Would you rather have your ear pierced in the mall with a piercing gun, or in your own home by a licensed nurse with a medical kit? (Or in a cabin by your estranged identical twin sister with a stick-pin and a lemon wedge?)
Rowan, a direct-to-consumer ear-piercing startup with $4 million of seed funding, is betting that Gen Z will be as interested in at-home conveniences and good branding as millennials have been. Profiled in Fast Company this week, the company’s founder Louisa Schneider called ear-piercing “a rite of passage that transcends cultures and religion,” which “typically brings multiple generations of women from a family together.” The problem, she says, is that “we have somehow relegated it to a mall.”
If you ask me, it’s probably not the time to be kicking malls while they are down. What’s so bad about a mall? A mall is where you eat a pretzel and see a boy in skate shoes do something reckless!
Heather Schwedel wrote a history of ear piercing in America for Racked in 2016, also framing it as “one of those Judy Blume moments,” but pointing out that it hasn’t always been that way. Women have obviously pierced their ears for thousands of years, but it was out-of-style and generally verboten in the United States from the late 1800s up until the 1960s.
When they came back in style — thanks to Mia Farrow, and super-edgy Beatles fans — girls mostly pierced their ears at home, with sterilized safety pins and ice cube anesthetics. Mall piercing didn’t become a big business until the founding of Piercing Pagoda in 1969, followed by the addition of piercing stations to Claire’s stores in 1978 (it was previously a chain of wig stores).
At its peak in the 1990s, Claire’s did millions of piercings a year, and had over 1,000 locations. Typically, as Schwedel reported, all Claire’s employees are trained to pierce ears: “They watch in-house training videos and shadow more experienced piercers, but they also start piercing very soon after they begin working at the chain.” An ear piercing at Claire’s costs about $40 total, including the earrings and a patented after-care solution. Somewhat controversially, it’s still done with a piercing gun, which the Association of Professional Piercers says increases the risk of infection. So maybe mall piercing is bad.
Rowan’s business model also includes subscription boxes and elements of the gig economy. “We found that nurses were very interested in an opportunity to earn another stream of income that did not involve things like end-of-life care or home care,” Schneider told Fast Company. The nurses are also referred to as brand ambassadors, and encouraged to actively advertise their services.
Ear-piercing customers can subscribe to an “earring club,” which means they receive a new pair of studs (sterling silver, gold vermeil, or 14K gold) every month along with stickers and other trinkets. This is, presumably, where the bulk of Rowan’s revenue will come from, as the company says it will allow its freelance nurses to keep the full $95 piercing fee they collect from each appointment. ($125 if the customer is under 5 years old.)
As Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segran points out, Rowan is bringing “all the hallmarks of startup culture to Gen-Z girls,” and its cool pre-teen branding comes from Red Antler — an agency known for its laundry list of hip startups, including Burrow, Allbirds, and Casper. Its website looks like a corporatized version of Rookie, and includes blog posts about topics such as Wall Street’s Fearless Girl statue and “How Dad’s Little Girl Becomes Her Strongest Self.”
The subscription box is recommended for any girl with pierced ears, with a caveat: “Ideally, she is also old enough to begin talking about her feelings and ideas.” (Elsewhere on the site, this is suggested as ages 7 to 14). As Nadra Nittle explained for Racked in 2018, however, this age range is likely culturally specific. “My ears have been pierced since before I celebrated my first birthday. As a woman of color, this fact makes me completely unremarkable,” she wrote; the pop culture stereotype of coming-of-age through pierced ears is largely a white one.
Claire’s is currently recovering from last year’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so it might be the perfect moment for someone new to take over the ear piercing market — certainly there have been attempts at “disruption” that make much less sense. Although I can’t say sitting at home in pajamas necessarily sounds as fun as getting a celebratory mall food court milkshake after having a piece of metal stabbed through your ear.
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