For Colored Businesses That Have Considered Liquidating When the Revenue Wasn’t Enough

What you wish your favorite small business knew…

Problem:

I’m a black millennial in DC. That means that I’m all about the underdog, small businesses that give you the “Cheers” effect. You know, walking in and everybody knows your name, or order before you can utter “let me get uhhhhh…” My affection for this type of thing runs deep, especially for black, brown or woman owned businesses. As a consumer, this also means where I spend my money needs to be efficient and convenient. My values, a small business feel and convenience aren’t necessarily in contention with each other but when it comes to the curious case of my neighborhood beauty supply, they are.

I live near two beauty supply stores. One Asian owned and one Black owned. While Sarah’s*, the Asian-owned supply, is farther from me, it’s much more convenient. Sarah’s is located right under the metro stop I use everyday, has an expansive selection, a nail salon in the back and is near several grocery stores. In theory, I could re-up on all my Shea Moisture products, get a manicure and then knock out my grocery shopping for the week right after, all before noon. While it’s great to get on with my day with 50% of my adulthood responsibilities out of the way, I can’t do so without having a pang of guilt that I didn’t spend my money at “Nikki’s*” the Black beauty supply a few blocks from my house.

While not as broad, the selection at Nikki’s is more nuanced, I can find really specific collections within a brand. Not to mention the staff remembers my face, and offers a repeat customer sales incentive. The only flaw in this poppin picture of black economic excellence is that the one time I really needed a product, they were all out, forcing me to delay my appointment and walk a little under a mile to their competitor, Sarah’s.

Thanks to my misadventure I discovered Sarah’s has more stock, a broader selection, and lower prices and I became a reluctantly loyal customer. When I’ve got a first thing in the morning slot for a 6–10 hour hair appointment, I don’t give a fuck about a friendly face or the cashier knowing my name. I need to know that y’all have 10 packs of Marley hair in 1B. That’s it.

Solution:

To win me back, Nikki’s should do two things. First, they should recognize their clear, yet under exploited advantage over Sarah’s. Sarah’s has amazing staff, but they aren’t cosmetologists so when it comes to advice about my hair, they can only suggest products based on what sells well and what doesn’t. Nikki’s automatically gets more credit because I can simply chat with the Black saleswoman (who isn’t a cosmetologist either) and say “ well your hair looks great, what do you use”. Whether this decision making process is fair or flawed is beside the point, this is how the average consumer is spending their money.

The second thing Nikki’s should do, is capitalize on the fact that I blindly trust them and reframe my customer experience. Instead of being the “smaller, out of the way, more expensive but black owned” beauty supply, they should strive to be a “hair care resource center”. In my mind, this would be in the form of “hair care consultants” instead of cashiers, and products labeled and categorized according to issues (volume, dandruff,breakage...) or hair type (tight curls,loose curls,low porosity, etc). Basically the “Sephora” of black hair care.

At this point I know you’re thinking “If they can’t afford inventory, how can they afford to hire a staff of black hair care experts and fancy backlit shelves?” I’m not suggesting this at all actually. The consultants at Sephora aren’t required to have a background in cosmetology, they go through a training. The bulk of Nikki’s “reframing” is basically the cost of a few kinkos trips to create new shelf guides and “hair care consultant” nametags for the cashiers.

I’d break the bank for a store that I could walk into and find a shelf equipped with a index card sized resource guide for products that meet my needs. Essentially, the distinction between Nikki’s and Sarah’s would no longer be black owned vs convenience. The revamped, specialized version of Nikki’s can now give me security in knowing that this store doesn’t just look like me, but it understands me. This type of security builds loyalty. Loyalty is the difference between asking “How can I stay connected for sales and product releases?” when a product is out of stock vs storming off to Sarah’s because I’m pressed for time.

Bottom line: Everyone (especially buppies) is cheering for black or small businesses. To compete with larger brands our beloved underdogs should ditch the mom and pop schtick and play to their strengths as “specialized” boutiques instead.