“A 27-year beauty supply veteran whose journey began at age 13”
Woohyuk Choi, CEO of Orlando Beauty Supply
At the first Orlando Beauty Supply store in Orlando, Florida, Mr. Choi shared his 27-year beauty supply journey. The shop, which has been in the same location for 10 years and has become a local favorite, is the result of his hard work. His business philosophy is not complicated. It’s about unbounded trust and respect for his customers and employees. His story is about more than just business success, but it reveals a deep love for the life of an entrepreneur and the beauty supply community he has built.
My Life is All About Beauty. I’ve Learned the Business Since I was 13
There’s a common question I get to ask in the interviews with retail store business owners. “How did you start your beauty supply business?” In fact, his youthful appearance makes one wonder how he has been in the industry for 27 years.
Mr. Choi got his foot into the beauty supply industry when he immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13 and started helping his father run a small beauty supply business. “It’s true what they say: the person who picks you up at the airport when you arrive in the United States determines your future” he says, smiling as he recalls those days. What he learned over the shoulder has now become his life at age 40. Orlando Beauty’s first location (8500 sq. ft.) and its second (3400 sq. ft.), which has been open for nine years, were initially started as a partnership, but he now runs both stores on his own.
Having gained enough experience in the industry, his journey hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Despite Florida’s powerful hurricanes and the challenges of the pandemic, he remained positive. “It’s fun to work, even when it’s hard. My shop is the beauty of my life.”
100% free reign! Employee autonomy is the key to the low attrition rate
“My employees are fully capable of running the store without me. My employees sell better than I do.” he says proudly. “In this shop, employees have complete autonomy and focus on what they do best. Almost every employee has a key to the store. The long hours in the beauty supply can be exhausting for employees. I gave them AirPods so they can listen to music while working in the area without customers.”
But this doesn’t mean that the company is only offering carrots. “I will treat you as you have treated me” is his principle. A respectful relationship that allows for employee autonomy is the key to most employees’ longevity. In fact, employees who work at the first and second locations have been with the company between seven and 15 years, and the newest employee has been with the company for two years.
Fair compensation motivates employees
He says you have to start believing in your employees the moment you hire them. The company is generous with pay raises, giving employees who do well a $2-$3 per hour raise a year. He knows that nothing motivates employees more than a paycheck. Thanks to this fair compensation, Orlando Beauty’s second location is now nearly fully-managed by an employee who has worked with Mr. Choi for 10 years. Because all of Orlando Beauty’s employees are of non-Korean ethnicity, he says, people often assume it’s a black-owned business. People of the same ethnicity tend to sell better and have less friction with customers. In fact, these days, his employees volunteer to promote the store on social media.
“The Art of the Early-morning Work” is a secret behind the efficient time management for his family and business
His shop is always “open,” even during hurricanes. “Even when I’m traveling, a part of me is always at the store. I always feel bad about being in the store when I should be with my family.” Finding a balance between spending time with family and running a business is a challenge for any business owner.
To preserve his precious time with his family, he wisely utilizes the early morning hours. “Working at dawn is quieter and more efficient. During that time, I listen to my favorite audio book and work.” On days when orders are coming in, he comes in at 4 or 5 a.m. to sort out merchandise, and on days when orders are not coming in, he comes in at 6 or 7 a.m. to set up the store. This efficient use of early morning hours frees up valuable time to get the kids to school and allows employees who arrive later in the day to focus on selling.
Mr. Choi’s work week is quite flexible. He works full-time on only Mondays and for the rest of the weekdays only early mornings, and he spends weekends with his family. These time management tactics are his way of striking the perfect balance between work and life.
“Just fill it up,” says Mr. Choi, leaving most sales associates perplexed
His philosophy, which emphasizes 100% autonomy, applies equally to his transaction with vendors. Optimistic that “if it doesn’t sell today, it will sell tomorrow,” he asks the vendors to keep the shelves full. “The next time they come, if we still have it in stock, we won’t order it again. If it doesn’t sell, we will just pull it away” Mr. Choi explains. He tends to leave hair and makeup products entirely to the sales associates from the vendors. If anything, sales associates act more responsibly when he asks them to simply skip items that they think don’t work. “Rather than focusing on building personal relationships, the principle of the B2B relationship is that the sales associate supplies quality products and the store pays fair and square,” says Mr. Choi. He believes that if everyone sticks to this principle, there will be no issue.
