From the September 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

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
in 1996.

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.

Help Is On The Way

Recent concerns about repetitive motion injuries are driving the demand for back stores' products and services. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, back injuries account for 26 percent of all workplace injuries/illnesses, and employers concerned about workers' compensation claims are scrambling to take preventive measures.

"Employers are increasingly interested in providing comfortable, healthy work environments," says Anthony Mazlish, 33, founder and president of Newington, Virginia-based The Healthy Back Store Inc. Aside from selling smaller back-support products, beds and chairs, The Healthy Back also works with employers to provide employees with ergonomically sound chairs, desks and computer stations. To this end, Mazlish includes a detailed workplace evaluation form on his company's Web site (http://www.healthyback.com) to obtain precise measurements of leg and arm lengths for orders of custom-designed ergonomic furniture.

"The greater the proliferation of computers at all levels of the work force and the more sedentary the work force, the more back pain there is, and the more you're going to need these types of chairs," says Mazlish, a back-pain sufferer himself, who opened the first Healthy Back Store in Rockville, Maryland, in 1994. With Mazlish's recent acquisition of three Natural Back Stores in Southern California (which are now called The Healthy Back), The Healthy Back chain is now eight stores strong.

Time To Hit Med School?

If you're considering opening a back store, you may wonder if, given the health problems that drive potential customers to these stores, medical expertise is required to satisfy the needs of customers as well as avoid legal trouble if one of your products injures a customer. The answer, according to Schatz, is no. "We're not doctors, and we don't pretend to be, but if we see someone with a very bad back, we tell him or her to go see a doctor," she says. "We're very careful about that."

Mazlish says that while his employees don't offer customers medical advice, they do receive training from a physical therapist to help them better serve clients. "Customers expect a high level of service and expertise, but we are certainly no substitute for a doctor's care," he says. "We are, however, very fluent in the language of back pain."

As far as legal trouble associated with back-support products go: "We've never had a lawsuit as a result of a product," says Schatz. "JoAnne's Bed & Back has an exchange policy to ensure customer satisfaction. In fact, we actually have a scrapbook of letters from people we've helped."

Talk Of The Town

Since the success of a back store depends on the level of its commitment to customer satisfaction, most customers learn of a store's presence through word-of-mouth. Referrals from doctors and chiropractors still make up a good portion of new customers, but the narrow niche that back stores occupy, as well as their relative newness to the marketplace, make effective advertising tactics a must. Relax The Back's Johnson says that while his store's catalog generates a fair amount of business, the store's Web site (which lists store locations and product information) is beginning to generate more business. "It has not been a big force, and this is probably true of a lot of businesses on the Internet, but over time I can see it becoming more of a factor," says Johnson.

The good news is, back stores are, in Johnson's words, "destination locations," meaning that most customers don't enter the stores on impulse, as they do with many retail stores. In other words, because customers are looking for you, back stores can often flourish in relatively out-of-the-way locations, which generally have lower rent than prime spots. Start-up costs for back-products stores typically range from $150,000 to $250,000.

Owning a back store isn't just about selling back-support products, says Mazlish. "It is a customer service business," he says. "When you're helping people improve their comfort level, you're only as good as the amount of relief you can give them. If what we sell them doesn't work, we haven't done a darn thing."

Next Step

  • HomeCare magazine covers the medical supply marketplace. Call (800) 543-4116, ext. 480, or write to HomeCare, Miramar Communications, P.O. Box 8987, Malibu, CA 90265-8987.
  • Call SEMCO Productions at (770) 998-9800 for information about relevant trade shows.
  • The following franchise companies can help you get started: Better Back Store Franchises, 7936 E. Arapahoe Ct., #2100, Englewood, CO 80112, (800) 501-2225; and Relax The Back Corp., 2101 Rosecrans, #12500, El Segundo, CA 90245, (800) 290-2225.

Contact Sources

The Healthy Back Store Inc., (800) 4-MY-BACK

JoAnne's Bed & Back Shops, (888) SOS-BACK

Relax The Back Corp., (310) 416-1077, http://www.relaxtheback.com