African-American hair salons spur 'creative commerce'

Bootstrap entrepreneurs sell their goods wherever they can, including hair salons and barber shops.

You can get anything you want at Coco’s Hair Extraordinaire: clothes, underwear, shoes, even cars.

“We have a guy who comes in, he sells tennis shoes and cars,” Schenese Small says. “He’ll come in and say ‘Anyone want to buy some tennis shoes? Anyone want to come in and buy a car? I got one outside, got a price on it.’”

Small is the managing cosmetologist at this busy beauty shop in inner-city Cleveland. The peddling she sees is common in African American salons.  

Donald Graham’s a business coach across town at the Urban League of Greater Cleveland. He’s not surprised when vendors approach customers at the barbershop he’s been going to for 21 years. Graham said beauty and barbershops are thriving marketplaces.

“We all have money in our pockets when we walk into the barbershop... it’s just a friendly environment,” he says. “Men are getting their hair cut and we want to support the community so we buy their products.”

Graham said many vendors who sell that way probably don’t have a business plan, or an accountant; they’re winging it.

“(He's) probably a bootstrap entrepreneur who doesn’t really follow all the traditional rules of running a small business and he’s just making it work," says Graham.

But that description doesn’t apply to Roland Muhammad. He’s no off-the-cuff salesman. Monday through Thursday, he’s in the kitchen at his bakery, making apple and bean pies. On Friday and Saturday, he carries the pies -- and body oils and incense -- to shops all over the city.

“So on Friday, I have about 100-something stops. On Saturday I have likely the same thing. It’s continuous from 11 in the morning to 8 at night,” Muhammad says.

Muhammad is strategic. He focuses on beauticians and barbers because they’re always there, and customers come and go.  His pies are sliced and wrapped, so stylists can eat while they work. And his route is timed. He arrives at Coco’s at 4 p.m. every Friday.

"Because you got to realize you’re not the only one that’s selling,” he says. "And they want to be able to support everybody who comes in.  And sometimes you may get there late and then they’ve already purchased something."

But the effort pays off. Muhammad said just one product -- bean pies -- can bring in $300 a day.

The items aren’t all low-end. Barbershop owner James Gilliam sees lots of deals for "Beats by Dre" headphones.

“Some guys come as marketers selling (the headphones). And the other people have them discounted for, like, $200. And they’re normally like $300 in the store,” Gilliam says. “They’re making money. People want it, they get sold."

Gilliam has rules. Merchandise has to be legit. Nothing bogus or stolen. He doesn’t get a dime from sales at his suburban shop. But he’s okay with that. 

“Because I have spent a little time in corporate barbershops -- you know, I don’t want to say any names --  but there's always a 'non-soliciting' sign posted,” he says. "And it kind of lets me know that they’re not in touch with their community, because the people of the community are small business owners."

Call them small business owners who specialize in "creative commerce." Like the guy who tried to sell underwear to Schenese Small and her customers.

“It happened yesterday,” she says. “He walked in and said 'I got dresses. I got some more stuff.' He went back, came in with a tote, and he pulled out sequined brassieres in a variety of colors.”

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