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Summer 2001 Brotherly Love

Sometimes success comes from feelings. Sometimes it has organic, elemental, familial roots. For Alex and Christian Longa, founders of Love Is in the Air, it’s all of the above.

Much of what is now called “New Age” were important elements in the young lives of the brothers Longa. Their mother, Adriana, taught her sons the importance of spiritual practice. And so for Alex and Christian Longa, who were born and raised in Peru, meditation and incense were as routine and important as schoolwork. As young adults, the brothers carried their spiritual practice, and the incense with its aroma-therapeutic properties, with them into adulthood and then into the marketplace. “I was always convinced of the healing properties of aromatherapy,” says Christian. And so in 1996, the brothers became business partners and created Love Is in the Air.

New Age rising

Holistic or New Age practices and products have found growing acceptance in North America in recent years. Aromatherapy entered the mainstream only within the last decade, spawning sales of scents in the form of candles, essential oils, fragrance sprays and much more—including incense. According to New Editions International (a New Age marketing company), consumers of New Age products spend between $14.6 and $19 billion a year. Much of the reason for the category’s popularity is that numerous Americans today are exploring various new avenues to spiritual fulfillment. Another factor is the “nesting” trend, which manifests itself in making the home a cozy, calming refuge. Americans in record numbers are buying countless products ranging from incense to exotic tea, rainforest soap to table fountains and much more. In short, if something heals, helps, feels good or smells good and comes from natural sources, consumers want it. And it’s a phenomenon that Love Is in the Air helped spark.

The bigger picture

The brothers Longa left Peru to study business at US colleges, and right after graduation set out to pursue their own American dream. “I always wanted to open my own business, and I saw a lot of potential in malls,” says 28-year-old Christian, the company’s CEO of wholesale division. Traveling through the US and studying first-hand how the American market works, he “learned the bigger picture,” as he puts it—and that in America, the mall rules. “I saw that in some small towns, the main thing is the mall—the mall is it,” he says. “It’s the social place to be, and the only place to be if it’s raining or snowing. I saw infinite possibilities. I was just looking for a product that was consumable.” Consumables ensure repeat business: buy it, use it up, buy more. Then came the next question—which product? The answer rose from their personal experience: incense and oils.

Used for more than 5,000 years, the Longas knew that incense was no flash in the pan, and was therefore bankable. Many people in their homeland and throughout the world burn incense daily for health, spiritual practice, ambience or simply the pleasure of the scent. In the US, incense and related products were sold only at national import stores like Pier One, ethnic stores, or “head shops” catering to an alternative crowd. But the brothers believed it wouldn’t be long before incense caught fire in mainstream Western cultures. “There’s always been a lack of information and education about New Age products,” says Christian. “Some people think it’s just a fashion, but when they use a product [like incense], they’re surprised by the benefits.” And the aroma itself is a benefit: “Who wouldn’t want their house to smell good!”

imageThe market for incense and other New Age and organic products was indeed broadening, and in 1996, Love Is in the Air débuted on a cart at the Cutler Ridge Mall in Miami. “We started our business with a little savings and some credit cards,” says Alex, now 31 and the CEO of retail division. The business did extremely well virtually from the start, but the supply side proved weak. The Longas’ demand for product wasn’t being met, and the quality of what they did get was inferior. And since they intended to expand, the need for a dependable, quality supplier was critical. They ultimately looked inward: Who better than they themselves to supply their retail operation? Putting the “if you want a job done right” adage into action, the Longas undertook manufacturing their own products, ensuring not just delivery but their demanding standards for quality. The result: incense sticks that are double-dipped and alcohol-free for a stronger scent and longer shelf life. Today, all of their products are either company-made or imported direct from the manufacturer according to the Longas’ strict quality-control standards.

Who’s buying

The company bills itself as “a rapidly growing, market-driven organization built on solid, front-line experience in retailing aromatic and aromatherapy products.” In addition to five Florida-based kiosk and pushcart locations, Love Is in the Air products are also sold on four continents. Their target market is nearly everyone who comes into the mall: office workers, seniors, young mothers, teens, tourists, and more. “The great advantage of our line is that it appeals to every gender and age group… due to its novelty and affordability,” says Christian. “And because our line of products is so broad and useful, it can be offered for personal use as well as for a perfect gift.” The company’s collection of exotic aromas includes more than 100 fragrances of oil and “synergies” such as incense sticks, body oils and essential oils, plus a large selection of related products. In addition are their stylish incense holders, ceramic diffusers and lamps, simmer pots, and handmade box burners. The name and quality account for annual revenue increases of 50 percent, as well as strong customer loyalty. “When people think incense and oils, they think Love Is in the Air.”

