The name—the Mari-Mann Herb Co.—might lead people to believe the Decatur, Ill., store sells just herbs and supplements. But it?s so much more. It also carries a proprietary line of natural fragrances (King Dry Fragrances), homemade dips and jellies, a small selection of packaged organic and natural foods, gift cards, teas and dried flower wreaths. In addition, the owners run a restaurant and tearoom, lead tours of their herb farm, and host classes on healthy cooking, wreath-making and alternative medicine. ?You name it, we do it,? says Mike King, store president and son of founder Maribeth King. ?We?re not just locked into being a health food store.?
In the mid-1970s, Maribeth King began traveling to local festivals to sell her specialty dips, jams, and flower and herb wreaths. During that time, she met herbalist Paul Manning, who taught her about botanicals. By 1978, she and her husband, Bob, opened a small retail gift store and herb farm, honoring Manning in the name.
Over the years, the store began to focus more on supplement sales. ?It was just a tiny family business,? King says. ?Mom got interested in herbs, and it just went from there. At one time, we were more of a gift shop with herbs. Now we?re more of a health food store with gifts.? Today, sales of supplements, herbs, vitamins and homeopathic remedies make up about 70 percent of the store?s revenue, but pioneer products such as Mari-Dilly Dip and Spoon Herbal Sauce still get shelf space—and they?re still made by King?s nearly 80-year-old mother.
In Decatur, an industrial town of 80,000 people, you?re far more likely to run across a Wal-Mart than a health food store, despite the town?s very healthy sounding moniker, ?soybean capital of the world.? Consequently, Mari-Mann?s eclectic offerings serve as an important community alternative. And Mike King takes his informal role as the local natural health expert very seriously. He says he spends at least a couple hours each day reading news and studies about supplements and alternative medicine, so he can pass that information on to his customers. ?I get to know my customers. I will sit down with one customer for an hour or two. We?re not here to fast-food them,? he says. ?What we want to do is educate them and also make sure they?re getting a really good price."
Keeping product costs down is a big priority at Mari-Mann. King says most items are sold below the suggested retail price, and the store holds various sales—such as product-line drives—throughout the year. To encourage repeat customers, Mari-Mann offers a preferred member card. Members receive special discounts and coupons and automatically get about 10 percent off the normal price of most products. The card also tracks purchases, so it?s easier for cardholders to remember the brands they prefer and whether particular products are working for them.
In addition to its 3,000 preferred members, Mari-Mann has a list of 17,000 people who receive frequent e-mails and occasional fliers with store news, class schedules and current specials.
To get the word out, King also takes advantage of the local media. He started on radio with the Mari-Mann natural health minute, which lead to television appearances. His weekly three- to seven-minute holistic health segment on the central Illinois NBC affiliate, WAND-17, addresses everything from new studies on echinacea to natural remedies for flu and poison ivy. King says the segments help drive new customers to the store. ?I have to prepare very carefully for the show and have documentation to back everything up,? he says. ?People see that and know that I?m reliable and knowledgeable.? He?s built such a strong reputation that local journalists often come to him as a source for stories on alternative health, providing even more exposure for the store.
Credibility is very important to King. He goes to great lengths to truly understand the brands he sells in the store, traveling to trade shows, touring supplement manufacturing facilities and talking to doctors and scientists. ?No. 1, we look for a quality product,? he says. ?I know my botanicals. I know my growers. I know they?re good people and that they?re honest about their products.?
Underlying all of King?s careful research is his belief that alternative medicine can often be a better solution to his customers? medical woes than Western medicine. Though he is careful to say that he is an educator, not a doctor, King?s mistrust of conventional medicine is evident. ?People think that pharmaceuticals are going to cure them of everything,? he says. ?And they don?t realize that eating right and exercising and living a clean lifestyle and taking supplements is good for you. That?s our biggest challenge.?
But it seems that more and more of Decatur?s citizens are heeding his message. Sales at Mari-Mann have increased this year by 20 percent—and 2004 was a record year. But King insists his love of the business has nothing to do with the bottom line. ?I drive around in an old truck, and I don?t have a lot of money, but I?m happy because I?m helping people.?
O?rya Hyde-Keller is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 12/p. 50