Contactless Retail—Survival Guide for Small Businesses
Business owner Bella F. of a Black-owned beauty supply store MIENNE
In the heart of a Washington metropolitan area consisting of Washington D.C. and parts of Maryland and Virginia, Tysons is a well-known affluent neighborhood. Just in a 5-min drive from the store, Tysons Corner Center, the biggest shopping mall in the DMV (DC, MD, and VA) region, is located. The rent is high, and African American population is relative low. Thus, very few beauty supplies exist. A big beauty chain Sally Beauty has several locations mainly serving White customers, but ethnic hair products were hard to find in the region. Hence, many Black consumers had to drive to other regions in order to purchase hair products. Bella as a Black woman personally felt the inconvenience and opened the small but well-packed beauty supply store in February 2019. It is a niche store for those who shared the same inconvenience. Regular customers of MIENNE Beauty Supply now call it a hidden gem of Tysons.
A girl who braided her friends and family became a beauty supply store owner
Bella liked to braid other people’s hair since her youth. In the beginning, she helped her family and friends with their hair and later worked as a braider at a salon. At the same time, she pursued her passion in academics and graduated a nursing school to become a registered nurse. Aside from her nursing career, currently, she also carries a title of software engineer. While being good at so many things, she also longed for a bigger goal in her heart. It was her dream to become a successful entrepreneur, and the beauty industry in which she used to make a living as well as had her passion gave her the chance to become a beauty supply store owner. She started out carrying the items that were not available at Sally Beauty, but she currently serves not only Black customers but also other ethnicities as well as chemotherapy patients.
Creating a retail business from scratch
As she had no friend or family involved in beauty supply industry, she had to overcome unique barriers to enter the beauty supply business. In fact, she started out with nothing but an idea to open the first beauty supply in Tysons and her passion for hair. She had no idea how to run a beauty supply business, nor did she have a friend who can lead her into a right direction. In the beginning, she did not know anything about ordering directly from hair companies. She looked up hair companies online and sent emails to each company inquiring about opening an account. Most companies simply ignored her email or disregarded her request, so she sometimes bought their items at a retail price to sell without making any profit. Things got better over time, but even today she has to deal with the same problem.
A year from the opening, Covid-19 happened
She started out with nothing to rely on, and in about a year, she faced Covid-19 outbreak. During the stay-home order, she closed the store and worked as a full-time software engineer/part-time nurse, working day and night. She invested the wages into the business to avoid permanent closing. In a desperate time, her sincere customer service and expertise in hair earned regulars; since the reopening, her customer base kept increasing. Due to the pandemic, product development was slowed, and backorders became widespread. However, customers are still seeking pretty much same products. While masks and hair clippers enjoyed a spike in popularity due to Covid-19, braidings, wigs, and natural hair products continue to sell as the trend continuously evolves.
Digital marketing and promotion became the essential for contactless retail
She is running various kinds of digital marketing on Google, Facebook, Twistter, Instagram, and Yelp. For the community reach, she promotes her business at her church as well. Especially, she is exploiting Google My Business the most because it accounts for the biggest share of new customers. While most retail owners are utilizing basic features such as store hours, locations, photos, and reviews, she also posts updates about sales, events, and products on Google My Business. She makes sure to give a new experience on each sales event every season by varying items on sale. She also offers 10–15% discount on wigs every Wednesday in her effort to bring more customers on a usually slow day, and she applies check-in discount for customers who landed on her store via its Yelp page.
Business Applications of Google My Business
1. Coupons and new product releases
Google My Business offers posting feature where new customers can easily access coupons and share them with friends.
2. Product information
Do you often get call inquiries about availability of certain products? If you provide relevant information on Products section, customers would know that you have certain items without calling the store.
3. Business hours and event promotions
Temporary business hour changes due to holidays or severe weather can be posted on Google My Business to forewarn customers of store closing.
Check-in discount through Yelp, a local business review website
MIENNE Beauty Supply’s Yelp page is running a discount event under which customers can click a link to check-in using their phones. Customer who checked-in via Yelp can receive 60% discount on braiding hair.
How to survive as a small retailer? You maintain a compact inventory by catching up with the trend
Her store gives a unique impression that differs from what we typically expect from a beauty supply. While the store is small, you encounter a neat and well-organized retail floor upon entry. As her retail floor is limited in space, she cannot carry all items customers want. To solve this problem, she tries to catch up with the trend and customer desire as quickly as possible. She always stock up the essentials, and she pays attention to what she sees and hears from YouTube, the beauty community, and customers in order to carry the trendy items. While the quickly shifting trend gives her headache, she can try to suggest a substitute with instructions on how to replace. As she holds a high standard for customer satisfaction, she makes a note of items and brands that requested by customers to place an order on their behalf. If you carry items customers want and they are satisfied with it, low price is not a top priority in marketing in her opinion. Currently, MIENNE Beauty Supply’s Google Review has 4.9 stars, a near-perfect score.
A full-time software engineer in the mornings but in a full gear for business operation in the afternoons and weekends
When we contacted her for an interview, she was out of town in the midst of a meeting. “What meeting does a beauty supply owner have in a remote area?”, we wondered. It turned out that she was working as a fulltime software engineer. Thanks to her expertise, she can personally address most technological issues at the store. She never needed a service person so far, and that must be a great help.
While she has to be on the road often, she can rely on talented and diligent employees for the business operation. As her store is on the smaller side, she can run it with a single employee. It is not easy to find an employee who can be blindly trusted; she spent a year to find a right employee. Tia had experience working at Sally Beauty and welcomed the new opportunity to work with products more focused on African American customers. She loves working at a family-like work environment.
Customers who is proud of her and inspired by her
She told us that she would be lying if she said there was never a moment customers gave her a hard time. Sharing the same ethnicity does not help in this case. One day, a customer who bought 10 packs of hair came back for three more, but it was out of stock. The customer yelled and used profanity, and she had to give a refund. When there is a dispute with a customer, she always leaned toward an amicable resolution. There is a lot to lose than gain. While there are rude customers, customers are what drive her to keep pursuing her dream. A customer who visited the store for the first time said, “while living in this neighborhood for thirty years, this is the first time the store is ran by an African American. I appreciate your endeavor and am proud of you.” To support Black businesses, a few customers even make a long trip to the store, which drives her to work even harder.
A total beauty supply with an in-house salon is her goal
When an African American starts a business, the socioeconomic barrier is higher. She could not rent a bigger space she hoped, but she is running toward the goal. When asked about hobbies, Bella laughed and said, “hobby is a luxury for me who works all days in a week”. Her goal is to expand the business and run a salon within. As she has experience as a braider, she could offer salon service inside the beauty supply for the local customers’ convenience as well as standing out from other beauty supplies.
Another goal is to carry a wider selection of products. She hopes more vendors open their doors for African American business owners to provide great opportunities to grow the beauty industry together.