Consumer-centric operation: placing what customers want first
Customers are becoming less price sensitive and more personalized in their purchase. “It’s important not to be afraid of change, but to embrace it and adapt to it,” Mr. Choi emphasizes.
In response to these market changes, he has been improving his business by shifting from traditional one-on-one sales to an autonomous self-service model, which not only reduces labor costs but also satisfies customers’ diverse tastes. Recognizing and responding to the trend of consumers using social media to research products in advance, the company is focusing on ensuring that customers can immediately find what they are looking for when they walk into the store.
Orlando Beauty’s Customer Service
01. 30-day refund policy to ensure customer satisfaction
In his relationship with his customers, he is incredibly flexible. If the customer is not satisfied, he usually sends a claim to the company and doesn’t argue with the customer. Even with a 30-day refund policy, customers usually end up exchanging it for something else, and refunds aren’t as common as you might think.
02. I’d rather take some losses than offend a customer’s feelings.
While many owners of beauty supply stores are concerned about theft, he accepts it as a normal part of life and doesn’t keep an eye on his customers. Instead of putting anti-theft tags on every product, the store plays a video of the person who recorded shoplifting at the register. He says it’s actually a deterrent to shoplifting because the video evidence of shoplifting is permanently embedded in the store display.
03. Transparent pricing
If it’s procured cheap, it’s sold cheap; if it’s procured expensive, it’s sold expensive. It may seem obvious, but Orlando Beauty actually has different prices for the same product. The price varies depending on the date the product came in. We don’t replace price tags for those received in the past just because the price has gone up. If anything, it motivates customers to act fast because consumers want to get their hands on the product before the price goes up. And we don’t have to worry about placing newer items on the back of the shelf. This dual pricing is only possible because he’s not using a POS. He made the choice to save time.
04. Anyone interested in trendy products? “We have it even if few want it.”
These days, customers come to you only if you have something they want. Customer desires are becoming more diversified, and customers sometimes ask for certain brands and products. Even if a product is requested by a small number of customers, the staff will report it and supply it immediately. For products that aren’t available through current vendors, he goes to Amazon and Walmart to get the goods and services that each and every customer wants. This approach has become part of his business strategy.
What’s atypical about a beauty supply store in Orlando?
Orlando is a great place to do business, but finding the right store location can be challenging, he said. In the neighboring state of Georgia, there is a large black population in many different neighborhoods, so beauty supply stores can be opened even in neighborhoods with a large Korean population, but in Orlando, it is difficult to open a new store because there are designated black neighborhoods. In hindsight, the timing of opening the second store a year after the first was good. Other than that, Orlando is a great place to do business because there are plenty of police presence and the black neighborhoods aren’t too dangerous. Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in influx of people from other states, which he sees as a promising sign. He has lived in Orlando ever since he immigrated and cites the lack of income tax and the flexibility for his children’s education as advantages of the city, and he finds the laid-back, free-spirited environment to be a good fit for his lifestyle.
How to compete with the big chains
Big box beauty supply stores have come to Orlando, but as his store continues to thrive, consumers will eventually go where they can find what they’re looking for. So he thinks it’s important to have a little bit of everything people are looking for. When it comes to competition from other beauty supply businesses, he emphasizes that “if our neighbors are doing well, we’re doing well.” The more stores there are, the more mutually beneficial they can be, and a level playing field means more opportunities for everyone. He emphasized the value of win-win and collaboration, especially in places like Florida where there is a growing population, noting that while competition is fierce, a larger market ultimately means more opportunities.
Dad’s dedication to his soon-to-be-three children
Married for 17 years and expecting his third child, a smile lights up his face when he talks about his kids. Mr. Choi is a family man who loves his children very much, but he is strict when it comes to discipline. No television, phone, or computer use during the week, and no phone use and no television during meal times. He has always been interested in investing in stocks and real estate, and for his children’s birthdays and holidays, he buys them stocks instead of traditional gifts to help them understand the value of money and economic principles. He aspires to be the kind of dad who actively supports what his kids want to do.
Vision and enduring passion for the beauty industry
His vision and enduring passion for the beauty industry is unwavering. “Beauty supply is such a good business,” he says, adding that one of the advantages of running a beauty supply is that procurement usually does not have payment terms.
When asked, “Don’t you get tired of doing this for so long?” he says it’s important to focus on what you’re good at, which is the beauty industry, adding that his personality, which takes great pleasure in organization, is also a key to his longevity in the business. At the end, he sends a hopeful message to everyone that we should work together to achieve success in the beauty industry and create a better future.