When I was your age…
Ms. Lee’s 30-year journey in the beauty supply industry
There’s a new wave in the beauty supply industry. Established business owners are passing on their businesses to the next generation, and a new generation of entrepreneurs are starting businesses with exciting ambition and passion. Wise business owners would look for the valuable experience and wisdom of previous generations. Like the rich flavor of bone broth, the experience of old timers is a great help to new challengers. So BNB sat down for an interview with Ms. Lee, who ran a beauty supply business for 30 years and recently retired. Let’s dive into her not-so-easy journey to take away her wisdom and experiences.
A teacher couple runs a beauty supply for 30 years
Insoon Lee, who is dressed in a neat suit and exudes warmth from the moment you meet her, says she and her husband had a stable teaching career in South Korea before a friend encouraged them to move to the U.S. in 1982. “After I decided to move to the US, I kept thinking about what to do. Back then, pretty much all immigrants ran a business. I thought that I was cut out for running a business, and after two years of market research, I started a small general store. I ran the store while studying business diligently, almost memorizing the book ‘The Jewish Way of Doing Business.’ Yes, I worked really hard.”
Taking time to study market research and business operation, she was on her way to success. She bought the dress shop next door in a short time.
Detours on the road of life
She was on a streak of success, but then she turned to wholesale business to pursue a bigger dream. “I was in the retail business of selling goods produced somewhere, and I realized that I wanted to make something new myself. Because I loved to cook and I was confident, I performed analysis on consumer needs and thought to make a good sausage. Then, I built a factory with my husband. It was the beginning of a bigger adventure. Our sausage was tasty and made with good ingredients. It was very well received at the trade shows we attended year after year, and buyers from large companies reached out to us. I thought it would be a sure success.”
But when the big corporate buyers showed up, she says, they had strong reservations about “sausages made by Koreans.” Ms. Lee quickly understood the situation and closed the factory that day. When asked how she made the bold decision to shut down the business, she had a simple answer. “I wouldn’t want kimchi made by an American either.”
The beauty supply that became her destiny
After the sausage factory closed, her financial situation was dire. All that was left was an old car. That’s when a classified ad on the newspaper caught her eye. “In 1995, an ad for beauty supplies for sale in rural New Orleans caught my eye. It was a time when beauty supplies were starting to emerge and establish themselves, but unlike today, they were a combination of wig shops and general merchandise stores. I think my experience with the general store made it a no-brainer for me. But I didn’t have any money on hand at the time. I cautiously informedthe owner of my situation, and he told me to spread the purchase price over five years. I was so thankful. The business wasn’t doing well, but I was confident.” The new business in New Orleans was successful enough to pay off the acquisition cost within a year and a half.
The secret she doesn’t disclose to even her daughter-in-law.
What are the secrets of running a beauty supply store that paid off the purchase price of the business in a year and a half and secured her comfortable retirement?
– a bold move of employing a beautician
“I was so intimidated by chemicals at first. Since I didn’t use them myself, I couldn’t figure them out even after spending good amount of time. So, I searched for popular beauticians and hired one myself. At the time, it wasn’t common to hire a beautician at a beauty supply, but they could teach me what I didn’t know and provide counseling to my customers. Customers would come in for a wig and then start buying accessories, chemicals, and so on per the beautician’s recommendation. Sales skyrocketed.
– Be kinder when you’re scared
“You know, one of the biggest problems in beauty supplies is theft. It’s so scary and intimidating. I’ve always thought about that, too. I was concerned about security and trying to have emergency plans ready. Then I read an article, and it was an interview with a burglar who had done a lot of damage in a certain part of the country. The burglar traveled around and caused damages to several retail stores, but he overlooked one. When the reporter asked him why, he said he just walked out because “the store attendant was nice to him.” That story really resonated with me. I’ve been especially nicer to scary-looking customers since then.”
– Turning old inventory into a hot seller
“There was a time when sales of human hair plummeted due to the tough economy. We had a lot of human hair products in stock, and making things even worse, they were typically high-cost products. We discussed the issue with our employees and came up with the idea of re-purposing human hair wigs, which were a particularly large part of our inventory, into trendy styles. We had an in-house beautician to cut and dye items into fashionable styles, so it wasn’t hard to turn it into something completely new. The inventory that was a pain in the ass has become one of the most popular products in our store. That’s when I realized that anything could turn into a hot seller.”
Beauty shows are no big deal? You’re wrong!
“I think the best thing I did while running the store was to attend beauty shows around the country. I didn’t think I could boost sales with the product information I was getting from traveling sales associates of wholesalers. Your customers’ tastes are changing, new customers are coming in, and if your product stays the same, how will you improve? That’s a dead end. I just went to every show if I could, and I learned and met people. I made friends with a lot of people in the industry, and I’m still in touch with them, so that’s an asset. And I think there’s a lot of information that trade shows give you. I get to see the trends, I get to see the variety of products, and it’s no wonder that every time I go to a show, the products we carry are updated. Don’t you think it would be your loss if you didn’t go to the beauty show?”
30 years of memories
She’s seen a lot over the years, but what are some of her most memorable moments?
“I’ve always tried to be nice to my customers. In fact, I met quite a few rude customers. Every time I’ve been offended, it’s been hard and painful, but I’ve kept my smile and shown kindness one more time. I’ve noticed a huge change in customer behavior as a result. In the early days of running the store, I had a boy who was rude to me beyond words. I’d be nicer to him, praying for a bigger heart. Ten or more years later, that boy became a father and paid a visit. He had already moved out of the town, but he apologized for his past rude behavior to me. It brought tears to my eyes. I felt like I was being rewarded for something.
Another memory is that our store was in a rural area, and many of our customers were struggling to make ends meet. They get a box full of food at a local food bank once a month, and some of our customers always dropped off some veggies or cans in the box at the store. I knew how much it meant to them, and I thanked them time after timewhenever they came by. To this day, when I see a vegetable, the memories warm my heart.”
To those starting out beauty supply business
“Beauty supply has given me everything. It turned an old car into a home and a comfortable retirement and gave me many friends and touching memories. If you’re starting or running a store right now, you have a lot of hardship and struggle ahead of your journey. When I faced hardship, I used to travel. At first, I was worried about the store, but it turned out I was wrong. My sincere advice to you is to take care of yourself, over everything else. If it’s hard, take a vacation, if you’re sick, take a break… make decisions that make you feel better, even if it means losing some money. I hope you don’t just stay in the store all the time but go out for some fresh air, make some friends, and once you’re comfortable with running your business, take up some hobbies and enjoy a life. Keep up the good work, my fellow beauty suppliers!”