Riding the tide in harsh economic times

Kennedy Zziwa, the owner of Zziwa Hair Studio, works on a customer.  His team started offering mobile services for both hair services and products when he realised that the pandemic was here to stay.  PHOTO/Joan Salmon

What you need to know:

  • Salon operators pivoted their businesses towards their customers, offering mobile services on call.  Some have opted for commission based payments to manage costs.

Louis Bismarck Ovon runs a small salon he acquired 11 years ago in 2011. Buying  the salon in Nakawa next to Akamwesi at Valley Courts Hostel, from the former owner whose 8-5p.m schedule had led to extreme financial losses at the side hustle, Ovon was glad to have an operating salon rather than start from scratch.

While having this seemed like one handing him a gold mine, Ovon soon learned some lessons. Like with any enterprise, the business culture and work ethic in Uganda is somewhat tricky and difficult. For instance, thrice, his workers walked out of the salon to the neighbouring salon.
“That was coupled with taking some of the clientele with them. Additionally, after training and equipping them with skills, they left,” he shares.

The other tide in the industry is competition. At one point, his was the only salon in the location. But now, they are four on the same block. That is not forgetting the increase in prices of products and services.
“Since 2011, products are increasing in price. For instance, some that cost Shs15,000 back then are now are at Shs40,000. Yet you cannot increase the prices set for certain salon services,” he shares.

Covid-19 effects
Nonetheless, these were operational challenges that cut across the business spectrum and business owners always found a way to circumvent them. However, for all the challenges business have suffered in this century, the Covid-19 pandemic topped.

Kennedy Zziwa of Zziwa Hair Studio otherwise known as Hairbyzziwa has been in business since 2016 and agrees that Covid-19 has been the biggest storm.
“We had to close our doors to curb the spread with lockdowns making things worse. When it first came, we did not know how to deal with it and it shook us,” Zziwa sighs.
The pandemic came with two lockdowns whose measures affected income and money streams, livelihoods, and the way salons work. It was difficult but they managed to navigate, with many operating underground.

Coping mechanisms
Zziwa shares that a coping mechanism was not in plan in the beginning. However, when he realised that the pandemic was here to stay, his team started offering mobile services for both hair services and products.
The same went for Ovon who had just acquired a bicycle thus rode to places to do people’s hair. The longest he ever rode was from Naalya to Lubowa, about 21km.
“Some of my staff would walk to people’s homes and work on their hair because while the salons were closed, the demand to do hair had not abated.”

Seeing that Zziwa had earlier started making hair products in-house, scarcity and soaring prices was not something that bothered the team. That meant prompt service delivery and consistency in products used.
As a business owner, Ovon also benefited from taking care of his employees before salon costs and his personal needs.
“Paying them decently, according to the work done and on time, birthed a mutual trust between us. During lockdown, aware that there was no certainty about tomorrow, we started a strategy, where for every job, we split the proceeds into two. 50 per cent was way more than what I was paying them before. However, that made them work harder,” he shares. Owing to mutual trust, they all had each other’s back helping them to stay afloat.
The pandemic also triggered commission based payment.

Louis Bismarck Ovon, a salon owner works on a customer. People are willing to invest in looking good despite the tough economic times.

 Lessons
The lockdown helped them learn the importance of customer service, being presentable, trustworthy and hard working. Incorporating these in their service delivery helped them get busier in the lockdown than when salons were open.  
“People always want to look good, even when times are hard. They would rather walk to the salon than have a bad hair day. Therefore, we are still getting a sizeable number of clients as before the increase in fuel prices,” Zziwa shares.

Due to this unending need, Ovon has not increased service prices.
 “You are better off taking the hit to maintain the customers,” he shares.
Ovon is also challenged with transportation costs.  
“Higher costs mean lower profit margins. One could do a sales strategy in that the more they sale, much as the profit is small, they gain much more. For example, if I increase a service from Shs10,000 to Shs15,000, I may only get five people yet if I left it at the old price,  I may get 10 and more people,” he shares.

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