea how to gain pricing power in a commoditised marketplace.

Tokyo Barber Shop haircut

8.     Offer An Experience – Not Just Another Service

Well, I think you get the gist already!  Going to the Tokyo Barber Shop will give you an experience, no doubt about that.  And I guess it’s an experience that many of their customers look forward to on a regular basis.

9.    Sell Sex

Not literally of course!  I can confirm that the shop is not a front for an illicit operation, but employing beautiful girls who seriously dote on their customers is a smart move.  The guys love it!  Face it, most men are like babies – they just love to be pampered.

A friend of mine, Stephen Johnston (a kind of marketing savant), said this to me a couple of years ago: “Many of the most successful businesses sell sex.  It’s a primary motivator.”  He then went on to cite many examples such as Steve Jobs and Apple (let’s face it Apple products ARE sexy), blockbuster movies, the motor vehicle industry, the luxury boat industry.  On it goes.

So there you have it.  My visit to a local barbershop turned into a fun experience due to the out of the box experience enjoyed by me and the other customers.  That’s what business is supposed to be about, right?

Tokyo Barber Shop 3

Your Turn – Time to Comment

When it comes to innovation what have you been doing business-wise?

What has been holding you back from implementing innovative ideas?

Make a comment below!

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17 thoughts on “I Got Scalped in Phnom Penh Barber Shop”

  1. Hi Kim,

    What a wonderful article you wrote for us creating a story about a trip to the barber shop in Phnom Penh. I spent 13 months in Vietnam.

    You described such a visit. You made us feel like we were there getting a haircut and all the other services they offered. Life is cheap in third World Countries. I remember how it was in Vietnam.

    This was no ordinary shop you visited but was the very best one you found and you enjoyed yourself too.

    In America, prices are so high for everything. The cheapest barber shop in America is about $14.00. and it is a salon for both men and women. I know about it because that is where I go to get a haircut and color.

    I absolutely love this post!

    Thank you for sharing, Kim and you have an awesome weekend.


    1. Thanks Linda!

      Great to know you’ve been to Vietnam. I lived there last year for eight months – I enjoyed it a lot.

      Yes, things are cheap here, although rent is expensive now. Cheapest barber shop in the US is $14? Although more than I pay in Cambodia, that is cheap price compared to Australia. Back there my ordinary, boring men’s barber shop charged me $25 for a basic cut. That was two years ago so for sure it will be at $30 level now. Admittedly that is Aust dollars, but no matter which way you look at it, it’s ridiculously expensive!

      Anyway enough of my rambling

      Thanks once again for dropping by, and leaving a nice comment


  2. Hi Kim,

    That was a fun post, with some great marketing lessons 🙂 Although if I hadn’t known your blog I would have wondered where I’d arrived when I saw the image!!

    Hmmm, now all I need is for a women’s hairdresser in Harrow to employ some hunky males to offer a similar service! And perhaps at the same time I can sell them on the idea of $5 being the luxury service LOL.

    Great tips and I’ll have a serious think of ways I can incorporate them into my own business.


    1. Hi Joy

      Yes, I was in two minds about featuring the main pic. I was thinking of using a more conservative photo, but in the end I decided to use it because it is representative of one aspect of their value proposition – the girls!

      But the reality is that the business is a serious salon catering for (mainly) men, who want to be pampered and fussed over. They know their market and are giving it exactly what it wants.

      A great lesson there, eh Joy?

      Thanks for your positive comments!


  3. Hey Kim,

    I was taken by the title and surprised by the image like Joy said. If I didn’t know you I probably would have left. But then again, this is about a barber shop so the sight of beautiful women would not have lured me in.

    I can appreciate your story though and it sounds like they have a very successful business. I didn’t know getting your hair cut was such an unpleasant, I don’t mind getting mine cut at all. It costs way more than $5 of course but I love my hairdresser and it’s always a pleasurable experience. Add a few hunky men to the mix and boy, I’ll probably go more often! lol…

    Your points though are important, all of them actually. I did take a look at their website and I agree with you, great job. I’m actually happy to hear that they’re doing so well while residing in Cambodia. I think that’s wonderful.

    They know their market and they’re doing great catering to them. Now we all need to take a page from their book and be sure we’re having just as much success with our own.

    Thanks Kim and enjoy your week.


    1. Hi Adrienne

      Thanks for your feedback

      I always love to see a business that differentiates itself from the myriad of ‘same same’ companies that pervade most industries.

      It just goes to show that even in an old industry like men’s barbering, an entrepreneur can re-engineer the established model, and attract lots of customers who are happy to pay more.

      Re: the top pic. After thinking about it, I decided to remove it from the top position and replaced it with something more conservative. It’s one of those situations where I knew the pic represented an entirely harmless and innocent experience, but, of course, an outsider may see it differently!

      Thanks again for dropping by Adrienne!


  4. Hi Kim,

    Wow mate what a really great business model you have discovered and in a barber shop in Cambodia of all places!

