Natural products customers have always expected stores to offer a "wellness" component. For many years, that has come in the form of talking about nutrition, dietary supplements and herbs.
Focusing on wellness, for a long time, was a niche approach to life and shopping to support the holistic lifestyle. Not anymore. The wellness revolution has come to fruition as consumers of all walks of life have become much more proactive than reactive about their health and they are leaning in to all the opportunities for wellness on offer.
"I correlate the explosion in health and wellness to a consumer-driven movement, just like the women’s movement, civil rights and environmental movements," says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., integrative medicine expert and author of many books, including Life is Your Best Medicine. "The health and wellness movement is driven by people saying there has to be more than taking a handful of pills. They think to themselves, ‘I saw my doctor and he said I was fine and I am glad all of my labs are normal, but I am still tired and still lack energy.’" This, Low Dog says, leads people to ask, "How do I take on more of this on my own? How can I promote my own health and wellness and be an active player in my own health?"
There are myriad entry points leading consumers to take a more in-depth look at their own wellness. For starters, consider that 55% of Americans are stressed during the day—20 percentage points higher than the global average, according to Gallup’s 2019 data on emotional states. And stress is not just for older people. The Gallup poll found the most stressed group of Americans are between 30 and 49 years old, with 65% saying they experience stress, followed by 64% of those ages 15-29. Forty-four percent of people over 50 reported feeling stressed. When asked specifically about stress in the workplace, The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reports that 83% of U.S. workers reported suffering from work-related stress in 2019.
Then add these facts: Americans are incredibly sleep deprived—at least one-third of adults in the U.S. get fewer than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Also, the nation's obesity problem affects more than 90 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2015-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Stress, sleep and obesity all quickly ladder up to more serious health issues. Faced with the rising costs and reactionary mode of traditional health care, it’s not hard to see why people are looking beyond their family doctor for help to feel well. No matter their entry point to wellness—whether wanting to lose weight, reduce stress or to improve sleep—people are quickly connecting the dots that true wellness comes from addressing a web of interdependent pillars of health.
"People are exploring ways to approach wellness," says Low Dog. "If they are trying to lose weight, they are realizing that they won’t sleep well if they are stressed and then they will stress eat. They see that it all drives poor behaviors and are connecting the dots between ‘my stress,’ ‘my sleep’ and how it connects to their waistline." The people doing this include everyone from students, professionals and athletes, to baby boomers and those seeking a health aging platform.
"It is across the board; our culture has experienced an awakening into health and wellness and realizing one of the best places to invest time and energy is in their own mental, physical and spiritual health. People are seeing this not as a luxury but necessary self-defense," adds Low Dog.
The role of natural products stores
Certainly, natural products retailers have been thinking about health and wellness for a long time now. As early adopters, natural products stores have always offered non-pharmaceutical remedies in the form of herbal and dietary supplements, and as consumer interest in wellness has grown, so too have store offerings from condition-specific supplements to beauty and nutrition for every type of diet from paleo to keto, non-GMO to plant-based and allergen-free. Yet, stores are also honing their offerings to include yoga, meditation, acupuncture and cooking classes, and embracing that the path to wellness includes education and community.
"Retailers can play a big role in the wellness movement," Low Dog says. "One of the key things that is different in a store is that there is someone to talk to. Sometimes today people feel so overwhelmed. There are so many things to choose from on Amazon, for instance, so retailers can still play an important role and can keep that customer stickiness by offering education and cooking classes to develop loyalty."
Both Summer Auerbach, CEO of Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets in Louisville, Kentucky, and John Pittari, owner of New Morning Market and Vitality Center in Woodbury, Connecticut, have seen the benefits of broadening their offerings to meet the wellness wants and needs of their customers.
In 2009, Rainbow Blossom first opened a practitioner room that health specialists could rent or use in one of its five stores. Next, the company launched a wellness ambassador program, a partnership program for holistic practitioners in the community through which they offered reciprocal discounts and goodie bags that practitioners gave out to clients. While the stores covered the gamut of offering both natural product foods and supplements and body care, in 2015, the company turned its fifth store into a wellness center. At this location, the store sells a limited selection of grocery items and gifts, with its main focus on supplements, body care products and wellness services.