Presentation and aesthetics are integrated so that the products are always displayed in natural surroundings. “[This] gives the customer the perception they are purchasing a natural and environmentally fine product,” says Alex.

Today, incense is as much an impulse buy as a planned purchase, not unlike the way the candles category progressed. But in this case, the key to capturing the customer is education by means of demonstration. “We assume many customers have no prior knowledge of our product line,” Christian says. “We instruct our customers [on] the usefulness and appropriate application of our merchandise, so that they can feel more comfortable [using] it.” Eventually, he says, “when [consumers] think of buying groceries, they’ll think of buying incense and oils, too.”

Honing the edge

With the proliferation of New Age and holistic products to meet a growing demand, are the Longas afraid there’s too much similar merchandise out there? Too much competition? “Certainly not,” they say definitively and in unison. “We love competition,” says Alex. “Competition is essential… It [raises us] to better standards.” And the popularity of the product seems to make money for existing retailers and room for newcomers. “Now everyone sells it, and everyone buys it,” says Christian. “That’s the part that’s so good. It’s better for everyone because the more people use it, the more its popularity will spread.”

But if specialty retailers fear their mall is saturated with incense, breathe easy, advise the Longas. “Some [retailers] might be afraid if someone else in the mall already sells incense in an inline store. But you can still open a whole cart of the products and do well,” says Christian. Case in point: Love Is in the Air itself opened a second cart in their Jersey Gardens location.

Repeat sales is a key element in keeping their competitive edge, and “Keep ‘em coming back” is something of a mantra. They know that customers remember where they bought something, and if they’re satisfied, they come back. The formula for repeat business: “Our low prices, high quality [and] excellent customer service are the key to our success,” says Christian.

They also travel regularly to Asia to stay in touch with new developments in the healing arts. As a result, they’re always working on expanding their product lines. “We love new challenges… such as new product development,” says Alex. “We develop new products every quarter.” And for each new product, their commitment to quality and consumer interest is put to the test. “We test products in low-, middle- and high-income areas,” says Christian. “We’ll introduce a product only if it works in all of them. That way, I don’t have to guess… And I don’t ever choose what I like—I choose what works.” They handle the quality issue with equal objectivity. Although they have the latitude to reduce quality in order to cut their costs and lower prices, they won’t. And they don’t need to. “[Customers] sometimes go elsewhere, nickel-and-diming, but they always come back to us.”

imageNext on their agenda: to open in-line stores, expand the company’s owner-operator program, and introduce the concept to amusement parks, fairs and festivals.

Love lessons

Specialty retailers can learn much from the Longas’ business experience. At the top of their list of “musts” is the old adage, “Location, location, location.” It’s the most important thing, says Alex, and they select their sites accordingly. “In our retail locations, we’re only in major malls… in wholesale, we’re in the city of Miami.” Miami is a strategic location because, as the gateway to South America, it allows them easy access to South American imports.

Another priority are the customers: never forget who it is that gets you where you want to be. “If we need to go the extra mile for our customers, we’re committed to doing it,” says Alex. “We’re also open with our customers,” adds Christian. “We love to listen to [them]. We take their advice and treat them like friends… No matter how big you get, always be open to suggestions. We’re very open-minded, and we get a lot of ideas from talking to them.”

Another key component to their success is aiming high and working hard to get there. “Always think big,” says Alex. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” And don’t be afraid to take risks: “If you think too much, you can lose the opportunity,” adds Christian. “If you believe in something… go for it.”

And finally, the fact that the word “Love” is first in their company name is no accident. Perhaps most important of all, they say, is to do what you do for the love of it. “If you don’t do what you like, you’re going to fail,” Christian says. “But when you know a product and believe in it, you’re able to sell it well.”

The Longas also believe it’s crucial for success and happiness to love the people around you. At company headquarters in Hialeah (Miami), FL, friendship is in the air along with the incense. “We have [great] unity here in our business,” says Alex. “[So] the job gets accomplished in a better, more timely fashion.” The brothers say they could never have done it without the support of their loyal team of 20—or without each other. “A lot of partners fail because they’re not faithful to [each] other,” says Alex. “We trust one another absolutely.”

And underlying it all is love of family. For Christian and Alex, success is more than running a profitable business. The support and love of family are their foundation. They credit their mother for her early influence on their lives, and both parents for their ongoing support and advice. Says Christian: “My parents, Luis and Adriana Remar de Longa, were instrumental in giving me a good foundation for running the business. They gave me a good education and a strong family work ethic.” The brothers also value the support of their sisters, Rosalynn and Johanna.

“My best time spent is with my family,” says Alex. “Family is priceless.” For the Longa brothers, love—in the air or anywhere—is at the heart of their success.

Lauryn Mittleman

Mittleman is a regular contributor to Specialty Retail Report

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