New Age is Now

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.

Natural market

“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.