America is a nation in pain--back pain. According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, back pain affects one in four Americans and is the second- leading cause of work absenteeism. Unlike many ailments, back pain is often brought on by nothing at all: A sedentary lifestyle, combined with long hours of sitting in awkward positions, puts a great deal of stress on the fragile cartilage discs that support and cushion the spine. These discs degenerate with age, making back pain a common complaint among seniors, whose numbers are expected by the U.S. Census Bureau to more than double from 34.3 million to 78.8 million people by 2050.
Although traditional medical remedies such as drugs and surgery can sometimes relieve or eliminate back pain, the high cost of health care and the chronic nature of back problems are prompting a growing number of back-pain sufferers to seek alternative methods of relief. "More people are taking responsibility for their own backs," says Dr. Joel Press, a Chicago physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist. "There's a lot [the medical industry] can offer in terms of education about what types of activities to do and what kinds of things to avoid, but I think people are taking the next step and asking what they can do about the problem."
Former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, IBM executive and back-pain
sufferer Dairl Johnson, 55, took the next step after years of back
pain, which started when he was injured while ejecting from an
aircraft during a training exercise. His doctor referred him to a
Relax The Back Store, which specialized in selling ergonomic
products designed to alleviate and prevent back pain, and suggested
Johnson buy a recliner and a backrest for his car. These products
turned out to be so effective at relieving his back pain that
Johnson opened several Relax The Back Store franchises in
California in 1993. Eventually, he bought Relax The Back Corp.,
which now has more than 100 stores and had 1997 sales of nearly $50
million, up from $30 million
While Johnson is pleased with Relax The Back's success, having felt the same pain his customers feel, he enjoys being able to offer them some relief. "I can't think of a better business to be in," he says. "I can help people feel better and live more active lives and prevent debilitating back problems with my products."
Relax The Back expects to open 25 new U.S. stores by year-end, and Johnson also plans to enter the markets in Western Europe, Japan and Singapore. "We're not even close to reaching our full growth potential," he says.
JoAnne Schatz, 60, is another entrepreneur who has built a business soothing aching backs. Working for an orthopedic surgeon who often told his back-pain patients to purchase special back-supporting beds, chairs and pillows, Schatz found that many patients had no idea where to find such products. The enterprise that was to become JoAnne's Bed & Back Shops was born in Schatz's garage in 1978, with $15,000 in capital and her children serving as part-time employees.
With the help of her husband, Schatz opened her first store in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1980, focusing on back-pain prevention. "At JoAnne's, we don't just sell to people with bad backs; we sell to people who are trying to prevent bad backs," says Schatz, who develops and puts her name on many of the products she sells. "For example, if you tell me you drive two hours a day and your back hurts, I'm going to sell you a back support for your car so the problem doesn't get any worse." Eighteen years after moving out of her garage, Schatz has 13 stores in four Northeastern states and Washington, DC, with 1997 sales of more than $6.2 million.
Although JoAnne's Bed & Back Shop's Web site (http://www.backfriendly.com) and catalog both display her wares, the nature of the business requires that customers receive personal attention. In fact, many of Schatz's stores feature physical therapists who conduct training sessions and consultations. "People have to be fit to the product, whether it's a mattress, chair or pillow," says Schatz. Despite the many pillows and smaller items available in the stores, Schatz says the most popular items are mattresses, adjustable beds and office chairs, which drive average sales to around $300.