Spa's shutdown leaves some steamed

Monday, February 11, 2008
Spa 151's sign has left with the closing of the business on Spanish Street in Cape Girardeau. (Kit Doyle)

I'm a stranger to the modern world of spas and salons.

For me, it's hard to part with $9 for a haircut at the barber shop. A pedicure is what I do when holes start appearing in my socks. And skin care means making sure all the soap is rinsed off before I climb out of the shower.

But I have the greatest respect for the professionalism of the people who pamper those who are willing to shell out money for the extras. For almost 35 years, my father was "Mr. Rudolf," working first in major department store salons and eventually owning and operating Rudolf's Hairstylist, what in those days was known as a "beauty shop," in Louisville, Ky. In my preschool years, I would occasionally watch him work as he put foul-smelling liquids on the heads of grateful women, then set them under hair dryers that resembled the gaping maws of mechanical dragons.

(I was generally waiting for when "Uncle Adolf," my father's partner in the shop, would take my sister and me to the nearby bakery for ice cream.)

And even after he retired, there were a few women who refused to let anyone else but "Mr. Rudolf" style their hair. They would come to our home for my father's wizardry.

So I understand the loyalty -- and sense of betrayal -- that customers of Spa 151 on the River felt when they discovered their salon had closed. I call it "their salon" because that is exactly the way the reactions seem -- the customers have a sense of ownership.

As the story developed last week, more and more e-mails came to me asking advice on what to do about gift cards and gift certificates purchased in the final months of Spa 151's existence. My blog postings received thousands of views and, along with articles on the closing, elicited well over 100 comments.

For those of you not breathlessly awaiting every prose gem that springs from my fertile brain, the story thus far:

As a divorce between Ashli and Scott Rowland, owners of Spa 151, heated up, Scott Rowland moved to take over the business on Jan. 29. He changed the locks, employees said, sent the staff home for the day on Jan. 30 and announced to them on Jan. 31 that he would not take credit cards or redeem gift certificates or gift cards. They could work for tips, cash or checks, he told the staff, according to at least two massage therapists. That was rejected and the salon shut down.

Scott Rowland has not returned my calls.

Ashli Rowland, looking for funds to keep the business afloat, saw a deal go sour on her interest in the property housing Check Please at 78 Plaza Way just hours before Scott Rowland made his move, she said. The Rowlands were once partners with Brent and Lori Wills of Jackson in the Check Please business in Cape Girardeau and across Missouri, a business they sold in October.

Calls and e-mail notes from customers and staff flowed into my inbox and telephone. Some customers wondered what was going on, while others were irate that they held apparently worthless gift cards and certificates, some worth $250 or more.

The approximately dozen staff at Spa 151, all independent contractors, lost their jobs. Some have found other locations, including two massage therapists, Paula Keller (no relation to me) and Donna Patterson, who are now to be found at Elements salon, 2031 Cape La Croix Road.

Keller and Patterson said Rowland told employees on Jan. 28 that the spa had sold almost $100,000 in gift certificates before Christmas, but that the money had been depleted. Rowland estimated the total outstanding value of the gift certificates at $50,000.

On Wednesday, Ashli Rowland promised to make refunds to those customers as soon as she could complete a deal on the property at 78 Plaza Way. She said she would call me this week with the details. She plans to set up a bank account and a post office box where customers will send their gift cards and certificates to receive refunds.

The new owners of Check Please, Grisham-DeBusk Management, also were caught up in the fury over gift cards as irate customers of Spa 151 called demanding satisfaction.

And the story continued to develop since my last article.

One smart competitor, the Bella Salon, 20 N. Pacific, offered in an online comment to redeem the gift certificates at 50 percent of face value. The owner, Kelly Callow, cited as her example Spa 151, which advertised a similar offer after the closing of Eugene's Total Care Salon and Spa. Spa 151, however, offered only 20 percent of face value.

So far, Callow said she has redeemed about a dozen of the gift certificates, with many other potential customers calling about the offer.

The Missouri Attorney General's office reported Friday that 36 complaints about the business practices of Spa 151 have been filed since the publication of a story detailing the circumstances behind the closing.

John Fougere, spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon, while commending Ashli Rowland's promise to refund outstanding gift certificates, said the consumer affairs people in the office had some questions about her proposed methods.

Putting the originals in the mail perhaps isn't the best method, Fougere said, because it puts the original instrument in the hands of the person making the refund.

"I want to caution consumers to use common sense if they go that route," Fougere said. "They should keep all their original documents and don't send it through the mail."

And although some people could send the gift card or certificate by registered mail, return receipt, that method has its drawbacks as well, Fougere said.

Fougere said the office will be monitoring the issue, and suggested that the best way would be for Rowland to set up a time and place to make the refunds in person.

"Our main concern is for consumers and make sure they are not harmed any more than they have been," Fougere said.

Rowland doesn't like the idea of potential confrontations and said that she must verify the remaining balance on gift cards before making a refund.

"If that is the case, find out where she wants the information sent to her, and if you have to send it by mail by all means do not send the original document," Fougere said. "It is a complicated situation."

In other business news:

* Unemployment is up: They didn't lose their jobs early enough to be included in the December figures, but the staff at Spa 151 join a seemingly growing number of unemployed in the region.

In December, most counties in our immediate area saw an increase in joblessness. The largest measure of the regional picture is for an area called the Cape Girardeau-Sikeston-Jackson, MO-IL Combined Statistical Area, covering Scott, Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties in Missouri and Alexander County in Illinois. For the region, unemployment stood at 5.3 percent in December, up from 3.7 percent in April.

Unemployment varied in the constituent parts of the area. The highest rate was 8.9 percent in Alexander County, Ill., the second highest in that state. On the Missouri side, unemployment was 6.2 percent in Scott County, 4.4 percent in Cape Girardeau County and 6.1 percent in Bollinger County. In Cape Girardeau, the rate was 5.5 percent.

Statewide, unemployment in both states was 5.5 percent.

* Deadbeat chaser: Tom Cochran, owner of Concrete Flatwork LLC of Scott City, was tired of hearing from a relative's creditors seeking payment. And getting stiffed on a job was no fun, either.

He's created a new venture to shame people who just can't seem to pay their bills. Called Never Get Stiffed, it is an online service where business owners can post the names, addresses and amounts owed by customers who are delinquent in their payments. The Web site is www.nevergetstiffed.com.

"I'm a small-business owner and I know how much strain it can put on a business not to be paid for a job that you covered out of your pocket," Cochran wrote me in an e-mail reply to my inquiry about the site to nevergetstiffed@yahoo.com.

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