Feeling the Squeeze

Last month Nicole Johnson celebrated her hair salon’s three-year anniversary, but greeted the milestone with more caution than pomp. This nation’s economic downturn has hit her clients hard, and now, the owner of Seoul Salon, Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., has felt the pinch herself. One of many small business owners in our ethnic community, Johnson, a Korean adoptee who grew up in rural Iowa, shared with KoreAm how she is dealing with the nation’s still-faltering economic recovery.

We opened as of March 1, 2008. We weren’t even thinking about the economy at the time—we weren’t seeing the squeeze as we are now. It was my parents who suggested that I start my own salon. They’ve always been very supportive. They said, “You’ve paid your dues, worked the hellish hours. You have so much experience. We trust you’re going to be a great business owner.”

That’s when my husband and I started the journey to opening my own salon. It was daunting at times because I’ve run a lot of salons, but starting your own from scratch [is much harder]. We found a location and gutted the space. My husband did the entire renovation. He’s a mechanic, but he’s like a jack of all trades. He did an awesome job.

The first time I started noticing [the effects of the economic recession] was early last year. I was hearing sad, sad stories about people losing their jobs, their retirement, their homes—their American dream. And it was people of all age groups. Young people who had gone to college for all these years, and then there’s no job after they graduate. Even those [clients] working corporate jobs felt like there’s no job security anymore.

We felt it, too; it was starting to show in our books. There were fewer clients, and clients you had for a long time were slowly fading out. A lot of them were starting to go to other places not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t afford to come here anymore—and we’re right in the middle in terms of cost point. We’re not a necessity, but people still want to keep feeling better and so are willing to pay to get their hair cut and colored, but a lot of clients couldn’t afford it.

We have our regulars, but they’re definitely spacing their appointments out longer. They’re waiting eight weeks instead of four weeks. That really pushes your pocketbook. We’re surviving, you know. We’re basically trying to adjust our life and our business to the needs of what the economy is offering us.

I realized I needed to revamp how to get new clients and appeal to them, that, in a sense, I’m in the same predicament as my clients. I used social media like Facebook and our website, and kept on sending emails and coupons out. I reminded [customers]
you can still get your hair cut, and we’re willing to work with you and give you a discount. After a while, they’re not just your clients anymore, but like family. It’s not just getting your hair done; it’s therapeutic. We chit-chat. I get to listen to their stories.

I think the lowest point hasn’t happened yet. It’s hard because you hear on the news 24/7: “It looks like the economy is turning around.” It’s like, where do you live? Especially from our clients, you see the real urgency of how people are barely living paycheck to paycheck. A luxury is being able to go out for pizza.

I’m optimistic, not with the government and all their false promises. I don’t see them giving us bail-out money [as they did for Wall Street]. But I’m optimistic in the sense that we can all be there for each other as people. What I learned the last year and a half is people have gone back to having family dinners, having game nights, having home card clubs. People had to look at their spending and decide what’s important to them. I hear from my clients that it’s not so much about keeping up with the Joneses anymore, but what makes me happy? What will make me feel good and not feel guilty later? Being able to support each other, knowing that there are still good people out there, no matter how bad the economy gets, that keeps me optimistic.

-as told to Julie Ha

Seoul Salon, Inc.
274 Snelling Ave S.
St. Paul, Minnesota