Meet Merle Norman Franchisee Renee Hitt
Wisconsin studio thrives as a family-run business in a Milwaukee suburb
Wisconsin franchise owner Renee Hitt’s Merle Norman Cosmetics studio is almost 30 years old, and Hitt has worked with our brand for almost 40 years. For Hitt, it’s been a lifetime of passion for Merle Norman, and she and her family now work together in their Brookfield store — about 20 miles west of downtown Milwaukee.
Hitt says she loves being an independent business owner while still retaining a corporate identity. The most rewarding aspect of operating her studio, however, is helping people feel better about themselves. She’s devoted to providing an incredible customer experience that begins with it a personal connection.
“I call by name about 75% of the customers who walk through the door,” Hitt says.
Hitt credits this level of individualized attention for her lucrative career with Merle Norman. We sat down with her recently to find out more about her success, what she loves about Merle Norman and what prospective studio owners should know about franchise ownership.
How did you get started with Merle Norman?
At one time in Milwaukee, there were six Merle Norman studios owned by one woman. I was one of her customers.
One day — I guess the timing was right — I needed a different type of job while I was in college. I had been waitressing and fell and tore my ACL. I couldn’t waitress for a while, and that was my source of income to pay tuition. I started part-time at one of her mall studios, and I found out that I loved it. I realized that helping people feel good about themselves is the most rewarding career you can have.
Pretty soon I worked myself into management, switched my degree from broadcasting to communications and public relations with an emphasis on training, and ended up being a district manager for that owner — doing all of her training for her studios.
After I got my degree, I did work for a couple of different companies thinking that I should, of course, use my degree, but then I ended up buying the Brookfield location in 1989.
How does your family work with you?
Right now we have just the one studio, and we’re really successful. Both my daughters work in the business with me, which is so rewarding. We are truly a small family business.
Five years ago we decided that we were starting to see a trend for cosmetic and skincare sales becoming almost like a service industry. We would make appointments for people and do express facials. We decided when our lease was up to expand into the service industry.
We now are a full-service salon and spa, in addition to offering the Merle Norman cosmetics and skincare products. We’re small — we’re two chairs and one spa room — but that’s really how we intend to stay because we are a small family business, and we want to maintain that family identity.
What’s the key to running a successful Merle Norman franchise?
I think the most important thing is that the customer has to come first, no matter what. When you do that, you may realize that your target customer is a working woman. That means that you have to be willing to be available when she’s not working, which is evenings and weekends. It might mean being open on Sunday, even though you won’t want to work on Sunday. It’s always putting that customer first.
As a franchise owner, you also have to be willing to wear many hats. This is a real business. I think a lot of people view this business like, “Oh look, I get to play with makeup all day,” but it’s a real business, just like any other. I have taxes and rent to pay, and overhead, and things break, and there are crises, and there are employees — everything that goes with being in business is the same for me as it is for Microsoft, just on a different scale. I don’t have departments to take care of it; I have to take care of it all.
What keeps your clients returning to Merle Norman?
I always say we’re the Starbucks of cosmetics. You’re going to pay a little bit more for something you could get for a dollar. You can get a dollar cup of coffee, or you can go to Starbucks and get a four-dollar cup of coffee. It’s all about how you feel while you’re in there. I think that’s like our customer — a woman who is willing to spend a little bit more because she feels like she’s getting more value.
Because of our years of experience and our reputation, we have more authority on skincare and makeup, and our customers rely on that. Twice last week I had someone come in I hadn’t seen in quite a while. The reason that they came back was because they said they knew that I’d give them the right product.
In the skincare and cosmetics world, it’s a candy store out there right now! But if we continue to do what we do best — being the experts in our field and being consistent in the service and quality we offer — customers will come back to us because we’re the ones that have been around so long.
How do Merle Norman products compare to similar items from other brands on the market today?
Hands down, Merle Norman has the best products. You can tell when someone’s been using Merle Norman. The products will speak for themselves.
I’ve got a 90-year-old woman coming in here for her Powder Base on a regular basis. She tells you how long she’s used Merle Norman — her entire adult life, about 70 years — and her skin does not look like it could be 90 years old. It’s not just my customers; we hear stories like that from studios all over the country.
Merle Norman was so wise beyond her years. She was offering sun protection — zinc oxide, a key ingredient in Powder Base — before anyone knew it was important. There’s nothing like it on the market.
What does Merle Norman do as a company to help you succeed?
When you start working with other vendors, you realize what a gem it is to be part of the Merle Norman family. They have an unmatched advertising program that pays 60% of media costs and postage as long as we follow the guidelines. We get support materials, lesson materials, testers and free training. You don’t get that from any other source.
What’s the most rewarding part of owning a Merle Norman Cosmetics studio?
I am passionate about helping people feel better about themselves, and this has been my vehicle for doing that. The product is something I believe in, and the company has integrity and values that I can stand by. We’ve lived a very comfortable life doing it. We’ve raised our children, they went to private high schools, and they were active in all the things they wanted to do.
What’s the future for your Merle Norman Cosmetics studio?
Once it’s time for me to retire, I do hope that my daughters will carry on this legacy. I feel like this is something that we’ve developed as a family, and that they will continue to grow. And, who knows? Maybe my granddaughters will be here in 20 years doing the same thing, and someone will be talking to them about what it takes to be a studio owner.
Ready to open a Merle Norman Cosmetics studio in your community?
Extended by Merle Norman herself since 1931 to entrepreneurs, our franchise opportunity gives franchisees personal and professional fulfillment as Merle Norman Cosmetics studio owners.