Last year's cinematic odes to the '70s, "Boogie Nights" and "The Ice Storm," depicted the decade in all its tacky glory--a time when polyester reigned supreme, synthetics inspired oohs and aahs, and prepackaged TV dinners delighted convenience-seekers.
But during that same decade, a few daring dissenters shunned the synthetic lifestyle and tapped into a more natural way of life. During the '70s, for example, Tom's of Maine began selling nonphosphate liquid laundry detergent, natural toothpaste, natural shampoo and, eventually, natural deodorant, mouthwash and shaving cream.
In 1962, Riquette Hofstein, now 50, began working furiously in her kitchen slicing and dicing grapes, strawberries, pears and apples to put in her all-natural beauty-care products--products that shunned chemicals and preservatives and weren't tested on animals.
At the time, some thought Hofstein's idea was a little on the fruity side. The plastic-loving masses labeled these types of natural businesses "granola" or "hippie." When people heard the word "natural," they immediately conjured up images of love beads and Birkenstocks.
Today, more than a quarter of a century later, the concept has come to fruition naturally. Riquette, for one, plugged away and created a niche for her all-natural beauty-, skin- and hair-care products--not to mention an impressive business. Riquette International Inc. now includes a retail space in Beverly Hills, and Riquette has written three books and made frequent appearances on TV talk shows.
But those pioneering entrepreneurs from the '70s are no longer the only players in the field. Indeed, the whole nation is taking notice of what could be called a "natural" phenomenon.
Sherrie Strausfogel, beauty editor for Let's Live magazine, began writing a column on natural beauty products in 1997 and has seen a marked increase in consumer and corporate interest in the natural arena since then. "The recognition of the selling power of natural products is growing," says Strausfogel. "Even the big guys, like Lancome and Maybelline, are taking notice and adding natural ingredients to [some of] their products," she adds.
You may think that if the big guys are entering the market, there isn't any room for newcomers. Actually, the opposite is true. The participation of the cosmetics giants is actually driving the growth of the natural products industry and helping to educate consumers about the benefits of nonchemical-based products. And as the desire for all things au naturel rises, so does the opportunity for entrepreneurs.
Frances Huffman, a freelance writer in Pacific Palisades, California, is a former senior editor for Entrepreneur.
Just last year, Hazel Keller Cosmetics Inc., which has been selling cosmetics and skin-care products from its Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters since 1963, added a vitamin C-based facial cream to its line of vitamin-enriched lotions and creams. "Our customers have been really excited to try the vitamin C cream," says Marlene Johnson, 49, one of the company's five co-owners. Hazel Keller's 1997 sales neared $500,000 and, of that figure, about $10,000 came from only six months of sales of the firm's 2-ounce jar of vitamin C facial cream.
"Vitamin C products and products with antioxidants are really hot right now," Strausfogel confirms, "and I'm seeing more and more of them coming out."
"People really want to go back to the basics," agrees Kathryn Weiss, owner of Moonflower Soaps & Sundries in Bellingham, Washington. "A lot of people have built up allergies to fragrances and preservatives, and they want to get back to something that's better for the body and the mind."
That's part of the reason Weiss spent almost a year tinkering in her kitchen developing formulas for her handmade soaps rich with olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, and organic herbs such as lavendar, rosemary and rosehips. By 1995, she had perfected her recipes and started hitting local arts and crafts fairs selling her soaps for $3.25 a bar.
Like Weiss, whose soaps brought in more than $8,000 last year, many newcomers to the natural-products field take a low-tech approach to marketing: arts and crafts fairs, natural foods stores and the like. But many natural-products sellers are giving their marketing strategies a decidedly high-tech slant by hopping on the Internet in search of customers.
Todd Tavares and his partner, Tiffany Visaggio, 23, are using a Web site as the main marketing medium for Healthy Living Outlet, the Vernon, New Jersey, company they formed in September 1997 as a part-time business they hope will pull in enough sales within five years to go full time. "We thought the Web was the best way to get our products in front of people all over the world for the least amount of money," says Tavares, 25.
Apparently, the world was waiting. Tavares says response to the site has been phenomenal "We've received orders from all over the world--Brazil, Sweden, the former Soviet Union," he says. First-year sales of the company's natural beauty-care products, aromatherapy items, air and water purifiers, books, videos, vitamins, herbs and other health products are expected to reach the $30,000 mark. The pair also believe sales will continue to rise after they add a 24-page mail order catalog to their bag of marketing tricks.
As consumer interest in the field grows, so does the number of products and product categories. These days, health-food stores, grocery stores, beauty supply shops and other retail locations line their shelves with natural hair-care, skin-care, mouth-care, aromatherapy, sun-care and body-care products. And there seems to be no end in sight to the growth in popularity of these products.
The proliferation of products also means there's a plethora of ways entrepreneurs can enter this field: They can manufacture a product, distribute other manufacturers' products, open a retail location, sell wares at local fairs, launch a Web site, publish newsletters or books on the topic, or even provide services such as facials and makeovers using natural products.
Making your mark won't be a cinch, however. The industry's popularity has increased competition among the big guys and entrepreneurs alike. "I had no idea how much competition was out there when I first started," says Weiss. "In my town alone, there are about four other soap makers."
Tavares, too, is finding that standing out in this field is no easy task. "The competition is huge," he says. "It's really a struggle. To make it in this business, you have to know what you're doing and help educate customers about the various products. You have to be on top of what's going on in the industry."
And the industry is changing rapidly because of new discoveries about herbs, vitamins and other supplements and their benefits. To keep one step ahead of the competition, entrepreneurs have to react quickly when new discoveries are announced. The fast-changing nature of the industry actually bodes well for flexible small businesses because they can shift gears much more quickly than corporate enterprises.
What's another advantage small businesses have over their deep-pocketed competitors? Strausfogel notes that in keeping with the image of their homegrown products, many marketers can get away with using less elaborate packaging, thus keeping costs in check.
Where the big guys take the lead is when it comes to jockeying for shelf space in the nation's grocery and retail store chains. Unfortunately, in this arena, big bucks almost always win out over small-budget-but-good-for-you goods.
That's why so many natural-born sellers are touting their wares through other avenues: direct mail, cyberspace and vitamin stores. And though they may be nontraditional avenues, they're working. In addition to boosting sales, they're helping natural products shed their "alternative" status and join the mainstream. And that means when entrepreneurs hear the word "natural," they may no longer envision barefoot hippies??? but they'll still see green.
For More Info
- National Nutritional Foods Association in Irvine, California, hosts trade shows where natural products and foods are debuted. For more information, call (714) 622-6272.
- New Age Journal (http://www.newage.com/journal) is a bimonthly magazine that often covers natural products. For more information, call (800)?55-1178.
- Let's Live magazine (monthly) has information on natural living. For more information, call (213)?69-3901.
Hazel Keller Cosmetics Inc., 2735 Westport Rd., Charlotte, NC 28208, (704) 399-2226
Healthy Living Outlet, 1507 Rte. 565, Sussex, NJ 07461, http://www.healthylivingoutlet.com
Moonflower Soaps & Sundries, (360) 733-4850, http://www.bima.com/moonflower
Riquette International Inc., (800) 747-8388, http://www.riquette.com