Pandemic Survival: Keeping a Wig Store Alive

Surviving the pandemic has required this wig and hair-loss solution provider to jump through a lot of hoops. Read what they’ve done to change their business operations, safeguard their customers, and keep the store open.

Nancy Kurfurst is the owner of Wig Allure Hair Loss Center in Lake Grove, New York, a store that has sold wigs, extensions, other types of “alternative hair” and related products and services for over 50 years. A beautician for 30+ years, Kurfurst says she found her calling in helping cancer patients and others who suffer from hair loss problems look good and feel good about themselves again.

At the beginning of 2020, Wig Allure employed six people in addition to Kurfurst and was flourishing. “There are 40 million women suffering from some type hair loss along with 50 million men,” says Kurfurst. “So that’s a huge clientele.” 

Although about 85% of the store’s patrons were cancer patients and others with hair-loss issues related to medical conditions, “we took care of anybody who wanted hair,” Kurfurst recalls. “If you wanted, needed, or had to have more hair, you came in. Whether it was extensions, ponytails, fun hair, vacation hair, it didn’t matter. Medical patients who wanted hair-loss solutions would bring friends and family in with them. We’d have up to 45 people in my store on a good Saturday.”


Nancy Kurfurst, Owner, Wig Allure Hair Loss Center

But then the pandemic hit and like so many other businesses, Wig Allure was hit hard. At first, Kurfurst thought her shop would have to shut down completely like hairdressers and other personal care providers in NY were required to do for several months. But as she read carefully through the guidelines she realized that as a medical provider of cranial prosthetics (eg, wigs for cancer patients and others with medical needs), she could keep the business partially open by making some drastic changes in the company’s operations. 

For starters, Kurfurst says, “We cleaned and sanitized the entire store and our workroom from top to bottom. After being in the same location for 40 years, it took us about six days just to get through every bin of hair. We are hair hoarders. We had so much hair for parts because we customize so many things for our clients. Sometimes we add hair, sometimes we have to make the wig bigger, sometimes we have to make it smaller. We have to fix the straps… So, you need parts. We had lots and lots of parts.”

The store was already set up with several private and semi-private rooms, so they did not have to alter the interior of the facility in any way.  Because of the medical patients they served, they already had hand sanitizing stations in place, too. 

Kurfurst put additional stringent safety procedures in place. “We got certifications both individually and the shop as a whole from Barbicide, which is the leader in sanitizing and disinfecting salons,” she says. In addition, the store provides the staff with masks and face shields, and employees are tested every three weeks for COVID-19. They have their temperatures taken every day when they come into the store, too. All clients have to fill COVID-19 forms about travel and contacts. “So, if somebody should come down with the disease, I have no problem reaching out to everybody that was in our shop at the same time,” says Kurfurst. 

Because many of Wig Allure’s clientele have compromised immune systems, Kurfurst and her employees went one step further. “We made a pact amongst ourselves not to go to any place that may be compromising, like eating inside a restaurant or going to a large gathering. We all know what we’re doing. And we all would never be able to sleep if we did something foolish that would endanger our customers.”

To make the store “incredibly safe” for medical patients with compromised immune systems, Kurfurst limits the people who can enter the shop and started a curbside pickup and drop off for some products and services. People who needed to come into the shop can do so on an appointment-only basis. To further limit exposure for people with compromised immune systems, she instituted virtual consultations and has customers to send in photos in advance of their appointments. As a result, some clients only have to physically enter the store once now instead of multiple times. Family and friends who once accompanied customers into the store now have to wait in the parking lot. The client can get their feedback by doing a “fashion show” of wig styles from a deck overlooking the parking lot that’s at the back of the store. 

Yet another change Kurfurst made was to increase the time between appointments to a half hour to allow enough time to completely sanitize each room when a customer leaves. “Once somebody leaves one of our chairs, we wipe the entire room down… floor, walls, you know, like anything that they possibly could have reached or touched, she explains.” The extra time between appointments further limits the total number of people the business can serve. 

