New Age is Now
Antelope & Willow
Fine Line Products
Heaven & Earth
Love Is in the Air
Milk & Honey
New Age Retailer
Use the phrase “New Age” and everyone seems to have some idea of what you’re talking about. But get into the specifics, and the answers vary. To some consumers, New Age represents a lifestyle involving organic, Earth-friendly products. To others, New Age is decidedly spiritual, even metaphysical. Others connect the term mainly to music. While “New Age” means different things to different people, ultimately it’s the commonalities of spirituality and personal and environmental awareness that hold the New Age market together and give it shape.
“New Age is really old age,” says Stevan Lichtig, president of Fine-Line Products, Inc. (Grafton, WI). Instead of representing a fresh approach, New Age is actually more like a return to the interests and practices of the 1960s. Then as now, aromatherapy, holistic treatments, and candles were hot products of interest to a large group of consumers.
Where New Age consumers of the ’60s were primarily hippies and hippie-wannabes, today’s New Age consumer is often part of the “cultural creatives” movement, whether they know it or not. “New Age today is about ‘conscious-living’ products,” says Luanne Napoli, former editor-in-chief of New Age Retailer magazine. Conscious-living and Earth-keeping trends have boosted the popularity of organic products such as soy-based candles with 100 percent cotton wicks, as well as items such as music, books and aromatherapy products that promote spirituality and healing.
“The New Age consumer is difficult to define,” says Napoli, in part because they are frequently identified by their purchasing habits rather than demographic data. However, Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson, authors of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, find that New Age consumers are primarily women who are well-educated, upper income, spiritual, and concerned with the environment. New Age consumers spend nearly $230 billion a year on New Age products.
Lichtig attributes the current female dominance of the market to their greater interest in fragrance and scent, a large part of product sales. While women currently comprise the majority of New Age shoppers, the men’s market is growing, says Napoli. And the youth market is big and getting bigger. Lichtig also believes the market as a whole will continue to grow. “Interest [in New Age products] begins in high school and grows exponentially as people age,” he says. For example, some of the biggest buyers of incense right now are teenagers. As they age, they’ll likely turn to other, more costly forms of fragrance, further increasing the size of the total market.
“In the last 10 years, the market has grown so significantly,” he says. “Where we used to carry a couple of dozen styles of aroma burners, we now sell tens of thousands of them in hundreds of styles.” Similarly, candles have become a multibillion-dollar industry in the last decade.
Lichtig believes this growth may be attributed in part to increasing interest in all things natural and environmental (forests and wildlife, for example), as well as in astrology. With increasing interest comes rising opportunity for product-line expansion. As a result, he says, “now we have picture frames, wind chimes and perfume bottles,” in addition to incense, candles and aroma burners, which have been popular for the past couple of years.
A study commissioned by New Age Retailer in 2002 found that 63 percent of wholesalers interviewed reported growth in their business. At the same time, 18 percent of those surveyed reported rapid growth, a sign that demand for New Age products is picking up.
The big picture
What started as a niche market several years ago has gone mainstream, says Josh Mann, marketing manager for Milk and Honey, Inc. (Santa Fe, NM), an importer and distributor of New Age gift items with a lighthearted approach (such as aromatherapy for dogs). Merchandise originally sold only at cult bookstores expanded into sideline items such as candles and incense, and then into mass market retailers like Target with feng shui-related accessories and fountains. It was at that point that the New Age niche ceased to be a niche.
With such a broad demographic base and wide variety of products, New Age was destined for widespread consumption almost from the start. At the core of New Age market growth has been candles, body care products, aromatherapy items, books, music and jewelry. Those categories spawned line extensions such as personal health, spirituality and home- décor merchandise.
Bret Williamson, owner of Light Stones (Boulder, CO) believes that New Age products crossed over to mainstream culture about eight years ago with the angel craze. “A large bridge to mainstream occurred here,” he says. After the ubiquitous angels came feng shui, bringing with it a demand not only for baguas and crystals and figurines, but also Asian-themed products (witness the profusion of Chinese characters on items ranging from stones to stationery to wall hangings). From there, a widespread interest in Asian art and artifacts emerged, a heightened interest not just in home décor but “how you feel in your space,” says Williamson—a true New Age sensibility gone mainstream.
The mortality motive
As consumers are reminded of their mortality, many look for ways to increase their longevity. This trend shows up primarily in the popularity of supplements like anti-oxidants, glucosamine and enzymes, and the interest in “new” forms of exercise such as Pilates. Mann says yoga products—mats, books, videos and the latest “yoga wear”—are big in some areas, and spreading across the country.
Just as there are larger cultural shifts that impact products people buy, there are smaller trends shaping the types of New Age merchandise that are hot right now. “There are cycles of three to five years,” says Williamson. For example, interest in angels and feng shui is still growing, he says. But “there are shorter trends that turn around in 12 to 18 months.”
Taking advantage of growing interest in Asian culture and products initially fed by the popularity of feng shui, Kristine Mattila, owner of Zhen Zhu (Scottsdale, AZ) has taken items that are typically Asian and put an American spin on them. She imports everything directly from China but applies her own style. “Many ideas considered New Age today are age-old in China,” she says.
