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Hair Products Entrepreneur Finds A Way To Keep Her Business Afloat


Social distancing has devastated businesses that only work face to face. Think about hair salons, for example. And then that trickles down. You have the vendors who sell shampoo and conditioner to hair salons. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia of our daily econ podcast The Indicator met a business owner who's trying to adapt.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Entrepreneurs and business owners all over the country are in the same position. Their revenue is just gone, up in smoke. And a lot of them are desperately trying to pivot. They're trying to get online, setting up delivery - trying anything and everything to keep some money coming in, people like Stephanie Luster, who saw things going downhill quickly...

STEPHANIE LUSTER: Then I, like - you know what? This is going to get real.

GARCIA: ...And then got to work.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Stephanie Luster is the president of Essations Incorporated. Essations makes hair products for salons like hair spray, shampoo, gel. Stephanie runs the company out of offices in Park Forest, Ill. - well, at least, she used to. Right now, she's running it out of her house.

LUSTER: Hi, baby. Can you go in the other room for me, please, while I do the interview?

GARCIA: A couple of weeks ago, Stephanie realized that all of her customers - like, all of them - were shutting down as city after city ordered businesses to close and social distancing rules to take effect.

LUSTER: So when I see something coming, it's not like, oh, my - I don't get overwhelmed by it. I go straight into thinker mode.

GARCIA: Thinker mode - I like that.

VANEK SMITH: I like that, too. And Stephanie says she had a few thoughts while in thinker mode. So first, Essations needed to start selling directly to consumers. Salons weren't buying anymore. And second, she needed a way to advertise to those consumers. Thirdly, though, there was hope.

LUSTER: So the people who are at home and working still have to do digital calls or have video calling conferences or something like that - they still want to look presentable.

VANEK SMITH: And they still need their hair to look professional and styled in a lot of cases.

GARCIA: Stephanie thought, the stylists that she works with all her very loyal clients. What if the stylists created videos, home hair care videos, and then posted them on Facebook? Their clients would watch them and then probably share them.

LUSTER: Short videos on different process even just from detangling hair or maybe doing a quick style, giving those small solutions on how to maintain their hair at home.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Taking down braids is always a hassle. But I'm going to show you some tips that'll make it a lot easier.

VANEK SMITH: And then the stylists in videos like these could feature Essations' products in their videos.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So now we're going to go through and use the Infusion 365 spray.

VANEK SMITH: At the end of the tutorial, the stylist would give a code. And customers could use that code to get a discount on the Essations website. And then Essations would know from the code which stylist had sent the customer. And the stylist could get a cut of the sales.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please visit essations.com and use my discount code Jamila (ph) for an extra 15% off. Thanks for watching.

GARCIA: Stephanie says more than 20 stylists from all across the country have made videos featuring Essations' products. And online sales in consumer products are already up around 20%.

VANEK SMITH: Stephanie says she's hoping that this pivot will help her keep Essations' 29 employees on and also help out the stylists who have supported her business for years.

Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "MELODY OF THE SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.