Rebuilding of Store Like the Great Rebuilding of Chicago
Noah Beauty Supply
Chicago is the biggest city in the Midwest and boasts tall skyscrapers and classical architectures, making one of the top tourist spots in the U.S. Another interesting fact is that the downtown was rebuilt after the near-complete destruction from the Great Chicago Fire but rebuilt to one of the greatest economies in the country. Noah Beauty Supply experienced two incidents of burglary and theft followed by a riot after the death of George Floyd. Jaeyoung Noh, the owner of Noah Beauty Supply, could not do anything but watch while the rioters destroyed the store in front of his eyes. He rebuilt the business from the ground like the City of Chicago once did. We want to share his story of rebuilding with great determination overcoming the frustrating incidents.
Mr. Noh came to Chicago after studying art education at Inha University in Incheon, South Korea. He continued his study at the Art Institute of Chicago in pursuit of his dream. During his study, the IMF Crisis happened in South Korea. He was supposed to go back to South Korea, but he already fell in love with the church community he was attending as an international student. There was little choice left for him after he decided to stay. At the time, the Korean business community in the U.S. was fairly small. He had to choose either dry cleaners or beauty supplies. Mr. Noh chose beauty supplies because it had some connection to his major. He worked at a well known beauty supply business in the Chicago area for 7 years.
Working at a beauty supply retail store, he saw a vision in the business. The fact that it supplies the whole array of essential goods for African American living solidified his decision. Also, he liked hearing fascinating stories from his customers who live a very different life than many South Koreans. There was a big gap between him and his customers as to how they perceive the world and how they live a life, but their unique styles of love relationship, friendship, and loyalty were refreshing to him. Working at a beauty supply, he had an opportunity to know them personally and touch their lives. Although he briefly worked at a wholesale, he felt he was a better fit to handle a wide range of goods and feel the market trend himself at the retail end.
After working seven years, he saved enough to buy a condominium. It was quite an achievement for someone who had no family member or relative in the U.S. Then, he opened his own business, a 2,000 sq.ft. corner store, across the street from the retail space his business currently occupies. That was the beginning of Noah Beauty Supply.
Noah’s Ark and Noah Beauty Supply
At the center of Mr. Noh’s life is his faith. Noah Beauty Supply he built on a foreign land resembles one in the Noah’s Ark story in the Bible. Just like an ark made of Gopher wood withstood the flooding with all species of animals on earth, his Noah Beauty Supply survived many great hardships. Mr. Noh introduces his beauty supply as a place loaded with every kind of goods like Noah’s Ark. As his last name is spelled “Noh” in English, there is only one-letter difference, an addition of “a”, in their names.
His retail business underwent great many crises. Englewood, Chicago was a low-income community where many people lived off government subsidy and not the safest neighborhood in town although it has improved substantially over the years. The first incident was a burglary by one of his employees. It is shocking mentally and physically. When a person he trusted broke into his store, the languishing disappointment had disturbed him for a while. He took it as a lesson and improved the security for his business. He installed security cameras and anti-theft devices. Also, he attained an insurance policy to be prepared for the next. He convinced himself that it was a great opportunity to improve. In fact, he did not pay enough attention to store security before the incident. Despite all those improvements, his business once again became a target of a local burglar. This time most of the damages was covered by the insurance, but still he went through a hard time.
The greatest despair he experienced was the riot triggered by the death of George Floyd. The two theft incidents happened while nobody was present at the store. This time it was different. Protesters gathered in hundreds on the street where his business was located, and the rioters smashed into the retail store that he cherished like an ark. There was nothing he could do but watching his retail ark was being destroyed. He simply watched people who come in a horde to break goods and fixtures and tramp over them. The fixtures were all tipped over, and he salvaged the goods in the aftermath.