The model has continued to evolve. The wellness center has a community space for yoga classes and other workshops, a demonstration kitchen and six practitioner offices. "We have massage therapy, Reiki, some more spiritual modalities and a homeopath. We have meditation and a yoga instructor as well," explains Auerbach.
At first, Rainbow Blossom just rented the offices, so the natural products retailer didn’t actually hire the practitioners. Now, Auerbach says, the retailer is moving toward a profit-sharing model with those who use the wellness center. "Now it is more of a profit-sharing model with expectations of how much time and effort practitioners put into their business and spend onsite," Auerbach says. "To me, the value is to have people be active in those rooms." She adds that community interest has continued to grow as wellness offerings become more approachable and easier to access.
By simply being loyal to his own ideals on wellness over the years, Pittari has unwittingly found his Connecticut store to increasingly be a community hub for people seeking wellness. Pittari not only sees customers seeking health solutions that resemble food, not pills and isolated nutrients, he also sees customers having a larger awareness and principle around the impact they (and we) have as consumers and how all of our actions are impacting the environment. What his customers are seeking, he says, goes beyond food to a greater lifestyle.
"The new wellness paradigm is about experiences and community," he says.
For this reason, as part of the store’s wellness solution, Pittari and his team set about developing a program called Hearth Skills. "These are the skills that everyone wants," he says. "There is a growing trend of makers. People want to be much more involved with providing for themselves, but not just with food. It goes beyond getting the right food that fits my diet to being involved with growing it, processing it, preserving it, making other products from these foods I am growing."
Under this framework, he and his team are preparing a new space to offer classes such as how to plan a menu for a week, what are the cooking utensils you need, how to sharpen knives, how to cut vegetables and more. "It’s not the sexy stuff, it’s the dated practical basics—how do you cook beans, how to cook rice and what do I do when I cook too much."
Pittari isn’t doing this on a hunch, he has seen demand for workshops rise. The store has for the last two decades sold organic starter plants, soil, fertilizers and a booklet on how to grow your own food. But seven years ago, he rebuilt the store to include a community room and Vitality Center on the second floor. Here, New Morning offers yoga classes five days a week, and in the Vitality Center there is a naturopath, acupuncturist, hypnotherapist, massage therapist and other lifestyle support offerings. As interest in these services increased, he realized more space was needed, so he purchased another building nearby to develop the hearth skill offerings.
"We realized we needed another space to provide more offerings such as how to ferment vegetables, bake whole grain breads or make kombucha, all of those things that are part of living this healthy holistic lifestyle." In the new space, which is expected to open in 2020, he says there will be an open kitchen so people can not only observe and be shown how to cook but be hands on in helping to prepare a dish or a meal.
Noting that it is a trend for people to want to have an experience, and not just go out for dinner, Pittari says, "We want to be right at that crux where that nexus is coming together to carry out our mission, which is to help rebuild a local healthy sustainable food community."
Of course, the store’s in-store café, which offers food and espresso beverages, has also helped to provide a place for community. It is particularly attractive to the younger millennials and generation Z, he notes. No matter what age, community, Pittari says, is very much a part of any wellness paradigm, "It is important for people to meet and connect. Classes allow for community and communication."
He acknowledges that for many of his customers coming into the store may be their primary socialization and for this reason he says, "It is never just a transactional exchange. We recognize the importance of communication and that we are a part of our customer’s community. We offer all of the things in our wellness center, but there is also the emotional, social and psychological piece of connection we should be aware of, and at the very least, be kind and patient."
Laying the groundwork
Offering community has been in the natural products store lexicon for decades. With recent research revealing that social isolation, whether objective or perceived, is a strong indicator of a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease and even mortality, building an in-store wellness offering that starts with a core foundation of community seems like a natural step for stores to take. Beyond selling beauty and body products, herbal remedies and dietary supplements, stores can continue to provide even greater scale education and connection.
The global wellness industry is booming and includes complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, spas, preventive health, fitness and nutrition, and even health tourism, according to a Global Wellness Institute report. As companies start to offer meditation workshops to employees and hospitals provide acupuncture and massage services, stores have a head start on already being connected to practitioners and the proactive ideals that form the baseline for wellness.
As Low Dog says, "Retailers can play a big role in the wellness movement."
And as Auerbach and Pittari have discovered, consumers have embraced their efforts and asked for more.