Black owned beauty supply stores struggle to make it in beauty industry

Mae Smith works at Essential Beauty Supply, one of her three beauty supply stores located in Tennessee. Smith originally sold products from her car, but opened her first store in 1986.

I walked into a beauty supply store located on a strip between a church and a furniture store. The walls were lined with wigs and weave, labeled synthetic or human hair. Mannequin heads with painted on makeup wore wigs of every color. There were aisles for shampoo, conditioner, perm, relaxer, hair dye, etc., but it is the boxes of hair along the walls that bring in the most revenue. The women on the boxes are black, the women who purchase the hair are black, but the store owners are Korean.

I went to different beauty supply stores across the city and noticed that most were not black owned.

There are approximately 8,500 Korean-owned beauty supply stores in the United States that make an estimated $200 million in business annually, according to the Korean Beauty Supply Association. More than 70 percent of the Korean owned beauty supply store customers are African American.

How could the majority of people who purchase items from the beauty supply store be the minority when it comes to owning them?

One black beauty supply store owner decided to break the “norm” to achieve one of her life long dreams, owning her own store.

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Mae B. Smith

Essential Beauty Supply- Memphis, Tenn.

Mae Smith was a former manager at FedEx for 20 years before she decided to open her own beauty supply store.

Smith went from selling beauty products out of the trunk of her car to owning three beauty supply stores and a hair salon.

“It’s really a man’s world,” Smith said. “There are very few women that you will find today that are CEOs of their beauty supplies.”

In a strip mall on Winchester Road, stands Smith’s store, Essential Beauty Supplies.

Within a five mile radius of Essential Beauty Supplies, there are eight Korean-owned beauty supply stores.

“When the Koreans came in they became dominating,” Smith said. “If you ever visit one of their stores, you’ll see every product they got is for us [African Americans].”

Koreans immigrants have dominated the beauty supply store industry for decades with black women being their main consumers.

Before Korean immigrants became the leaders of the beauty supply industry, African Americans spearheaded the hair care business. Lyda Newman, Madame C.J. Walker, Claude A. Barnett and Marjorie Joyner were influential African Americans in the hair industry. Not until the 1970s did Korean immigrants begin to have a monopoly in the beauty supply industry due to their close bonds to hair suppliers based in South Korea.

Some African Americans have faced opposition when trying to open their own beauty supply store. Devin Robinson decided to fight back and open his own beauty supply store after he was threatened by a Korean store owner.

Devin Robinson

In 2005, Devin Robinson walked into a beauty supply store in Atlanta, Georgia to get supplies for his barbershop and hair salon, but was threatened with a golf club by the store owner. Two months later, he opened his owned beauty supply store. About a year later, he had two additional locations.

Robinson decided to sell his retail chain in 2008 to focus on helping other aspiring beauty store owners break into the beauty supply industry that has been dominated by Koreans for about 35 years.

In 2016, Robinson published a book called  “Taking it Back: How to Become a Successful Black Beauty Supply Store Owner” and founded the Beauty Supply Institute, which has helped open 85 black owned beauty supply stores.

There are more than 13,000 beauty supply stores in the country, but only between 300 and 400 are black owned, according to Robinson.

For some black beauty supply store owners, it is not easy breaking into the multi-billion-dollar industry.

Anjanet Wright

Real Virgin Human Hair- Jacksonville, Fla.

“It is a mountain, but I’m willing to climb it,” said Anjanet Wright, the owner of Real Virgin Human Hair in Jacksonville, Florida. “I’m not going to stop until we have our equal share in it.”

Wright walked into a Korean owned beauty supply store in 2013 with her daughter to buy her hair extensions for graduation. She bought six packs, but an employee tried to charge her extra for the same pack of hair. The manager eventually agreed to charge her the correct amount. After that instance, Wright decided to open her own store, but was faced with numerous roadblocks.

Wright has reached out to top hair distributors like Shake n Go and Royal Imex, but said the companies will not sell her their products.

I reached out to the CEO of Shake n Go and Royal Imex for comment, but did not receive a response.

“They’re making it impossible,” said Wright, whose store has suffered from the lack of products. “The only reason why there aren’t that many black beauty supply store owners is because we don’t have an opportunity to own it.”