Some of the items she expects will do very well in carts and kiosks are silk bags, a line of thinly sliced agate “stone poetry,” and votive holders and ornaments for Buddhists and Hindus. “The products are based on ancient items, but with a modern approach,” she says.
One of the lingering effects of 9/11 is an increased interest in products with meaning, such as ritual-related pieces, as well as items that bring peace and prosperity, including scented candles and oils that encourage relaxation. “We still hear a lot about 9/11,” says Napoli. “It still impacts product purchases.” In search of products that aid healing—mentally, emotionally, and physically—New Age consumers are buying a wide variety of merchandise.
Christian Longa, CEO of Love Is in the Air (Miami, FL), has seen a big jump in sales of fragrance oils that help people meditate, relax, and reverse the effects of stress. Likewise, some of Lichtig’s best products are incense, aroma burners, candles and candle holders. Interest in creating a soothing personal environment has also boosted sales of accessories and home décor items such as fountains, tapestries, oil lamps, and music.
On the more spiritual side, Mann has found that the demand for Buddha statues, and Buddhist products such as prayer beads and bells is on the upswing. From another point on the spectrum is an increased interest in fairies, which Mann believes reflects the merging of a new fascination with fantasy and nature. Williamson has also seen increased interest in fairies, goddess imagery, and Celtic products. And Lichtig has found that smaller tabletop statuary and boxes to hold keepsakes are big movers.
According to a New Age Retailer survey, sales of “metaphysical,” astrology and other quasi-spiritual products have also been on the rise. Williamson says sales of crystals are increasing, and Tarot cards are getting popular again. Interest in the supernatural is a renewed fascination, including communicating with “the other side”—case in point: the success of TV shows like Crossing Over and the revival of the Ouija board.
A visual thing
The key to increasing sales of New Age merchandise is to create visual impact. “Don’t just put a couple of products out,” says Mann. Not only will they get lost among the rest of your merchandise, but you simply won’t have enough there to pique the shopper’s interest. And you could end up with clutter rather than showcasing a broad selection. Instead, “devote a significant percentage of your cart or kiosk to a particular product type. Get something you can buy a lot of,” he says, such as incense, candles or jewelry, and make a statement with it by drawing shoppers’ attention to it. “It’s a really visual thing,” says Mann.
“Put similar categories together,” such as books or crystals, says Williamson. “Or create a theme display with one large item surrounded by lower-priced smaller items.” This can work well with items that come in a variety of heights, like candles, figurines or other tabletop items. By creating a visual focus with large pieces, lighting and color, you attract shoppers and point their attention to where you want it to go—to your most popular, highest-margin items.
Williamson also suggests using shelf signs or cards to explain something about the product or the line, and therefore help sell it. For example, you might translate certain Chinese symbols, or tell the story behind the gem (romance the stone!) in a piece of jewelry, or explain why the ingredients make your candles superior. Mattila seconds this suggestion: “People have an interest and awareness [of New Age products] but don’t know how to use them.” By helping to educate shoppers through explanatory cards and one-on-one discussion, you also position yourself as a knowledgeable retailer whom shoppers will seek out for information.
To that end, training your employees is also critical. “Employees need to understand what your product is and does,” Mattila says. This doesn’t mean an intensive workshop, but you can do a little research online and ask your suppliers for background material to make sure your sales staff has useful facts at hand. Details about ingredients (e.g., soy-based, or 100 percent organic), manufacturing (hand-woven, or made by native artisans), typical results (increased energy), meaning (what a statue represents or what a symbol means), and history (“used by Chinese healers for 2,000 years”) are more than just interesting: they add perceived value, and give the customer a reason to buy. One way or another, “tell a story” about your products, Napoli says. “People love a good story, especially with gift-giving.”
Even better is showing them. Longa strongly recommends exposing customers to the aromas and scents of your products. “Open a bottle of oil and have a customer smell it,” or burn oils or incense (if you have the mall’s approval) to disperse the scent into the mall. “People could be looking elsewhere, but the scent of the cart drives them to seek it out,” he says. “You can increase sales by 35 to 40 percent” this way.
In addition to a market that’s growing both in customer base and inventory selection, the New Age marketplace also offers significant financial rewards, according to many suppliers. Longa calls it “a low investment but high return” type of business. Because the wholesale cost is so low, he says, retailers can mark up incense as much as 800 percent, and oils around 350 percent.
Lichtig’s prices are in the $2-$3 range for candles and incense, and $10-$25 for larger items, all of which have an average markup of 225 percent. He finds that keeping price points below $25 works best, but can go higher during the holiday season, when shoppers are willing to pay more for gifts.
But more than affordable prices, variety of merchandise and profitable markups, what may be most attractive about this category is market growth. With nearly every shopper ultimately qualifying as the right demographic, New Age is an important, ongoing trend. The age may be “new,” but for specialty retailers, the rewards are age-old. And the time is now.