Few retail establishments have been more directly impacted by the one-two cultural punch of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement than the nation’s Black-owned barbershops and hair salons. The pandemic and the global movement against police brutality have shifted the way these retailers operate.
No one knows that better than Wil Shelton, CEO of Wil Power Integrated Marketing, a global marketing agency that leverages the unique culture of barbershops and salons to build a bridge between savvy brands and today’s hard-to-reach, multicultural customers. Shelton, a former Los Angeles hair salon owner, now oversees a vast marketing network that touches more than 100,000 Black-owned barbershops and salons nationally. NRF spoke with him about the future of these retailers.
Can you give context to the critical role of barbershops and hair salons in the Black community?
They are the cornerstone of the community. Their impact is deeply engrained. People don’t just go for a haircut. The stylist is often like their therapist, too. It’s common to share information from politics to sports to new products with your stylist.
How far back does this history go?
In the 60s, barbershops and hair salons were deeply involved in mobilizing the civil rights movement. There would actually be meetings in the barbershop about how to mobilize.
What is the real social and cultural influence of these barbershops and salons?
For one, the shop owners themselves are influencers in their communities. They have strong endorsement power. It’s like these shops were the original Black Twitter. They create a narrative that eventually goes on to social media.
What does your company do for barbershops and hair salons?
I help them become trendsetters in their community. I help them develop relationships with their customers and develop connections with advertisers who want to reach this audience.
Can you give an example of your company making this link?
When the TV show “Empire” debuted in 2015, the network had a desire to spread the word in the African American community. I helped them craft authentic campaigns that would resonate. We even created “Empire”-branded items like nail files and spray bottles for the barbershops and hair salons, and we put posters in the shops. By bringing branded items into customers’ environments outside of the home, word-of-mouth spread. The show had record ratings.
"Find opportunities in the crisis. You might feel like you’re on life support right now, but you’re not dead. Why waste a good crisis?"
How did COVID-19 impact things?
It’s left the shop owners with so much uncertainty. Many are now struggling to breathe. Only a tiny percentage of them received Small Business Association loans. Many didn’t qualify because instead of having employees, their workers are independent contractors. This has been very, very difficult for shop owners and workers.
What role have you played?
I speak to shop owners weekly on an Instagram Live show about how to stay profitable during COVID-19 and create ways to generate revenue. Before many began to reopen, I encouraged them to do one-on-one online live tutorials with their clients, for a fee, to help them care for their own hair at home. I also encouraged stylists to create customized hair care product packages for clients to use at home along with online workshops on how to use them.
Has COVID-19 changed the way they do business?
It’s been costly. Most are back in the shop, but with great concerns over the fear of getting COVID-19 or spreading it.
Some had to rearrange their shops. Many have put up partitions. Employees and customers must use masks and sanitizer. They take fewer clients and have mostly closed their waiting areas. Clients typically wait in the car until they get a text to come in. They have to totally clean and sanitize between clients. That can take 10 to 15 minutes. And the cost of doing business has gone up so they have to charge more.
What’s the hardest part for shop owners?
You can rearrange the chairs but it’s hard to rearrange the experience. The social experience has diminished. A voice muffled behind a mask can muffle the spirit of customers or shop owners.
How can you recreate the experience in this new environment?
You can’t. But if you’re taking fewer clients, you’re probably spending more time with the clients you are seeing. Some clients might feel like it’s a more personalized experience.
How can you make customers feel they’re safe?
You have to develop a plan and follow it. I advised them to send out customer surveys to ask what’s most important to them about safety. You need to ask them what they want different in your shop to make them feel more comfortable about coming back. You have to do a lot of social lifting as a business — not just social distancing.
Even as COVID-19 has impacted these shops, what’s been the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think the biggest change of all is these shop owners understanding that they need to develop a stronger sense of investing back into their own communities. That’s something they haven’t done so much in the past.
For one, they can patronize other Black-owned businesses. Next, they need to understand they have to do whatever it takes to protect their legacy in the community. Sometimes that means creating effective partnerships with brands that want to help them to uplift the community.
Don’t underestimate your cultural capital and the influence of your shops. They influence the culture and the community.
What’s your message to shop owners as the pandemic continues?
Find opportunities in the crisis. You might feel like you’re on life support right now, but you’re not dead. Why waste a good crisis?