Is there any cinematic scene so relatable as Elle Woods nearly causing a six-car pile-up in her desperation to get to the nail salon? For so many beauty lovers (me included) the nail salon is more than just a place to just spruce up your nails with some color—it's a relaxing reset that makes you feel good about yourself. Who doesn't leave the salon with a little extra spring in their step?
Truth be told, the only place that relaxes me as much as a beauty salon is Target. In a brilliant twist of fate and marketing synergy, it's suddenly possible to experience both at the same time. Meet Clockwork, a relatively new, AI-powered nail-painting machine that automatically coats your nails in lacquer in just 10 minutes. Initially rolled out to select offices and living communities, Clockwork partnered with Target to bring the robo-manicure to retailers nationwide. Currently, Clockwork is in six Target locations spread between California, Minnesota, and Texas. In desperate need of both a polish refresh and a Target run, I headed to a location in Dallas just 20 minutes from me to get a real-life look at what might just be the nail salon of the future. Ahead, everything you need to know about Target's robot manicure.
When Clockwork's first robot went into development in 2018, founder Renuka Apte envisioned it as a way to streamline and simplify beauty services while also making them more affordable and accessible. Now, four years later, it's blossomed into one of the most exciting beauty breakthroughs of the last decade. The public got its first taste of Clockwork during summer 2021, but the company's Target partnership took the demand for the AI manicure to the next level. "Whether the busy Target shopper wants to feel more put together or feminine before their next meeting, play with fun polish colors, or quickly get their nails painted while already out and about—Clockwork delivers convenient, stylish manis in minutes," Apte tells Byrdie.
It works like this: you sit down in front of the machine with your nails already polish-free and shaped to your desired length. Right now, Clockwork only offers its signature MiNiCURE service which is just nail polish color—no AI-applied base coat or top coat just yet, but the attendant posted next to the machine does administer quick-dry drops as a top coat. After selecting your color, a pod containing the paint is popped into the machine. You'll face forward and carefully slip one finger at a time under a silicon band, positioning your palm and other fingers like a gentle handshake. A scan is taken of the nail, and the tapered polish pod begins outlining the nail with polish, filling it in—in the most mesmerizing way possible.
Though Clockwork touts the benefits of "no small talk," I'm someone who enjoys the camaraderie and human element of the nail salon and was pleasantly surprised to see the attendant stationed at the booth was a girl around my age. Just like at the salon, she helped me pick a color and walked me through the process of prepping my nails with a polish-remover pad. I was a little worried about how the machine would work with my currently short nails, but was pleasantly surprised at its sensor capabilities. The most difficult part of the experience was keeping very still—the robot needs to be able to properly scan and trace the nails before getting started. Because the booth is in the cosmetics section of the store, plenty of people walked by as I was strapped in, several sticking around to watch over my shoulder or ask questions while the polish was dispensed which was a little awkward but the attendant was so friendly and sweet that she handled all of the explainers. While the machine did a great job considering what it had to work with (my itty-bitty nails), it did leave a few holes, gaps, or otherwise missed a few spots. The attendant was committed to perfection, though, and she removed the polish on a few fingers so they could be re-done by the bot and even did some manual touch-ups. All in all, it took about 20 minutes and it did strike me that I probably could have done my own manicure in about as much time.
The experience of watching the tiny nozzle outline and fill in my nails was beyond satisfying, like a TikTok of a cake getting frosted. A few quick-dry drops administered by the attendant later and I was turned loose with instructions not to touch the nails for at least five minutes. Obviously, I immediately wandered up and down every aisle—a very brilliant strategy on Target's part as I left the store $50 lighter. All in all, I think Clockwork is a genius idea for spots in which a nail touch-up is nearly impossible to come by: things like office parks and airport lounges. I would absolutely use Clockwork there and recommend it to anyone.
However, I don't see this replacing the nail salon just yet, and quite frankly I hope it never does. I love the community and the humans of the nail salon—Kevyn, my main manicure man, was one of the first people I connected with in Dallas and plopping down in his chair (where a glass of white wine is always proffered) is still my favorite way to unwind. But hey, at least you don't have to tip a robot. Not yet, anyway.