Coming Of Age

Entrepreneurs get in the spirit as New Age products gain a mainstream following.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the July 1996 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Something funny has happened to the New Age movement-it's gone mainstream. Whether it's due to spiritual longing, environmental concerns, changing attitudes, impending millennial fever-or, more likely, a combination of all of the above-a surprising number of consumers are embracing products previously thought of as, well, weird. And, as incense burners, love beads and Gregorian chants captivate the masses, it's clear New Age entrepreneurs are tapping into a force perhaps even more powerful than they ever envisioned.

"People are searching for other ideas because the old ideas aren't working," says Eric Sherman, owner of Central Casting, a Berkeley, California, company that sells an extensive line of

metaphysical jewelry. "People are moving away from traditional religions, medicines and lifestyles and are looking for alternatives."

Sherman, 48, who launched his company four years ago, does his part by offering alternative-seeking consumers merchandise ranging from medicine bags and I Ching medallions to zodiac talismans and endangered wildlife pendants. "What we are basically selling is ideas," he explains, "ideas for people to grasp ahold of and think about."

Where Have All The Flower Children Gone?

The New Age movement is gaining momentum at the same time the baby boomers are moving into middle age-a time in life typically associated with introspection and facing one's own mortality. Coincidence? Many experts don't think so.

And even though more than a few baby boomers are part of the New Age audience today, their impact on the movement is almost certainly eclipsed by the Generation X crowd. For it is the younger consumers-the children of yesteryear's flower children-that are proving to be the prime market for all things ethereal.

"It's a growing movement among younger people," affirms Rick Rowland, 37, co-owner of 20-year-old Nashville, Tennessee, company Music City Marketing Inc., which wholesales New Age products such as American Indian crafts, mineral key chains and crystal balls to retailers worldwide. "The [flower children of the 1960s] were looking for something-enlightenment or whatever. I think it's natural that their children [have] the same curiosities."

"The flower children of the '90s are really going for this," agrees entrepreneur Joe Bonk, 40, of the jewelry and incense burners made from Fimo clay and sold by his Ormond Beach, Florida, company, Going Bonkers Inc. "Incense burners have gone through the roof!"

But the times, oh, how they have a-changed. Although spiritual paraphernalia is still sold in the thousands of New Age shops throughout the country, retailers as diverse as department stores, gift shops, drugstores and theme parks now traffic in the otherworldly as well. "It's so mainstream," says Bonk, "you can sell [these products] in a mall."

Don't criticize what you may not understand, however: We're not talking about Woodstock redux. "The people who grew up in the '60s, when people were [commonly] smoking pot, automatically think incense is used to cover up pot smoke," says Marc Biales, 46, founder of Wild Berry Incense in Oxford, Ohio. "But people who didn't grow up with this experience don't look at it quite the same. They just want to put a fragrance in the room."

Of Prophets And Profits

What's the one caveat you must-absolutely must-heed in the New Age industry? Simple: Don't try to pull the wool-or, in this case, the beaded curtain-over the eyes of your customers. This is too smart a market, say entrepreneurs, to be swayed by crass commercialism or false prophets.

"If you [try to fool people], they will know because this customer is definitely intelligent," warns Sherman, who speaks from 20 years of industry experience. "So having proper product knowledge is key. Second, integrity [is essential]. The consumer who buys this mer-chandise understands products with integrity and looks down on those products that are [overly] commercialized."

"Treat the consumer with respect," echoes Rowland, whose company began emphasizing New Age merchandise in its product line nearly seven years ago. "New Age consumers aren't stupid. They're very conscious; they're very aware. And I think they're only going to become more aware as time goes on."

Fortunately, you won't need to consult a crystal ball to fathom the minds of this sophisticated audience. "Do some research," urges Rowland. "Do what we do: Go to stores. Talk to people. Observe the consumer. Go to trade shows. Look at the publications; read the articles. There's a myriad of information out there."

There's a myriad of opportunities, too. To wit, Rowland's company-which touts itself as selling "products for the free spirited"-is expected to continue enjoying double-digit percentage growth. Bonk raves about 300 percent growth in the last several years and predicts sales of $750,000 this year. Biales says his company experienced growth of nearly 80 percent last year. And, for fiscal year 1995, Eric Sherman's Central Casting reports sales in excess of $5 million.

"The New Age market," muses Rowland, "has really been a wonderful thing for us."

Spirits In The Material World

It is a wonderful market, to be sure. It's also one that defies easy description. Within the New Age category, a mind-blowing array of products, literature and activities seem to fit. Aside from those previously mentioned, there are Chinese therapy balls, reflexology charts, numerology-themed jewelry, herbal remedies, psychic hotlines, spiritual retreats, self-help books with a spiritual slant and, of course, all things angelic. Some items-such as lava lamps and peace-sign pendants-are throwbacks to a not-too-distant past. Others-such as incense-go back a whole lot further.

"Incense has been with mankind forever," says Biales. "It's not really new; it's just popular again."

Of course, everything old is not New Age-just as the term "New Age" might be considered something of a misnomer. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that enlightenment is in the eye of the beholder and, as mainstream America continues to popularize the quest for spiritual meaning, there will be an even more impressive array of merchandise to behold. Ultimately, this makes it all the more critical to stay one step ahead of the market.

"We try to keep our minds and eyes open," says Rowland. "As far as product categories are concerned, you're going to have tarot cards, you're going to have incense, you're going to have candles-but we're always looking for new products within those categories."

"We're constantly trying to come out with new products," agrees Bonk. "[We want] to captivate a whole new audience and keep the audience we already have."

If The Spirit Moves You

Ahh . . . the audience. Although it once seemed unlikely that Buddhism would play in Peoria, it now seems almost inconceivable that the widespread yearning for divine wisdom should soon pass. Not with skyrocketing health-care prices making alternative medicine an attractive option. Not with a younger generation fixated on environmental issues. Not with the millennium in sight. Not with technological advances giving rise to so much collective anxiety. Not, in summary, with the way things are. The more complex the world becomes, the more we look for answers to make sense of our own lives.

All of which bodes well for New Age entrepreneurs. "As our Generation X customers continue to mature," speculates Rowland, "I think they're only going to become more concerned and more interested in improving their bodies and minds and their outlooks on life."

Entrepreneur Joe Bonk is equally enthusiastic. "I really see [this industry] growing bigger," he raves. "It's going to keep going on and on and on and on."

Kind of like the quest for spiritual enlightenment itself, wouldn't you say? It's a journey with so many roads, so many passengers . . . and so many possibilities.

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