It's a chilly Friday evening in mid-December, and the staff of Sensual Steps is bracing for an onslaught -- the holiday Midnight Madness sale, when everything from glittery sandals to stiletto boots is 50 percent off.
Bronzeville boutique owner Nicole Jones is wearing a hot pink "shoe doctor" coat, a stethoscope and furry black boots. An intern is mixing lemonade in the kitchen.
Store manager Tracey Tabb is scurrying around, hyping up the three teams that will compete to rack up the most sales.
The doors are set to open at 9 p.m., and Jones and Tabb are expecting hundreds of customers. Will they show up?
Growing sales and turning a profit are important to Jones, who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Sensual Steps. But it is just as important to Tabb, her only full-time employee. Tabb is Jones' right-hand woman, working in the store five days a week, handling Internet orders and going out on five or six nights a month in the store's Hummer to throw Heels on Wheels shoe parties in people's homes or businesses.
Tabb, 43, was unemployed when she began leaving her resume at Sensual Steps in 2005. She was looking for a job in the neighborhood that would be close to her children's schools, and she wanted a retail position because of her experience in department store sales. When Tabb saw Sensual Steps' pretty pink boutique at 4518 S. Cottage Grove Ave., she knew where she wanted to work.
"I was sure once I established myself they would love me, because I can sell," Tabb said.
Jones rewarded her persistence and hired Tabb at a rate of $8 an hour. Now she earns $13.25 an hour, plus bonuses. The job has allowed Tabb to pay for extras for her four children who live at home, including sports fees for her son. She also has become somebody important in the neighborhood. "When I drop my child off at day care, they say, 'Hi. I know you. You're Shoe Lady No. 2.'"
Jones is talking about having Tabb run a second Sensual Steps store somewhere on Chicago's North Side by mid-2009. She also is wondering whether Heels on Wheels could support a separate part-time or full-time employee.
It's a classic case of economic trickle-down.
As a black entrepreneur, Jones is helping reduce unemployment in Bronzeville by hiring local residents. But statistics show that black businesses often don't generate much in terms of employment. Of the 64,000 black-owned businesses in Cook County, only 4,000 have more than one employee, according to Urban League statistics.
That's one of the reasons the Chicago Urban League created the NextOne program, which is intended to put black-owned business owners on the fast track. Jones was one of 16 black-owned entrepreneurs accepted into the six-month pilot program.
"The reason we're focusing on entrepreneurs is job creation," said league President Cheryle Jackson. "As the number of African-American businesses grows, so do the number of African-American employees. It's a statistical fact that black-owned businesses hire more African-Americans than any other type of business."
Guidance, strategies welcome
As part of the program, the Urban League is paying for accountants, financial strategists and industry consultants. It also is giving each business owner an executive coach to help them manage the process.
Jones' coach is Francey Smith, a ginger-haired woman with a disarming manner who has worked at Bloomingdale's and has contacts in the retail industry. Smith already has made some concrete suggestions. The Sensual Steps' awning should have black letters so it is easier to read from a passing car. An in-store survey should have a space for customers' e-mail addresses. Nicole should prepare a SWOT, a grid that lists Sensual Steps' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Some ideas are more radical, such as the suggestion that Jones pursue transvestites as a customer niche. Her sexy shoes and selection of larger sizes would be a good fit for male cross-dressers, many of whom are not price-sensitive, Smith said.
"When I suggested it, she didn't miss a beat. She recognized it as a segment of business. Her openness to accept what she doesn't know is refreshing," Smith said. "I don't perceive any arrogance or paranoia."
At a mid-December coaching session, Jones said she has been so pleased with Smith's input that she has hired an executive coach for Tabb as well. The coach turns out to be Audrey Johnson, Jones' older sister, a former IRS auditor who also has 15 years of retail experience.
Instead of helping customers and answering phones, Tabb joins the coaching sessions. "There's a whole different level of what she can learn," Jones said.
Jones and Johnson are encouraging Tabb to become more familiar with the store's QuickBooks accounting system and its cash-register software program, which tracks inventory and creates sales reports. After Tuesday, Tabb will give up her written calendar and do all her scheduling on the computer.
Jones also is hoping to free up Tabb from some time-consuming work related to the store's Internet site. Currently, the site doesn't track inventory, so when orders come in, Tabb must run to the stockroom to see if the product is there. If the store doesn't have the right size, she has to call the customer and figure something out.
"Of course, when you have to make a change, it is hard," Tabb said. "We're used to doing it a certain way."
'Madness' makes an impact
When the front door is finally unlocked, dozens of women stream in and push toward the back of the store, coats still on. Within minutes, Post-It notes start appearing on boxes, indicating they have been claimed by someone.
Women clutch boxes to their chests as they head to the lower level to investigate the rest of the offerings. A husband carrying a shoe box dutifully follows his wife downstairs. A woman balances on one foot trying on a stiletto-heeled boot in front of a giant mirror.
Linda Johnson, a friend and former employee of Jones', moves through the crowd with handbags crowded on both arms, calling out, "Beautiful purses, half price."
Within half an hour, the line at Jones' register is eight people long, even though her husband, Matthew Jones, is manning a second table for credit card sales.
Jones had ordered special inventory for the sale and had been planning on holding back snow boots because she knew she could sell them later at full price. That plan quickly goes out the window when shoppers keep asking about snow boots -- Jones tells the staff to bring them out.
Shopper Luana Love stops for lemonade before heading home. "You work up a sweat buying shoes. I need a drink before I go."
A few minutes after 10 p.m., Jones has worked up a sweat herself. "I'm tired. I'm hot, but I'm a happy camper."
By midnight, the staff is flagging, but customers are still shopping. Forty-five minutes later a few die-hards are still trying things on as employees carry unsold boxes back to the stockroom where they will be locked up for the night.
Finally, the last customer leaves, and Jones gathers the troops for a group photo. Then it's back to cleaning up and putting away, which will keep Jones and others there until 3 a.m.
No sleeping in, though. Jones has a day of financial classes Saturday that start at 9 a.m. in Evanston. Tabb is back at the store by 10:30 a.m. and spends a good part of the day calling customers to get feedback on the sale.
"Wasn't Midnight Madness mad?" Tabb croons repeatedly into the phone. Everyone she talked to agreed. "They wanted to know when we would do it again."
When the sales numbers are tallied, Sensual Steps has set a new record: 323 items were sold, including boots, shoes and purses.
Progress, but glitches remain
By the end of December, the NextOne program is half over. Accountants have spent more than 60 hours reorganizing Sensual Steps' books so that a financial strategist can analyze them to find out, among other things, how profitable the store really is. But the books still aren't ready yet because the accounting intern assigned to the store went into early labor and there was a delay in finding a substitute.
"We can't get to a lot of things until the financials are in place," said executive coach Smith.
Other things haven't been completed either, such as figuring out how to get the store's mobile credit card reader to communicate directly with the cash-register software.
Jones isn't complaining. In August and September, business was so slow she was afraid Sensual Steps would end 2007 with lower sales than it had in 2006. She feared the store might not survive.
"I was at my wit's end. I didn't know how we would recuperate," she said. Now, after the operational and marketing boost she has gotten from the NextOne program, 2007 sales have exceeded those in 2006. Jones already is brimming with promotional ideas for 2008.
Among her ideas are an early-morning breakfast for Mother's Day shoppers and a float in the South Side Bud Billiken parade.
Tabb said she was never really afraid that Sensual Steps wouldn't make it.
"I know we have some really, really faithful customers. I know how our customer service differs from other people," she said. "And there's my faith in God. I know how good God is. I truly wasn't worried."
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