Wright started her business online and was on the first search page of Google until another business accused her of copyright infringement.

“I’m definitely not going to give up,” Write said. “I’m going to keep pushing,” Wright said.

More than 400 miles away in Chattanooga, Tennessee, William Bulls faced the same obstacles as Wright.

William Bulls

Premier Hair Beauty Supply- Chattanooga, Tenn.

The 67-year-old man walked down the street from his 6,000 square foot collection agency and saw a flood of people entering a beauty supply store. Bulls saw the amount of revenue the store made, and traded in collecting debts for hair extensions and beauty products in 2002.

“I thought it was going to be like opening up a grocery store or a clothing store,” Bulls said.

Bulls never expected to be threatened by another beauty supply store owner across town.

Bulls said the owner of Golden Mart threatened to steal his customers by opening a store on the vacant lot next to him. A year later, Bulls moved his store next door to Golden Mart in an 8,000 square foot facility.

“We’ve survived. We made it. Sometimes you don’t have the courage to fight through it like I did,” Bulls said. “They told me that this industry was for Koreans, they invented it. Their role was to own the stores and provide the produce, and our, black people’s role was to purchase it from them.”

Bulls said a sales representative from one of the hair distributors visited Golden Mart, and the owner told the salesman Bulls had their products.

“The salesman demanded that I take it down even though I paid for it,” Bulls said.

Bulls called dozens of hair distributors, some would ignore him, take a message, or take his order, but never deliver the package.

“It’s like trying to play football, but you don’t even have a football. You can’t compete like that,” Bulls said.

Eight out of 10 who start a business will fail within the first 18 months, according to Bloomberg, a financial software, data and media company.

Rebecca Polius has struggled to keep her business a float. While Polius has managed to not become a part of the 80 percent, it was difficult for her to be in the 10 percent.

Rebecca Polius

Empress Beauty Supply- Lancaster, TX

Empress Beauty Supply in Lancaster, Texas has been open for three years, but it was not always easy keeping the doors open.

“It’s a difficult industry to get into, but it’s an industry I love,” said Rebecca Polius the owner of Empress Beauty Supply. “When it comes to companies, once they tell you no, you have to hope that you can stay open without them.”

Despite there being several accounts of unfair treatment in the beauty supply industry, some people believe there are no barriers for entry.

“If you’ve got the capital to purchase the products, they’ll sell to you in a minute,” said Jack Sammons, a non-African American and the president of AmPro Industries, an ethnic hair care products company located in Memphis. “They’re fighting to sell to you.”

The president of the 69-year-old global company said Koreans are prudent trustees of their company’s assets and are aggressive about building their customer base, but they’re not going to sell to someone who cannot pay for their products.

“The Koreans didn’t get where they are in this market place by giving their product away,” Sammons said. “If you’ve got the money to buy it, then there are plenty of people to sell it to you.”

Tyrone Burroughs, the CEO of First Choice Marketing, agreed with Sammons, saying it is not difficult to break into the beauty business if people have the money.

“This is probably one of the easiest businesses to come into,” Burroughs said.

However, Burroughs said some distributors have exclusive brands that they do not have sell to everyone.

“It’s a business like any other business,” Burroughs said.

Sam Enon, the founder of the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, recognized the need for more black owned beauty supply stores. The Black Owned Beauty Supply Association’s goal is to help counter the domination of the Korean beauty supply stores of the black hair care industry.

The Black Owned Beauty Supply Association has 2,000 members, 5,000 network partners, and has helped open 150 stores. Among its members are black beauty supply store owners Wright, Bulls and Polius. The organization hopes to establish more black owned beauty supply stores nationally and internationally, and to provide its members with tools to help their business thrive.

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About the Author

Sydney Neely
Sydney Neely is a well-rounded journalist, having experience working in both print and broadcast. This summer, she interned at The Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, she had more than 15 stories published, including several on the front page. This prompted the managing editor to ask her to freelance for the paper. She finished the summer in Brazil, covering the Olympic Games as a flash quote reporter for sailing and basketball. Her internship at the Olympics has inspired her to change her focus to sports. Today, she is interning with the sports team at WMC Action News 5, shooting game footage and interviewing local basketball and football athletes. After Neely graduates in December 2016, she hoped to become a sports broadcaster and eventually work at ESPN.

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