Back in 1978, Candace Garner Newman walked into Garner's Natural Foods in Greenville, South Carolina, and her life changed forever. New to town and passionate about natural wellness, she'd intended on just shopping that day. Instead, she met her future husband, Robin Garner, and embarked on a new career in natural products retail.
"I loved what he was doing, and I told him I could make the store look a lot better," Garner Newman says, referring to her business and design acumen. "I left my job to join the family business because I loved retail and working with people. I took to it immediately—I loved the industry, the reps, the whole thing. It made me so happy to help people with their health."
Although she and Robin divorced in 2000, they continued running the store together until he died in 2007. The next year, Garner Newman closed that location and launched a new business of her own: Garner's Natural Life, focused on supplements and personal care. Her concept was a hit, eventually spawning three more stores.
Garner Newman has experienced a lot of change in 43 years, but her enthusiasm hasn't wavered. She's thrilled by the success of Garner's Natural Life but refuses to take credit. That, she says, belongs to her "incredibly talented, knowledgeable and cohesive team," including her three sons, many veteran managers and a highly engaged staff—all of whom she considers family. Here, she shares their story.
What prompted you to switch formats and open Garner's Natural Life?
Candace Garner Newman: Our lease was coming up around the same time that Whole Foods moved into the area and my ex-husband had passed, and I knew we needed to reinvent ourselves. I had this epiphany that since Garner's Natural Foods, which began in 1969, had grown from supplements and wellness, and that was the most profitable department in our 18,000-square-foot store, I should pick up the wellness department and move it elsewhere.
That's a brave move. Did you get any pushback?
CGN: Ironically, when I pitched my plan to some of our reps and my colleagues, they all said, "Oh my God, that's a horrible idea, a big mistake." The trend at the time was to get bigger and offer more produce and groceries. I told them I didn't have a plan B. I really wanted to downsize and do something completely different. I wanted my store to be beautiful, almost like a spa, with fun and original displays and merchandising. So, in 2008, we closed the big store, moved into a 3,500-square-foot space across the street and committed entirely to supplements, organic body care—everything in the natural products industry except food.
When did you open your next locations?
CGN: About two years later, the owner of the shopping center said, "We love what you did. We have a space open in Columbia, so please come look." This was when the economy was going up and down, so I was unsure about going into a new market. Well, we opened the Columbia store in 2010, and it went great. So, in 2015, we opened our Woodruff store on the other side of Greenville and made a profit the first month. Then two years ago, we opened a store in Lexington. We are small, so we don't want to make any mistakes with a bad location, but we've been very fortunate. I am grateful that, through my whole career, our local communities have supported our small, family-oriented business.
Now that supplements are sold so many places, why do shoppers keep coming to you?
CGN: What we do is completely different from GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, Whole Foods or any other wellness store. We try to appeal to the senses, so we have a large water feature behind the counter, stacked-stone checkouts, bamboo floors, granite countertops and diffusers of essential oils. Our customers love it.
But the biggest factor is our team. We have extraordinarily gifted people who, by some fate, found their way to work with us. I tell them that they don't really work for me—we all work for our customers, who are the reason we exist. Most probably pass by three places that sell similar products, so it's an honor that they choose us, and we have to give them the best possible shopping experience. I've had reps tell me they'd put our team up against any store in the country for customer service and education.
How did you build such a great team?
CGN: It started small, with some amazing people we brought over from the large store. Many were from the wellness department, but we picked up a few from deli and grocery who were wonderful with people. Then it has snowballed, maybe because we have such depth and education and our veterans attract similar types of people. They're from all walks of life, but they all have the same passion for educating our customers and helping our communities stay healthy.
What are your sons' roles in the company?
CGN: All three came to work with me after their dad passed away, which made me so happy because it's what their dad would've loved to see. They are part of the management team, more like owner-operators, each supporting our store managers according to their natural abilities. My oldest, David, has worked with me since the big store, and he's like our research and development guy. He is one of our master herbalists and is great at discovering what's hot in the marketplace. He and Vanessa, the store manager at Pleasantburg, have worked together almost 15 years.
My middle son, Jeff, does receiving, bill paying and bookkeeping at the Columbia and Lexington stores. He and Nick, the general manager, have worked together over 10 years. My youngest son, Matt, has supported Dan, manager of the Woodruff store, for about eight years, doing receiving and banking.
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
CGN: On the wings of opening the Lexington store, COVID started, which made all of us retailers afraid. How were we going to keep our staff and customers healthy and safe? We were scared and not sure what to do, so we just played it day by day. Through this whole thing, our team worked together. We'd never been challenged in such a way as far as our belief in helping people stay healthy, and everyone was so brave—it still brings me to tears.
But you didn't have to close entirely?
CGN: Thankfully, no. We are fortunate our communities felt like we were an essential business. We started doing more mail order and curbside, and we shortened our hours because we were spread thin and so stressed out. That let us have more people available to wait on customers and help them get in and out safely.
What is your day-to-day like?
CGN: My team does the day-to-day running of the stores. I am more of a coach and try to keep people inspired and confident that we're going in the right direction and staying relevant in the industry. I know some people like to micromanage, but I can't stand it. I hire the best people for the job, and they're often smarter than me, so I just get out of the way. If something happened to me, I know the stores would still go strong.
I don't get to Columbia and Lexington as much because they're two hours away. I'm in the Greenville stores more, but since Ken and I got married three years ago, I've been trying to spend more time with him. We dated for 18 years, and he has been my No. 1 supporter.
Will your sons take over the business someday?
CGN: I'll be 66 this year, so at some point, I won't be going up and down ladders anymore. We talk about passing the business onto my sons, but my team is like family, so I also want to offer professional growth to people who've been with us for a long time. I really wish I could've included my whole team in this interview because they all bring something important to the table. I feel bad being in the limelight because this is their story too. They believe in what we are doing, especially through this challenging year, and I am incredibly grateful for them.
3 tips for building a strong team
Hire for personality. "Most employees have come to us through shopping in our stores, and we've gotten to know them that way," Garner Newman says. "I've found I'd rather hire for personality, people skills and a good fit with the team, and then educate them and train for skill."
Invest in education. "We spend a lot on education for our team," Garner Newman says. "We have nine certified natural health professionals and eight master herbalists, and I paid for their herbal program. I pay for the education because they can take the degree with them, but it also gives them more credibility with customers."
Let them fly. "Our veteran managers know what I would do, so they don't need to call for permission," Garner Newman says. "If they need me to get involved, I will, but putting out fires is how they learn. They feel empowered, and it's great for personal growth."