COVID-19 stripped us of family celebrations and summer vacations, but it also stole the joy of strolling through the aisles of the beauty supply store and picking out new products. For consumers, that activity was a leisurely way to kill a Saturday morning, for Black beauty entrepreneurs like Terrinique Pennerman, it was a lifeline to stable income.
When the pandemic swept the U.S., Pennerman’s Kurlee Belle was suddenly unable to snag customers through guava and papaya scented samples in Sally Beauty Supply locations. The entrepreneur worried about how her sales would be impacted because retail was such a huge part of her business. “Those were basically like our backbone,” she said. “Our website sales were not where I would have liked them to be, prior to the pandemic.”
Retail locations were not just a point of distribution, for Kurlee Belle they were a way to build international brand awareness, with consumers recognizing the vibrant packaging and unique product displays.
“We’re in Sally Beauty but we are also in retailers, like in The Bahamas, we’re in a bunch of different pharmacies, specialty, and fresh market stores. We’re in different countries like Jamaica,” she revealed. Pennerman, a native of The Bahamas, understood how face-to-face sales inspired customer loyalty. “We basically go into the brick and mortar stores. We don’t do a lot of onsite shopping and the culture in those areas — Yes, they definitely go into the store more to purchase.”
Without the huge reserve of capital that multinational beauty conglomerates have on hand, the business wasn’t guaranteed to survive the global shutdown. But Pennerman pivoted to a digital strategy quickly after the retail locations that had once brought in so much revenue were instructed to close their doors.
“While I was working on Kurlee Belle, believe it or not, is when I started my MBA program at Duke. So I was learning in my MBA program and also as a new entrepreneur building the business. Even though I have a general MBA, I focused on marketing and entrepreneurship. So it helps me understand your target market –how to analyze basically, and set up a specific strategy for that market.”
Pennerman eventually used the skills she acquired through formal schooling and solo research to intensify the existing connections she had with her customers online. Through content marketing, tutorials, and an enhanced customer service model she was able to keep them engaged and attract new customers. She would address client’s concerns anytime, anywhere, including through Instagram DMs. If they had questions, she had answers. She strengthened relationships with every returned message. “A lot of our customers would send a message on Instagram like, ‘Hey, where’s my order?’ We find out what their order number is and we respond to them right away. So that kind of helps us to give our customers a more personalized feel because they can just send us a message and we respond right away and they feel more comfortable.”
That accessibility was a return to the enterprise’s original roots, Pennerman explained. “We launched in 2013 online, but during the period of 2008 to 2013, I had a blog site where I would share information about my business.” People were fascinated by the process of building a brand from the ground up and eager to learn about the chemistry of popular ingredients. As a result, “I gained a following,” Pennerman said. “There were people that were interested in learning about what ingredients you should use for healthy hair.”
People initially wanted to interact with the product before purchasing it, but with the retail option gone, the information Pennerman provided online drew in virtual consumers. When stores reopened their consumers rushed retail locations. Within one month their retail revenues doubled. “I think that’s why our retail sales did so well because people would have known about the brand from our previous work,” explained Pennerman.
The business saw its e-commerce revenues increase by 997% YTD, largely in part to their content marketing efforts. By educating and interacting with consumers Pennerman and her lean team were able to build a steady stream of support. But despite the influx of cash Pennerman, who like many Black business owners bootstrapped financing for her company, refused to issue herself a salary or expand her staff. Instead, she’s focused on the longterm viability of the business.
“I didn’t have any investments, so no outside investment. I just worked my nine to five and I put the extra money that I had leftover. I just put it back to that, in my business. And as my business grew, I just reinvested,” she said. “I didn’t use any of the funds. I didn’t collect any salary, actually. I’m not even getting the salary right now.”
Keeping operations lean gave Kurlee Belle a greater chance of success and proved to be invaluable in the midst of an unstable economy. The secret, Pennerman said, is for beauty entrepreneurs to gain as much knowledge as they can so they are prepared to thrive in any climate, even a catastrophic one.
“I would say you can do it, you know, with whatever limited resources you have. You can do it, going online and researching and doing stuff yourself, instead of paying somebody else to do it…once you put your mind to it, you don’t need to have the money…you will create value for yourself.”