    Enjoyed your story very much and probably because I am like you said a typical male who also loves to be pampered occasionally.

    There are some brilliant marketing strategies by this little business.

    Offering an experience rather than just a product or service is a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from your competitors. My message from this was to provide a memorable experience to all my website visitors and it will be the focus of my future marketing – thanks a million for this superb tip.

    I’ve never heard of making appointments for a haircut online before.

    What an incredibly simple yet genius type of marketing. You are sold on the upsells before you even put your foot in the front door.

    Thanks for sharing this and there are some real gems we can all learn from your “clip joint” experiences.

    All the best from a Thai village where we don’t even have a barbershop!


    1. Hey thanks, Peter!

      Yes, that little barbering business was a breath of fresh air for me. I also forgot to mention in the post that it was air conditioned too (barber shops here invariably do not have air con, same as for the ladies salons).

      It just goes to show that even in a traditional, boring industry like barbering, an outsider can come along with a new idea, and shake things up. The Tokyo Barber Shop has stolen hundreds of customers (mostly foreigners like me) from its competitors in the last two years. Proof positive that innovation works!

      Great to see you, here again, Peter!


  5. Incredibly clever Kim!

    I got my fade for $2 in PP some 4 years ago. Walked in. Pointed to a picture. 10 minutes later I was fresh and faded. Basic barber shop though. Nothing like your experience. I recall in Bali though – where I got clipped for a $1.90 – that the upsell was in effect. Except no charge was applied. She massaged my neck for 3 minutes on the house. Perhaps because she just paid like half of her profits to the corrupt Polisi and felt the need to alleviate her stress by alleviating mine LOL.


  6. Excellent post Kim! Really cool way to tell a story and give some great advice.

    I dread getting a haircut. Not because of the price, I don’t mind paying people for what they do, but instead the entire experience. Waiting, more waiting, and the awkward conversation. For me I just always feel like it is a waste of time. For a year I just shaved my head myself, but the wife finally outlawed that.

    Love this post, and it shows you can bring some thing different in an niche, even something simple like getting a hair cut. Maybe I should start giving away “shampoos” with the purchase of a website!


    1. Ha ha, that’s funny Chris!

      I hope you did a good job cutting your hair, although seeing that your wife put a stop to it, I think not!

      Yes, you’re right – it doesn’t matter what niche we’re in, we can think creatively and completely transform the way we do business. While it’s good to check out competitors and see what they’re doing, sometimes it’s better to bypass them entirely.

      Just because a given strategy hasn’t been used previously doesn’t mean it won’t work. The Tokyo Barber Shop shows what can be done in a tired old industry crying out for a shake up.

      Thanks again, Chris


  7. This design is wicked! You obviously know how to keep a reader amused.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Excellent job.
    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented
    it. Too cool!

  8. Kim,

    The wave is upon us! The “upscale grooming experience” industry is emerging as a real force. Barbershops, salons, and the like are steering away from the ‘service’ industry and jumping into the ‘experience’ industry. Forget the 10-minute grooming service, let’s hold onto our customers for 45 minutes to an hour. Whether you’re a man, woman, dog, or cat, you certainly don’t mind indulging every once in a while. Individualized attention and a bit of king and queen-like pampering is nothing to complain about. Now, more than ever, people care about how they look and how they feel. The grooming industry is modernizing and evolving; if you’re in the industry, adapt to survive.

    I really enjoyed your discussion about businesses and the Internet. There is no doubt that every business must intertwine the Internet and its endless capabilities into their business model.

    I’m part of a team called Quick, Inc. We are just a few days away from launching our high-end barbershop in Brooklyn, New York. But the physical barbershop is only a fragment of our business. We intend to expose the old school barbering industry to the powers of the Internet. And we’ve already started.

    We created a universal app that allows users to locate barbershops and salons near them. It also allows users to schedule appointments with their favorite barbers and stylists through an interactive booking system. And it also allows barbers to create profile pages with pictures and information to lure in new customers. Aside from the app, we’re also working on creating a job board search engine for barbers and stylists. We hope it becomes the ‘Indeed’ or the ‘Monster’ of the hair grooming industry.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to ramble any further. I enjoyed reading your post and really connected with your discussion of businesses and the Internet. It doesn’t matter how traditional or mom ‘n popish your business may be, we’re living in the Internet era! Enough said, don’t be scared to modernize.

    1. Hi Justin,

      Wow! What a great comment you’ve left here.

      And it’s so cool to see what you’re doing in Brooklyn. Looks like another disrupter story in the making, right?

      I love this era. So much disruption but that’s where the opportunities lie. The old guard – the beneficiaries of the status quo – don’t like it, but to hell with them. Bring on the disrupters and the change agents.

      Power to you, man.


  9. I love the apparent lack of judgement and realism that there appears to be in other countries. Spent years in Germany, where sex is not upsetting to most, and is looked at with more humor. There is no denying that men will always love to be fawned over by lovely women. Their business model is common sense.


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