His business was brought back to life with the help of the members of Chicago Beauty Supply Association. With other members who also became the victims of the riot, he joined force to respond collectively. While some businesses were largely spared, many others were completely burned to the ground leaving nothing to salvage. Koreans work together at times of crisis, and this time was no different. They made insurance claims together and sought government help. They took care of each other, encouraged each other, and grew the will power to rebuild. After six months of hiatus, he opened a 4,000 sq.ft. (twice bigger than the previous one) retail store across the street. Although he kept the store marquee to save the cost, the interior is rearranged in a better quality. Mr. Noh again took this crisis as an opportunity to grow.
Changes brought by the pandemic
Due to Covid-19 related lockdowns, the store had to close the door for about three months. Mr. Noh still went to the closed store out of habit. A few customers who saw him inside the store asked to open the door. Then, he started curbside pickup service, but it was no easy task. Among the thousands of items, it was not easy to find what a customer ordered on the phone in timely manner and hand it over to the customer waiting outside. Whenever there is a call, he ran around the store to pick up items and brought them out. The days were long and exhausting.
After the lock-down ended and the Covid-19 crisis has quieted down, some beauty supplies removed masks, gloves, and other personal protection equipment items from shelves. However, Noah Beauty Supply still has many of them at the entrance. According to Mr. Noh, still a lot of customers are looking for masks. Some want them for protection, and others want them for fashion. “The demand is still there” says Mr. Noh. Especially, decorative and colorful masks are in high demand.
Mr. Noh pays his special attention to clothing section. Before the pandemic, many people said clothing sales in beauty supplies will decrease overtime. However, through Covid-19, clothing sales at Noah Beauty Supply continued to go upwards. Hats, hand bags, clothes, and underwears. There are plenty to shop.
A small space shines through magic
Mr. Noh majored in art education and interior design. Does his study pay him back? Merchandise fill the shelves touching the ceiling and small nooks are fully utilized, making this somewhat stuffy retail space a spacious shopping center.
When asked if carrying chemicals, hair products, accessories and clothing all in a modest-sized retail space is hard, Mr. Noh says “African American consumers like one-stop shopping, so in my opinion you should stock everything they need to boost sales.” Hence, Noah Beauty Supply has everything from daily essentials like toothbrushes and toothpastes to others that African American customers who enjoy social life and parties desire.
If there is an upside of being a small store, it is that customers can find what they are looking for relatively easily and quickly. During the interview, many customers came by, went straight to the aisles, and pick up items they were looking for without asking.
Through many incidents, he stayed calm and determined. Mr. Noh loved his workplace where he enjoyed learning how African American people lived their lives. Running a beauty supply required him to talk to customers to learn their preference and recommend items for them, and it was one of the things he liked about the business. There was a story of a person, and you could learn about it. It was a social business. Since he decided to live in the U.S. and up to today, the beauty supply business was all he worked for, always with pleasure.
Nevertheless, there was time that he wanted to shut it down. It was nothing but the ice-cold words from some customers. They were unhappy about a non-Black business making profit from them and expressed their feeling unfiltered. Mr. Noh, despite being persistent and optimistic, had doubt on continuing the business. Mr. Noh is still grateful for his customers because of whom the business is making money and gets inspiration, and he does not forget to thank them. Knowing what he has gone through, his consistent positive attitude toward his business and work is quite impressive.
When asked what the most difficult thing was to deal with throughout those incidents, he said those bad actors are just a few of his many customers, and most of them make him happy and motivates him. He believes that having a suspicious look for everyone just because a few wrongdoers is not justified.
If he must complain one thing, it is the labor shortage. Throughout the interview, Mr. Noh had to multitask as a cashier. He explained that an employee missed their workday, for whom he was making up. The pandemic made hiring a staff member on a few days’ notice a thing of the past for Noah Beauty Supply. Years back, you could literally grab a person walking by for the day’s work when in desperate need of workers. Today, finding a person who wants to work is not easy. While he wants to expand the business, finding a trustworthy manager is not possible in his wildest dream.
Currently, he works with four employees. As they are taking shift, Mr. Noh has to be always at the store. Organizing shelves, assisting customers, tending cash registers, and so on, he is an all-around player. That would be overwhelming if he did not like to work at a beauty supply, but he loves the retail floor still.