Many natural products stores have considered offering in-store massage. As a value-added service, massage gives customers a tangible connection with the store's mission of promoting health. That, in theory, makes customers happier, resulting in fuller baskets and return visits. What could be more harmonious?
However, massage services can add as much stress for retailers as they alleviate, says natural products retailing consultant Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vt.
"Retailers have their plate full focusing on their core business and don't really have time or resources to start up and maintain a wellness-center business," he says.
Store owners also need to consider liability issues, their brand image should something go awry, and that many massage practitioners are independent contractors who may not stick around long. Most important, massage services may generate little or no direct monies for the store. Still, some retailers say revenue isn't the goal.
"In a small business like ours, so much of the customer reward is the theater of being here," says Pat Towler, who with Kate Noonan, owns Common Crow Natural Market in Gloucester, Mass. Massage has had "an ambassador effect" on business, she says, noting that many people who first come to Common Crow for a massage have turned into frequent customers. Other "theater" has included sampling programs, product demonstrations, yoga therapy, psychotherapy, personal training and nutrition counseling.
"The energetic shift that goes on when you receive healing puts you in a receptive place," Towler says with a laugh. "You look at the broccoli and say, 'That broccoli looks great.' "
Orchestrating great theater is the tough part, involving research, planning, strong direction and casting.
Research and reflection
"It's really, really important to under?stand up-front the investment and what your customers want," says Lynea Schultz-Ela, a natural products industry consultant in Hotchkiss, Colo. "That's the relationship the retailer needs to have with their consumers."
Too often a retailer jumps into massage or another service without researching it, Schultz-Ela says. Certain customers like the service but it doesn't make money, so the retailer scraps it, disappointing those customers. "Taking something away from a consumer," she says, "is always harder than starting something new."
A customer survey is a great first step. Schultz-Ela suggests retailers list specific health-related services, from various types of massage to nutritional counseling, and ask customers how likely they would be to use each one, how often and for what price. "I think massage services is a good idea for retailers if it resonates with their mission, if they're really, truly trying to bring lifestyle solutions to the foot traffic in their stores," she says. "If they're a convenience store that has a lot of natural products, that may not make sense."
A retailer aiming to reconfigure existing retail space for massage and other wellness services should calculate projected return on investment and compare those figures with the current return on products in that space.
For example, buying a massage chair is one of the first steps to offering massages."It's not a big deal in terms of space commitment, the visual is terrific, the ambience is infectious," Jacobowitz says. "It is a tangible manifestation of what the store is about, which is feeling good and generating health."
What's more, with chair massage the retailer doesn't need to invest much, if any, money to start, since the therapists generally run their own business, charging shoppers $1 or so per minute for up to 30 minutes.
In a best-case scenario, shoppers outside can see the massage chair through the window. If that's not feasible, Jacobowitz suggests posting a sign with a picture of a massage chair in the window to lure people inside.
At Common Crow, the owners built back-room space specifically for traditional massage and other wellness services, Towler says. On occasion, her store offers chair massage at the front of the store as part of a promotion. For example, every December, when the stores in town host "Ladies' Night," an evening of shopping specials for women, Common Crow offers free 15-minute chair massages.
Larger business, larger responsibility
Traditional massage and other wellness services require not only more space, but also staffing and administrative work, scheduling appointments and the like, or it requires subleasing space to a third party, which requires skillful negotiation and carries another element of risk.
A large massage operation raises a number of questions: Will the practitioners be required to use or promote products sold in the store? Will the store take a cut of revenue? Should the store sign a contract with practitioners describing when they'll work and what services they'll perform?
There's no right answer to cover all situations, but most retailers hire massage therapists as independent contractors. It keeps the relationship simple and limits the retailer's liability risk.
"Most of the time it winds up being a handshake or verbal agreement," Jacobowitz says. "It's, 'You use our store to get visibility for your service and we assume you'll refer customers to our store for products, and we'll refer our customers to you.' "
The lack of a formal agreement keeps both parties free to end the relationship anytime. But, on the flip side, it gives retailers little control over how the therapist interacts with customers or what products the therapist promotes.
Retailers should make sure practitioners carry their own liability insurance and ask their clients to sign a customary waiver accepting any risk associated with massage service. Even when the practitioner is the store owner, it may be wise to separate the two on paper.
Nancy and Steve Long, owners of Harmony Farms Natural Food Store in Raleigh, N.C., are Reiki masters, and Nancy is a naturopath. They meet with clients in an office in the back of their store, outside the retail footprint. They've structured their businesses so each one is a separate company to minimize liability, and for easier bookkeeping.
At both Common Crow and Harmony Farms, the massage therapists are also employees of the store, which requires the owners to make a careful distinction for their own liability protection. When the therapists are providing massage service, they're not on the clock as employees.
The dual role has its advantages, says Nancy Long of her employee Erin Salmon, who is both a store buyer and a massage therapist. "Because she is an employee, who's excellent, she talks about stuff with [clients] and takes them from the chair and shows them products," such as a topical muscle relief cream, Long says. "I think the massage therapist has to be a salesperson for you."
Jacobowitz agrees. "The purpose of this is not to give good massages. That's a requirement," he says. "The purpose is to give good theater."
That's especially critical with practitioners who work on the retail floor, where their visibility makes them a mascot for the store. Too often, he says, retailers who are impressed by a practitioner's credentials don't bother to ask or test whether that person possesses good people skills. Word-of-mouth is the best way to find a massage therapist, say Jacobowitz and others. Retailers should check for necessary credentials, which can vary with local laws. They also should get a massage and conduct an interview to ensure the therapist's personality is a good fit.
Massage services also give retailers the opportunity to cross-promote. Long's naturopathy clients buy products in her store to address specific health issues she's identified in office visits. At Common Crow, massage clients end up purchasing CDs of the music they listened to during their service.
In addition to CDs, Jacobowitz and Schultz-Ela recommend stocking massage oils, creams and other kindred products, such as aromatherapy oils and candles, near the massage chair or in the wellness offices.
"Think about all the senses—sight, sound, smell," Jacobowitz says. "If each sensory path leads to a potential retail purchase, then that's a good deal."
Cross-promote at other points in the store, as well, he suggests. "What if CDs and candles are at the register, with a picture of the massage chair and a little sign that says 'this is the music you're listening to today?' "
Both Towler, an herbalist, and the Longs report success offering massage and other wellness services, even though Nancy Long concedes massage hasn't directly resulted in extra revenue. Their backgrounds likely play a strong role.
"If you're a trained practitioner of some sort it's easier, I think, to have your practice, and—oh, by the way—sell some products," Jacobowitz says.
But a word of caution about marrying retail and wellness services: You'll likely end up working long hours and adding stress—not not exactly a healthier choice.
Each of the Longs logs 45 to 50 hours a week on the retail floor, leaving each time for about six clients a month. On the plus side, their health expertise lends the store credibility, Nancy Long says. "Once customers talk to us, they want a one-on-one with us," she says. "And therein lies the challenge."
Kelly Pate Dwyer is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 72,76