Many of us have heard the stories or seen with our own eyes how big box stores are hurting the bottom line of small, local mom and pop businesses.
Sadly, we’ve even watched some local businesses that were forced to close their doors for good. Unfortunately, the traditional hardware stores find it difficult to compete with Home Depot and Lowe’s. The small printer/stationary stores are just about obsolete now with Staples and Office Max in town. Small, family owned restaurants lose customers to the well-known chains that open nearby and can afford glitzy advertising and ongoing promotions. Just this week, at least three different people randomly told me that they’re going to TGI Friday’s because the ribs on their current commercials look so outstanding. The classic all-American corner store, what few there are left, can barely hang on, with supermarkets and Super Wawas every few miles. And business owners of every sort feel the pinch from Walmart, Target and other huge variety super stores.
One business which I never thought about struggling in an ever-changing world is the small, local hair salon. I guess they were just always there, in every town, so I took them for granted and never gave them much thought.
A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from Cheryl Ferguson, of Newtown Square. Cheryl owns Fergy’s at 25 S. Jackson St., right in the heart of Media Borough, across from Spasso’s restaurant. I had never met Cheryl before, but as we talked, I began to find her story more and more interesting because it was making me look at the neighborhood hair salon in a whole new light. Also, I felt like her story may be more universally common than she thinks. I told her that I would stop by her salon sometime in my travels, and she could share her story. After all, I told her, each and every small business is important to all of us because they’re the backbone of our community. We need to support our small businesses, help them to grow and thrive because no one wants empty storefronts in their towns. Their success means our success.
I stopped by Fergy’s on a sunny afternoon last week. Before all was said and done, Cheryl not only gave me an inside glimpse of salons and small businesses from her unique perspective, but she instilled greater salon empathy in me going forward.
Thanks to the help of her husband, Cheryl opened Fergy’s in 1990 so she could fulfill her dream of taking care of people’s hair needs and working with other like-minded professionals. She named the shop after her husband’s nickname. Cheryl and the other stylists at Fergy’s have been servicing happy customers in this same shop for 28 years, washing, cutting and dying hair, creating up-dos for proms, weddings and other special occasions and making her faithful customers look and feel their best. Fergy’s is located on the former site of the police station/borough hall/firehouse, which was torn down in 1971, she said. Before she opened Fergy’s, the shop was Henry’s and then Francesco’s.
The salon is charming, painted in pinks and purples. It’s bright and cheery and cutely decorated with all kinds of memorabilia, gifts from customers and trendy touches.
“The salon is open every day except Sunday and Monday,” Cheryl explained. “This is my home away from home. I want it to be bright and cheerful and inviting. I want it to be a comfortable respite for all who come through the doors.”
There’s an operable jukebox on site, a Christmas gift to Cheryl from her husband some years ago. Cheryl shared the story of how her husband drove her to the salon on Christmas Day to surprise her with the special gift. Customers can play songs of their choosing or even bring in their favorite CD to play. She often switches the music according to season or holiday, getting ready to play love songs in early February and some Irish music for March. Naturally, at Christmas time, she rocked the carols. In the back of the shop, wine glasses line one wall. Cheryl offers customers a glass of vino or cup of coffee — whatever a customer wants to feel relaxed and pampered while in her shop. A popcorn popper sits ready to make a fresh snack.
Cheryl was born and raised in Chester County. After she married her husband, Paul, 33 years ago, she moved to Lansdowne. She was working at a salon called Talent in Newtown Square when she met her friend, Betty Ann Messner, of Springfield. When she opened her own shop in Media, Betty Ann immediately came on board and stayed with her for all 28 years, until this past December, when she retired to her shore home in Sea Side Heights, N.J. It’s obvious that Cheryl is still feeling the loss and things at the salon have not been the same since her friend, who was commuting all those miles to work part-time, finally said that she was ready to just hang up her scissors and retire.
“Betty Ann was the life of this shop,” Cheryl remarked sadly. “She was always joking and getting us going. We really, really miss her. It’s going to be a challenge to find the person with the perfect fit to take over her book.”
On top of that sad departure, her other stylist, Tom Wegmann, of Clifton Heights, who has also been with Cheryl for decades, will be leaving soon to enjoy a lengthy stretch of R&R time in sunnier Florida. Additionally, stylist Kim Cross, of Springfield, who has been at Fergy’s since graduating from Empire Beauty School in 2012, is getting married in April and will move to Easton with her husband.
All of this leaves Cheryl with a dilemma that is not too easily solved. She needs to hire some stylists. But not just any stylists, she says. She’s looking for quality stylists, like-minded professionals, with no tolerance for drama, who have a serious following because they are good at their craft.
She would also consider drama-free stylists who are still building their book, as long as they are eager to promote themselves and bring in new clients, as well as treat existing customers in the same manner as they’ve always been treated at Fergy’s. Cheryl taught for eight years at beauty school, so she is a natural mentor who has had many young stylists hone their craft in her shop. Fergy’s is a non-smoking shop, so she doesn’t want smokers to apply.
She says so many quality stylists are cutting out of their homes these days, under the table. They don’t have the overhead costs, the license fees, the taxes and other factors affecting the bottom line like legitimate salon owners have. If they don’t cut from their own homes, they go right to the customers’ homes, nursing homes and other facilities. They can charge lower prices because there’s no overhead, and they can pocket 100 percent of the take. This way of operating, although illegal because it often avoids taxes and licensing, is very common, Cheryl explained. It’s also one of the biggest reasons why it is often difficult to find good stylists who are willing to work in a shop.
