A customer walks into your store looking for a natural cold remedy. You could hand him the echinacea and vitamin C or lead her to the homeopathy section. You could walk down the tea aisle to find something soothing. But would you think of recommending an essential oil?
When the proper-quality products are combined with a bit of knowledge and care, essential oils can go far beyond lightbulb rings and lotions to treat a gamut of conditions. Whereas lower-quality oils should not be ingested, the French school of aromatherapy suggests therapeutic-quality essential oils offer many uses beyond inhalation and massage. High-quality oils can be ingested and used topically to treat a range of conditions, according to this school of thought.
Studies show numerous essential oils possess antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help your customers with many of their health concerns. But because therapeutic-quality essential oils are volatile, highly concentrated, and often don't come labeled with possible benefits and side effects, it takes knowledge and good presentation to successfully market these products. With a little interest and effort, though, your essential-oils section can be spreading good health to customers and boosting your sales.
Essential oils are the highly concentrated essences of plants. Containing hundreds of different organic components, these oils can perform a variety of functions for the plant, often involving its immune system or protection from predators.
For humans to reap the full benefits of these oils, a careful extraction process must take place, which usually involves either steam distillation or expression, also known as cold pressing. During the distillation process, the plant materials are steamed so the plant tissues break down, releasing the oils in a vapor. When the vapor cools and returns to a liquid state, the oils are separated from the water, resulting in pure essential oils. For a few plants, like citrus fruits, a cold-pressing process is better. The outer layer of the fruit is pressed and then filtered.
History and science
According to legend, during the 14th-century plague in Europe, a band of thieves stole from the dead and dying without ever becoming infected themselves. When the robbers were finally caught, they were offered clemency if they would share how they had avoided the plague. It turned out they were from a community of perfumers who knew the protection that essential oils offer. They rubbed a blend of anti-infectious oils on their bodies, increasing their immunity against the sickness.
Seven centuries later, essential oils are still protecting against illness. Studies show that essential oils have proven effective where synthetic antibiotics have failed. Researchers at the University of Manchester, England, found several essential oils to be effective in killing methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a dangerous antibiotic-resistant infection that has caused the deaths of hospital patients who contracted it during their stay.
A study published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in June 2002 also showed that tea tree oil was effective in killing staphylococcus aureus. Another study, published in July 2006 in Toxicology in vitro, showed several essential oils—the most effective being oil of oregano—could kill E. coli in the body while having very little detrimental effect on intestinal cells. Adding to the litany of potential essential-oil uses, a study showing cinnamon essential oil to be anti-inflammatory was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in September 2005.
Corinne Adrion-Israelsen, N.D., president of Salt Lake City-based Almarome aromatherapy products, explains why essential oils are often more effective against infections than man-made antibiotics: Synthetic antibiotics are developed to deal with very specific infections and are very simple in their functions, so bacteria or viruses can develop immunity to them fairly easily. Essential oils have naturally developed to address a wide variety of environmental threats to plants. Because essential oils contain hundreds of different, complex organic compounds and are constantly adapting to better protect the plants, they can offer a tougher line of defense against infection.
An issue of quality
To simply enjoy the scents of essential oils, users might not have to pay the extra money for top-quality oils. But when using essential oils therapeutically, only very high-grade oils should be selected. "Quality is extremely important," says Adrion-Israelsen. "It must be pure, natural and organic for internal use." Though customers might not initially be willing to fork over the extra bucks for higher-quality oils, Adrion-Israelsen explains that they will not reap the health benefits the plants have to offer if the oils have not been crafted to therapeutic quality. For retailers to recommend oils for therapeutic use, she says, the oils should be identified by the specific plant they're from—by their scientific name—and be processed by steam distillation.
"It takes education for consumers to go for quality," says Ann Yates, president of Nature's Pantry in Knoxville, Tenn., which carries essential oils.
Because of the large quantities of plant material it takes to produce such high-quality oils, they can be somewhat rare and costly. According to essential oil manufacturer Aura Cacia, to make one pound of each respective essential oil, it would require 150 pounds of lavender, 500 pounds of rosemary, 1,000 pounds of jasmine or more than 2,000 pounds of rose.
"The problem is not whether it works," Adrion-Israelsen says. "It's sourcing these precious, beautiful oils." Though there are a few lines of organic essential oils of therapeutic quality in the United States, she says natural foods stores often do not carry the quality oils she finds in Europe.
When recommending essential oils for therapeutic use, retailers must keep safety forefront in their minds. Just because these oils are plant-based does not mean they are harmless. Keeping a simple list of cautions close by the oils display can help customers feel more confident using the products. For example, a reminder to customers not to use undiluted, pure essential oils directly on their skin (to avoid possible irritation) will help them avoid a basic error on their way to practicing safe, beneficial essential-oil use. Also, it's important to remind customers to take care with essential oils during pregnancy and with young children. But posting a few gentle, child-friendly formulations for common ailments can assure customers they can treat themselves and their families safely.
Promoting essential oils
Hosting a seminar on essential-oil use can increase awareness and sales, as well as update your staff to better help customers. Also, posting copies of a few simple essential-oil formulations for various ailments can make it simple for customers to put together their own remedies. Yates, of Nature's Pantry, suggests keeping aromatherapy books in the section for quick reference.
Grouping accessories with the oils can help customers visualize how they will use the oils—especially new essential-oil users. For example, stocking carrier oils and creams with small containers for mixing in the essential-oil section can help customers put together their own therapies without having to traipse through the entire store.
"We have a selection of aromatherapy dispensers in different price ranges," Yates says. "That way we get questions about the difference between this and that." Yates says this gives more opportunity for retailers to explain the need for high-quality products. "Your better ones will sell better when you have lower options," she says.
Customer questions and comparisons give retailers a chance to step in and educate. "[Our customers] have learned all the ways to use [essential oils], and that they're very effective," Yates says. Her essential-oil sales have grown tremendously in the last five years, she says.
With education for both the retailer and the customer, plus some keen marketing techniques, the essential-oil category can prove to be essential to both customer health and your bottom line.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 100, 104