A Beauty Supply Owned and Run by Black Businesswoman for 22 Years

Tunesia is the owner of TT Fashions beauty supply store in Alabama

From a Beautician to an Owner of Two Beauty Supply Stores

Her beauty supply saga began about 22 years ago. Tunesia was then a beautician. When she shopped at a beauty supply store downtown for a supply run for her beauty salon, the store owner, who was a Korean, was very rude to her. As she preferred good customer service over low price or product selections, she ended up driving to Florida, adding an hour to her trip. Every week, she visited the Florida store, which was ran by a different Korean. The owner asked, “why did you have to drive all the way down to Florida? “, and she told him what happened.

As they got to know each other better through her weekly visits, the owner started to place orders for her salon supplies and made them available for her at lower cost. As she knows a lot about hair, her advice to salon patrons would often lead to purchases, which made her think about running a beauty supply retail business instead of working as a hairstylist. In 1998, she opened her first beauty supply store with a small footprint of about 1,200 sq. ft.  The first store, TT Fashions, has expanded in size almost 8-times, and now she runs another store, KD’s Beauty, with her husband.

Her husband Kevin on the left, and Tunesia

Struggling to Meet MOQs with All the Money She Had

It is not hard to grasp how hard it had been for an African American business owner to run a beauty supply store at that time. Nonetheless, what she experienced was beyond our expectations. About 20 years ago, the beauty supply industry was dominated by Koreans, from wholesales to hair companies, and far fewer sales associates spoke English fluently. The stereotype about African Americans held by many Koreans gave her hard time gaining credits. Time after time, she found herself wanting to prove them wrong by meeting minimum order quantities. Nowadays, she has credits and can place orders over terms, but at the time, she struggled to meet the minimum quantity. Still, for certain brands, she needed some help from the Florida store owner. As her store was relatively small and there was a competition from bigger stores nearby, her suppliers often refused to fulfill her orders in favor of the big stores who sought exclusive deals. Although she managed to get some popular items from the Florida store owner, she made little profit in the beginning.

Sales Associate Who Ran Away

As she dealt with her suppliers faithfully, she gained good reputation among sales associates for being “trustworthy”. Today, her store is not small at all, so sales associates often come to make a sales pitch to Tunesia. Still, the stereotype persists. “One day, a sales associate visited my store and asked for an owner, and when I pointed at me, the associate basically ran out of the store, saying nothing,” she can laugh about it now. On the other end of the extreme, as she was in the beauty industry for so long, some sales associates assume that she could speak Korean. She says she knows hello in Korean, but that is about it. In her demonstration, however, she surprised us with her “anyunghaseyo” and “kamsahapnida” in a native-like accent.

Finding God’s Will in a Store Fire

In the early days of running her first store, she became wanting to have a bigger store in downtown. The rent for her first store was higher than her home mortgage. She saved up money while running the store, and she invested a lot in opening a new place. The store was almost ready with showcases and shelves built and installed; only products were missing.

Then, three o’clock in a morning, she received a call from the fire department. Her precious investment was burning down. The store fire itself was devastating, but even worse was that the property insurance policy had expired on the day before the fire. It was a matter of hours; the fire could have been covered by the policy if the fire had started just three hours earlier. Everything turned to ashes, and she had to pay mortgage for the ruins for next four to five years. She thought about declaring bankruptcy, but she did not want to risk her credit.

She cannot forget that day when she actually considered giving up her business. “I really wanted to give up at the moment, but I thought all things were in God’s plan. His plan also included assisting me with running my business at this place till today.” As a Christian, she believes that all things happen according to God’s plan. She is only grateful for the blessed life she is having right now.

Two Stores in One Family, a Smart Family Business

Managers are mainly hired within her family. As non-family members have less attachment to the business, it would be hard to expect them to have owner’s mind. The first store has been run by Tunesia and her mother since its opening 22 years ago, and her cousin has worked as a manager for 21 years. The second store, KD’s Beauty, is run by her husband Kevin who quit his school teacher job to help her.

The stores are now mostly run by managers, and she only takes part in placing orders and making executive decisions, spending the rest of her time with her daughter and son. She could not spend much time with them in the past due to her work, so she only hopes to make it up for them. One of the main considerations for deciding the location of the second store was providing a better educational environment for her children.

The benefit of having two stores in different regions is that even when local wholesale policy prohibits certain items to be supplied to a store, she can just move the items from her other store.