Many of the best students coming out of the beauty schools, whom she would be willing to mentor, take jobs at the chains. She has to compete with the Hair Cutterys and the Great Clips and other hair cutting chains, many of which have deals with or actually own the beauty schools and hire the stylists as soon as they graduate, she explained. A cosmetology teacher at Upper Darby High School used to refer talented students to her, Cheryl said, but then the teacher retired, and Cheryl no longer has a connection there.
“This is a really nice environment,” Cheryl explained. “I want someone who likes a wholesome, family atmosphere. We are serving four generations of families in here. We build relationships in this shop. We know our customers. Some of the chains force their stylists to cut 16 heads of hair in a shift. We’re not like that here — we’re not an assembly line. We take our time with the customers because we want their experience at the salon to be enjoyable, a treat.”
Cheryl said that she counted and there are 23 other salons, right in the heart of Media Borough.
“If I am facing these struggles, I am sure there are probably 23 other salon owners right around the corner, and God knows how many all over Delaware County, with many of these same issues and challenges,” she shared.
She wishes the salon owners could form an alliance, like they used to have back in the day, a place where they could exchange ideas and talk about their common struggles. She said she used to belong to the Delaware Valley Cosmetology Guild, but she doesn’t believe it is in existence anymore.
“I want to talk to my peers,” the very personable, very friendly salon owner explained. “I want to share stories and exchange ideas, hear some tips and ask some questions to which only other salon owners may know the answers. I miss having this peer-to-peer opportunity with other salon professionals. I would love if other salon owners would contact me so we could get together. Even if we just talked over a cup of coffee, we could share a few ideas or toss around possible solutions to issues we all face.”
Fergy’s used to offer manicures and pedicures, but she stopped after several nail salons opened shop in the immediate vicinity and were able to offer these services for way less money. She mostly just concentrates on cuts, colors and updo styles now. She makes the effort to keep up with the latest trends and techniques. She is sure other salons have run into the same issues as she has and would love to have a group of salon owners where she could discuss common concerns.
Cheryl said that she keeps her prices competitive and all-inclusive. In other words, the chain salons charge for a single service, so it seems cheaper, but then they often will add on charges for every basic extra, such as conditioner and blow drying. Fergy’s prices are fair, Cheryl shared, and she always tries to save her customers money. She offers a $5 discount for new clients, special incentives throughout the year for returning customers and deals on the salon-quality hair products.
Tom and Cheryl both expressed their fondness for Media Borough, a community which they’ve watched grow. Cheryl said that she is a proud member of the Media Business Authority. Tom said he remembers in years past, when he would still be at the salon at 5 p.m. and almost everyone in town would clear out and the streets would be empty and almost deserted. Now, he says, due to the restaurant renaissance of recent years, Media is hustling and bustling.
“It’s a great place to work,” he stated. “We really like this town.”
Fergy’s has always been involved in the local community, Cheryl said, from participating in the annual Media Five Miler to supporting local schools, organizations and charities.
Cheryl said that she is really concerned about whom she will hire because her customers are of paramount importance to her. As we talked, Cheryl offered the customers in the shop some of the home-baked cookies that another customer dropped off for her earlier. She said everyone who has worked at Fergy’s is not only proficient at their craft but they must understand the shop’s emphasis on personal customer service and non-tolerance of mean-spirited gossip.
“Without any daily drama, how do you expect to ever get a reality show filmed here?” I joked, with visions of “Jerseylicious,” “Tabatha Takes Over,” “Blow Out” and other drama-filled salon shows floating through my head.
During our conversation, customer Bonnie Smokevitch came into the shop with her husband. He drove Bonnie from their home in Downingtown because, Bonnie said, she would never go to any other salon except Fergy’s. She has been a customer of Cheryl’s for over three decades since she was cutting and styling in Newtown Square.
“My customers are like my family,” Cheryl said after sharing some laughter and chit-chat with Bonnie. “After all these years in the business, you really get to know them — what they like, how life is treating them. I always say this is a relationship-based business. You have to gain the customer’s trust. We don’t gossip here; we talk. The professionals who work here are a team. We are talented experts at our craft and continually learn to keep current on trends and techniques. We really and truly care about everyone who walks through that door. We are dedicated to people who want a comfortable hair care experience.”
Cheryl said that Fergy’s clientele is about 50 percent women and 50 percent men and children. Appointments are preferred but not necessary.
“The customers who come in here will usually always return,” Cheryl smiles confidently. “They like how clean and friendly we are, and we actually do what people tell us. I always tell customers that we are ‘trainable.’ We listen to what our customers want and then we give it to them. This is how we cultivate friendships and keep satisfied customers. They know we really care.”
“Who does your hair?” Cheryl asked me sincerely, as I suddenly and subconsciously, ran my hand over the top of my head, trying to smooth down what suddenly looked like a gray-streaked unruly rat’s nest, as my mom would graciously call it. Before I gave my own stylist a shout out and told Cheryl not to blame my talented stylist for my lengthy waits in between visits, I inwardly berated myself for not keeping my hat on to hide the mess. I also made a mental note to write “call for hair appointment” on this week’s to-do list.
Going forward, I am going to look at my own stylist and her salon from a whole new vantage point. Thanks to Cheryl and her openness and friendliness, we can all understand salon owners — business owners — a whole lot better now.
Knowing it was my first time visiting her salon, Cheryl pointed out the slogan, the tagline under the name Fergy’s Salon. It reads, “Different by Design.” Cheryl said that through the years, working in various shops before opening her own, she learned the importance of beauty on the inside as well as on the outside. Both are really important to her, she said, and it’s what makes her salon unique, special and different by design. I totally believe her.