Raising the bar

I’m spending a lot more time in the shop lately, which seems quite a statement given most weeks I’m here 5 days out of 7 regardless. Perhaps the more apt phrase is that I’m spending more time working in the shop. Literally that’s what I’m doing. One of my receptionists resigned a little while ago and so I’ve taken over from her for 2-3 days a week.

The main idea is to save some money. Every penny counts. It’s not the most exciting work, but I’m finding it strangely agreeable. For a start I’m a lot more productive. Sitting behind the desk for hours on end allows me to contemplate the things that need to be done, and to do a lot of things, big and small. Every day I add a bit more to the business.

It gives me space for other things too. One of the beneficiaries is this blog. You’ll find Monday through Wednesday I post a lot more than I do the rest of the week. That feels good to me somehow. Like I’m returning to myself in some way. I’ve got a couple of other projects I’m working on also which I can get at without rushing. The other bonus it gets me out of the house and into the world.

The downside is that I’m sitting on my arse all day watching the world go by. I’m getting bugger all incidental exercise and feel unhealthy as a result.

All of this has to add up to something more than a few saved pennies. It’s been a hard road, but I think we’re headed in the right direction. It’s the anniversary of buying this place in a few days time. As is my wont I’ve kept pretty detailed stats of my time here. What they tell me is that the weekly average hours has increased by about 30% over that period, from about 34 hours to 45. In actual fact the average over the last couple of months is about 54 hours.

The last 2 weeks we ran what was a pretty risky promo. We offered a dollar a minute massages for anything over 60 minutes – that’s 20% off the standard price, and just about all margin. Think of it as a loss leader. The idea was to drag people in and expose ourselves to a broader clientele. Well, it wasn’t the disaster it might have been.

The week before last – the first week of the promo – was the busiest week we’ve ever had – 69 hours of massage. Unfortunately that didn’t translate into a lot of profit, but we didn’t lose either. Even last week, the first week of school holidays (always very quiet), we did respectable numbers. I’m confident, touch wood, that we’ve raised the bar and that it will stick.

We need to raise to raise the bar further, but I think it’s possible. I really need our average to sit around the 60 hour + mark, and the more the merrier. With winter coming that becomes more difficult, but having laid a new foundation I expect we;ll continue to make money. Long term I’m looking towards exceptional weeks of being in the 90-100 hours range, and the real average around 75 hours. I think we can do that come the height of summer, in which case we have a very healthy profit.

So, how have we done this? Combination of things, as always. The most important is quality and reliability of staff. You get good operators people will come back, simple as that. Unfortunately the reality is not nearly as simple as that. It’s a tight market for masseuse, and unfortunately lots aren’t what you would call professional. There have been many staffing ups and downs, and as anyone who works in retail will tell you, staffing is the biggest challenge. As I write this though I’ve got the best bunch of masseuse since I’ve been here. Still searching for one or two more, but off the girls we have 3 are exceptional and the rest very good. And they seem pretty reliable.

As we’re a Thai massage shop most of the masseuse are Thai. I’ve had to learn on the job. As a white, middle-aged Australian bloke there are inherent challenges in dealing with young, female masseuse from another culture. I’m pretty easy-going, and that has helped, but I’ve also had to adjust a lot. In my experience Thai masseuse are proud of their massage culture. Most are students, and wanting to make as much cash as possible, but it’s also important – if we are to keep and nurture them – that the tradition of Thai massage is respected.

I’ve pushed that pretty hard. I speak to them a lot about how we do business, and lately much of that is about making us a centre of excellence for Thai massage. They like that idea, and I’ve put it out there to our customers. In the front window and in the shop I’ve detailed what exactly a Thai massage is, and what our aspirations are. We’re serious about being the best, and that appeals to both the staff and our clientele. (Just today we had a new customer come by as a result of a friend’s recommendation).

Obviously working environment is important and I’ve tried to make that as agreeable as possible. I buy a bag of rice every few weeks for them and other bits and pieces. They’re well provided for and have a comfortable break-out room. Unlike many it seems I count as a very good boss, which is also very important to them. The most important aspect though is Jeep, my Thai receptionist.

Jeep is tireless, honest and very conscientious. I couldn’t manage without her. She keeps the masseuse on their toes, but also inspires a lot of loyalty from them – they work for her. In turn she is very loyal to me, and will bend over backwards to make things right. It’s a good combination.

Otherwise the improvement in business comes from constant marketing, frequent promotions (you have to keep things fresh), and, I think, a perception out there that we’re a quality shop where people know what to expect. We’re all pretty friendly and welcoming, and with the general ambience have placed ourselves at the quality end of the market.

In reality, not that I knew this then, the reputation of the shop had been on a downward spiral for some time before I bought the place. In hindsight it’s easy to see why. The owners were not the type to inspire warmth or trust, and they always seemed to be lingering. They’d run some things down, and had an exodus of staff 6 months earlier because they were remiss with their salaries (which fucked up the business – something I only learned of well after the fact).

In broad terms what we’ve done is restore the reputation of the business. In this sort of business you can’t operate without trust. Our turnover has increased as our community standing has.

If I sound a bit proud then I am. Shop pride, not personal pride. There’s the rub. I’m ambivalent about selling the business, though I should. I’m possessive of it now, and fond of the people working here. It’s important for me to do the right thing by them, knowing that it is the right thing for the business also.

From a personal viewpoint I love the challenge this has represented, and continues to. I’ve learned so much, and a lot of it the hard way, but I have learned. I’m reluctant to walk away because it feels a job half done. A puzzle I’ve yet to completely resolve. I think we can do a lot, and professional pride and fascination wants me to keep at it.

It’s not all doom and gloom folks, though sometimes it can seem bleak. This stuff is the stuff of life. The dollars are nice, hell, they’re necessary, but gee, there’s a lot of fun in wrestling with the possibilities, and making them so. It gets your mojo running, big time.

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