For decades the barbershop has been a place where men can unwind and socialise with their friends while waiting to get a haircut.
Last year, the covid19 pandemic put a temporary stop on non-essential businesses, inclusive of barbershops and hair salons – two service industries where friendly banter is important to the experience.
One shop in Belmont, however, hopes to maintain close contact with their clients even if they are further apart.
For Nigel Jerome and Mark Harrykissoon, the partners of 68 On the Circular barbershop, their job goes beyond ensuring the customers are happy with their haircuts – it extends to ensuring clients are coping with the pandemic.
Speaking with Business Day at their Belmont Circular Road shop recently, Jerome, 47, and Harrykissoon, 35, spoke about their experiences in the business and how the pandemic has strengthened their ties with their clients.
Largely self-taught as a barber, Jerome remembered growing up his older brother was at the time tasked with giving younger siblings their haircuts.
“I remembered clearly there was one time I wasn’t pleased at all with the way he cut my hair so I decided then and there that I was going to learn how to do it on my own and that’s really where my interest began,” he said.
This one experience opened Jerome’s eyes to the damage one bad haircut can do.
Unlike a piece of clothing you don’t like, you can’t return a bad haircut and all it takes is one wrong snip to ruin your hairstyle for another month.
While many self-taught barbers today turn to YouTube tutorials as a guide, learning the ropes of barbering in a pre-internet era had its challenges as Jerome honed much of his skill through trial and error, but he was determined to develop his craft.
Beginning with home visits to some clients in and around his Belmont neighbourhood Jerome eventually developed a customer base and saved enough money to rent a space on Belmont Circular Road last year.
With a brick-and-mortar establishment behind his brand and a growing social media presence, 68 on the Circular’s popularity grew from beyond the confines of Belmont attracting customers from all over TT.
Despite amassing some modest success over the past year, Jerome remained a small fish in a large and saturated pond.
A quick search on Google maps would show at least 20 different barbershops between San Juan and Port of Spain alone with varying sizes from large, upscale salons equipped with luxury haircare products to smaller, community-oriented businesses.
So how does Jerome distinguish his brand in an increasingly competitive market?
While he knows while he can’t compete with more established brands, he focuses on developing close personal ties with his customers, something large companies don’t bother to do, simply because they don’t have to.
According to a March 2019 issue of Forbes, small businesses can compete and win against larger corporations as consumers aren’t simply interested in getting the lowest price, they want to spend their cash at a place they genuinely like
This approach, Jerome and Harrykissoon feel, has distinguished 68 on the Circular from other small barbershops.
Harrykissoon said trust was key to developing a connection with new customers.
Getting a haircut from a new barber requires a certain level of mutual trust that the barber knows what he is doing and from the customer that he knows what he wants.
A Princes Town native, Harrykissoon said, like Jerome, he always had a passion for barbering and made it his career after leaving his first job at a law firm.
“I never really thought I would have gotten into. I only started off barbering about seven years ago when I started working in Port of Spain.
“While doing it part-time I developed my own clientele and being there every day for at least eight to ten hours people get comfortable with you so it wasn’t difficult for me to break into.”
With this new clientele and the power of social media to bring in more customers, it became common for visitors to pop in and ask, “Where’s Mark?” as he was the one they trusted with their hair.
But more than simply giving the customer what they pay for, Harrykissoon said he remains in close contact with all of his clients, highlighting their hairstyles on his Instagram account and even checking in on them occasionally to see how they are coping with the lockdown.
“Any promotions I have going on I always WhatsApp them even if they don’t want a haircut.
“They’re not just cash registers to me. Business is all about developing a relationship with people overtime. You have to keep into contact with them. It’s part of the profession.”
Over time both Jerome and Harrykissoon have seen their fair share of hairstyles come and go, and in a market where the product changes on an almost monthly basis, it can be difficult to keep up with the trends before they go out of style.
Despite this, both barbers are confident that customer service and a friendly, interactive approach won’t be going out of style any time soon.