Negative Impacts from the Pandemic

The pandemic caused Kurfurst to lose staff and income. Two of the original employees decided not to return to work for personal reasons. A third, an IT person, was furloughed. 

Sales plummeted due to limiting the number of people allowed in the store. Because Wig Allure derived significant income in the past from casual shoppers and customers’ support entourages, cutting back on who can come into the store has had a big, negative impact on the business. 

At first, the store was only open 2 days a week, and in July 2020, sales were down 55% to 65%. Now, the business is open 5 days a week. Things are a little better, but sales are still off by about 40% from normal, Kurfurst says.

Besides the loss of staff and income, Kurfurst, like many other businesses who are trying to stay open, has had to deal with extra costs, shortages, and price increases for supplies such as thermometers, face shields, masks, hand sanitizer, sanitizing sprays and wipes. “Our industry as a whole has seen shortages of wigs, extensions, and hairpieces. They are much harder to come by as the lead time from factories has tripled,” Kurfurst notes. Then, too, she had to spend a lot of extra time dealing with insurance companies who covered wigs for cancer patients, but who were dragging their feet on paying medical providers.

Keeping the Business Afloat

How can you keep a store open when sales are impacted so severely? Kurfurst says that what has allowed her to keep going is “Living beneath my means” and maintaining a solid, “rainy day” cash reserve. “My mom always taught us to live below our means. You know, save for that day…you don’t need to spend every dollar you make.

“We drive a 10-year-old car. I’m not flashy; I don’t care what the Joneses and the Smiths are doing. I have a responsibility to the people that work for me. And I take that very seriously. That because if I’m frivolous, I can’t keep the doors open for them to be employed.“

By following that principle, Wigs Allure had a cash cushion to lean on and no business debt when the pandemic started. “But obviously that cushion got a lot smaller,” she says. After consulting with her accountant, she decided to apply for and had an SBA loan approved under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (EIDL). The loan provides peace of mind, stress relief, and more of a financial cushion as the pandemic continues. The low-interest rate and the long repayment term mean she won’t have to worry about being able to keep the store open if there’s another downturn or it takes longer than expected for business to return to normal.

In addition to money, every business needs customers to stay afloat. Wig Allure had always gotten most of its clientele from word of mouth and from referrals from medical professionals who worked with cancer patients. With so many other businesses closed, Kurfurst took pains to contact all her regular sources of referrals to let them know the store was still open and to tell them about the safety precautions the store had put in place.  Kurfurst has also put more time into social media outreach.  

Beneficial Changes

Although sales losses are difficult for a business, Kurfurst says that one of the pandemic-related changes she made has proven beneficial and will remain in place, even after the pandemic is over. That’s the virtual consultations she has with customers before they come into the store.  

“Prior to COVID people would come in with a group of people to choose the right kind of hairpiece or solution to their hair loss problem,” says Kurfurst. ”Each client in each room would have four or five or six people with them. And it would be chaotic.” 

While the members of the various groups could lead to sales of other products in the store, educating the patient or the client and helping them make the right choice was challenging. “Trying to give them the right hair sometimes got difficult because a client’s granddaughter would grab one wig and say ‘this would look good, on you, Grandma,’ and the client’s daughter would grab another, and so on. And sometimes the client/patient got lost.”

The virtual consultations before the in-store visit solve the problem, Kurfurst says. Her staff can discuss options, show styles, and send out pamphlets and other material in advance so the client can assimilate all the information and decide on options in a more orderly and thoughtful way.

Looking Ahead

What does Kurfurst predict will help her store and other small businesses in the future?  

“Well, I would think a vaccine would definitely help us,” she says. “And I just wish everybody would just be smart and be kind and wear a mask. The attitude that ‘it’s my right not to wear a mask’ doesn’t work for me. Just be kind; you protect me, I protect you.”

 

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