Ideal Image Development, a Tampa company that calls itself an "industry leader" in laser hair removal, is being nicked on two flanks — by an aggressive competitor and by the consumer columnist of one of the nation's largest newspapers.
In a new lawsuit, Ideal Image says it has been the target of "false and/or misleading" statements by a New York-based rival that claims to be better, cheaper and faster in removing unwanted hair.
And twice since August, Ideal Image has been the focus of the New York Times' Haggler column, which said disgruntled employees apparently were urged to post positive comments about the company on the Glassdoor website.
It has been a bumpy road of late for a firm that president Bruce Fabel says aims to be the "Nordstrom of the cosmetic medical services industry," referring to the department store chain known for the excellence of its customer relations.
Ideal Image was founded in Tampa in 2001, the same year that International Plaza, with Nordstrom and other high-end retailers, opened a few miles away. Ideal still has its original salon in the Urban Centre on W Kennedy Boulevard, even as it has expanded to 132 locations in 43 states and Canada.
In 2011, the chain was sold to Steiner Leisure Ltd., a British-born company now based in Coral Gables. In addition to luxury skin care products, it owns beauty schools and operates spas in hotels, cruise ships and British Airways lounges.
Steiner saw Ideal Image as a good way to grow its business in an era of skimpy swimsuits and greater displays of flesh. According to Steiner's annual report, Americans spent an estimated $1.8 billion in 2011 on more than 5 million procedures to remove hair from various parts of their bodies.
Removing hair typically involves a series of treatments that can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars depending on the size of the area involved.
Nearly half of laser hair removal customers are women ages 25 to 45 like Jacqueline Fiore, who wrote to the New York Times' Haggler about her experience with Ideal Image .
Fiore said she had "incredibly painful" burn marks after an initial treatment in Altamonte Springs in 2011 to remove hair from her arms and legs. She stopped treatments on a doctor's advice but tried to resume them earlier this year at an Ideal Image location in Minnesota, where she now lives. Although Fiore said she had been told her service was transferable, the Minnesota salon wouldn't treat her and the Florida one wouldn't refund her $3,000.
After the Haggler, aka reporter David Segal, began looking into the matter, Fiore got her money back from Ideal Image. But Segal wrote on Aug. 28 that he was "not particularly swayed" by Fabel's insistence that Fiore's was an unusual case.
"The Haggler is sometimes reluctant to draw conclusions based on anonymous online rants, but not when they are so numerous and so familiar," Segal wrote. "Surf for a few minutes and you'll find plenty of furiously negative reviews of Ideal Image," including complaints of high-pressure sales tactics and treatments that were more painful and less successful than expected.
Customers weren't the only ones unhappy. After his first column, Segal said he got emails from some current and former Ideal Image employes lamenting that what had once been a "fabulous" place to work no longer was. They too complained that salespeople were urged to get "super-pushy" with customers.
Yet, as Segal reported in a followup column Oct. 26, online employee reviews of Ideal that previously "slanted to the negative" changed markedly in tone after his first column.
Of the 12 reviews posted about Ideal Image in mid September on Glassdoor, a site where employees can anonymously comment on pay and working conditions, all 12 were so "rah-rah they should have come with pom-poms," Segal wrote. "The Haggler wanted to ask Mr. Fabel (the CEO) about the sudden eruption of employee love for both him and Ideal Image, but he did not return emails."
In a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Fabel blamed the negative reviews on one disgruntled former employee. He said current employees took it on themselves to respond.
"I did not specifically ask my employees to post positive comments," he said, "but the employees were upset that this gentleman wrote such a negative article."
Ideal Image has been sued at least twice in the past two years by unhappy ex-workers — a Texas woman who said she was illegally fired when she became pregnant and a North Carolina sales consultant who said she was canned because of an eye disease. Both cases were settled under confidential terms.
Ideal Image turned the tables last month when it sued another former sales consultant along with Premier Laser Spa, a rival hair-removal company that she recently went to work for.
In the suit filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, the woman is accused of violating her agreement not to disparage Ideal Image or disclose confidential information about it.
The suit also says that Premier, which operates in Florida and 13 other states, made false statements about Ideal Image in radio ads and in a chart that compares Premier favorably to a "leading national competitor," not identified by name but at one point shown on Premier's website with a black-and-white logo almost identical to Ideal Image's.
Somewhat ironically in light of the Haggler columns, Ideal Image claims that Premier has solicited customers to write "great reviews" in exchange for free services and a chance to win a $500 gift certificate. Premier has not responded to the suit, which seeks more than $15,000 in damages.
Fabel, a former Nike, Calvin Klein and GameWorks executive, said that Ideal Image considers customer satisfaction paramount and that the vast majority of customers are happy. Since he joined the company in 2012, it has been expanding its services to include tattoo removal, Botox and a process "to freeze off fat."
As for the core service, laser hair removal, is it worth it?
Yes and no, says Dr. James Spencer, a board member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
"What people want is a permanent baby's bottom, and they're not going to get that," said Spencer, who does laser hair removal in his St. Petersburg practice. "What they get is permanent reduction, say 40 to 50 percent will be gone and not come back.''
And, Spencer added, the high-energy laser machines "most definitely" can blister, discolor and even scar if not set properly for individual skin types and color.
"I've seen some real train wrecks," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.