In front of the store #2, KD’s Beauty, Tunesia and Kevin with their twin children

Her husband Kevin on the left, and Tunesia

Not Too Far, Not Too Close

She has a staff of 22, who average 5 to 10 years of employment duration. The secret of low turnover: she keeps them at a distance but never forget to show them her gratitude, like remembering their anniversaries and birthdays. When you do not have a good distance with employees, they think of the owner as their peer, making it tough to manage. Also, she never joins organizations that encourage hatred toward a certain group of people. It is just against her principle. She does not agree when people say “you ought to buy from Black businesses because you are Black.” It says a lot about her own unique hardship as a member of African American community, from which most Korean beauty supply owners are secluded.

Treating Customers Like Her Family

Starting with a hug, she greets her customer with an everlasting smile. Many of her customers at TT Fashions are long standing regulars. She watched many of them grow up from their youth. She remembers their names, families, and other stuffs, treating them like a family member. Her customer service philosophy is as follows: “Treat your customers just in a way you want to be treated, and don’t treat them in a way you don’t like.” The same thing goes to suppliers who treat her well as she would try to squeeze in an extra order from them.

Studying the Market to Beat the Competition

How did she pick her store location? Her TT Fashions used to occupy a smaller retail place next to the current location. She did not move out of the mall because the location was good. It has a dollar store next door, and a high school close by. While the dollar store attracts foot traffic, Tunesia concluded that their chemical pricing was unbeatable. Hence, she only carries brands that are not available at the dollar store. In this manner, she always studies competing stores and finds ways to compete.

Only Seen at TT Fashions Beauty Supplies

1. A hair salon inside the store

A hair salon is running in a corner booth of the store. Tunesia consults customers visiting the salon and make sales using her knowledge in hair styling and taking part in the local community. It sort of offers a place like a barber shop for African American males. If a salon customer requires a hair product, it can be purchased just a few steps away. The salon also offers a custom grillz, a jewelry accessory for teeth, using molding equipment at the store. TT Fashions also runs promotions for hairstylists of the salon on its Facebook page and Instagram.

Hair Salon within the Store

Hairstylist Promotion in store

Custom Grill

Grillz Business for Beauty Supplies  While mass produced grillz may be good enough, if a custom grillz can be made to order inside the store, it could be a brilliant business item without requiring big space. While the prices vary per the design and materials used, businesses with a large African American client base may realize good profi t with it.

2. Staff Who Understands the Products 

After the interview, we had a chance to meet the staff members. We asked one of them, Yoli Taylor, about best sellers, and she has no hesitation in her answer. Noticing her passion in beauty products, we asked, “how long did you work here?” She reportedly worked for four years so far, and she loves meeting people and recommending new products that she tried and liked. Her joy at work is contagious to customers. They work in rotation also in KD’s Beauty.

Employees of TT Fashions

3. A Designated Marketing Team Running Social Media Campaign

As many consumers gather information largely online, Tunesia created a marketing team. For new products and promotions, she always picks one of her customers or an amateur model to be featured in a banner design. When asked for a reason, she says “customers like to see how products make someone like them more beautiful.” Customers who consent to the use of their images are rewarded with a small gift. If you visit TT Fashions’ Facebook and Instagram, you might find African American community events, new products, how-to-use videos, and promotion ideas, unknown to many Korean store owners.

4. Promoting Low-priced Items for Low Income Customers

Alabama has a low minimum wage at $7.25, and the average household income is relatively low compared to other states. $10 wigs, a hit promotion at TT Fashions, are best sellers. Many customers tend to think low price means low quality, but when they actually see those $10 wigs, they are surprised by their quality because the $10 wigs are mostly limited stock items or those on a special promotion from the manufacturer. There is also $1 promotion on miscellaneous items, cosmetics, and jewelries.

$10 Wig Section

Thanks to Koreans Who Paved the Way!

She could run her business successfully thanks to Koreans who made the products available and her family who stayed on her side running the stores with her. She has been through tough times but also grateful for many things. She still makes visits to the Florida store that introduced her to the hair business. “Now his son took over his place, but I really owe him thanks,” she said.

Lastly, she expressed her wishes for a change in the industry. “I want the hair business can be more inclusive to other ethnicities,” said Tunesia, who made this far by overcoming stereotypes with her positive attitude. We wish the best of luck for her and her family.

Retail Store Expedition BY KYOUNGHYUN HAN
BNB Magazine MAR 2020 ©bnbmag.com