Recently I was interviewed for a magazine article on complementary medicine, and a part of the interview was focused on how can small retail stores survive. Since many people entering the Pyramid ask similar questions, I wanted to publish the transcript of that part of the interview here:
Q: Was it always your dream to own a wellness store?
A: Actually, no. If you had told me ten years ago that I would own a "store," I probably would've laughed at you because I am about as anti-commercialism as you can get. These huge commercial corporations that make a fortune off convincing people to buy stuff that they don't really need, or worse--when they make money off wellness products that people need to get well or even live--really bother me. I purposely shop at the small family-owned businesses whenever possible, because I know that it is hard for them in this economy to surivive with all of these big chains. Knowing how hard it is to run a small store these days, I never even considered it as something I would want to do.
Q: That's interesting. So how did you end up with your own store, and why is it the centerpiece of your wellness center?
A: Honestly, as we were designing the original Pyramid, each new practitioner that came aboard would say things like "can we sell this awesome product at the Center? I'd like to be able to offer it to my clients" and so I would keep saying yes, and before long, we had a huge collection of products that we wanted to be able to bring to the Rutland area. As word spread about what we were doing, we kept getting visited by sales representatives who also wanted us to carry their products. And honestly, it became kind of fun to me to test out the products and try to find other products that would fit nicely with our mission. I realized that I like to be a "buyer."
The other thing that happened was that I started seeing the actual prices that other businesses were paying for the merchandise, and realizing how much they were marking up things, and I became sick. I realized that by having my own store, I could actually only mark things up enough to make a reasonable living...and my theory was that if I kept prices really low, people would actually buy more, and if I only sold products that were good, solid products we believed in, I would feel good about offering great products at great prices.
The placement of the Wellness Marketplace was actually pretty funny. Originally where the store was at the old Pyramid, I had envisioned the Yoga studio. But during the creation of the business, I did a lot of meditating and asking for guidance, and what kept coming through was that the store should actually be the center point. The reason was simple--Americans have been highly socialized to stores--so coming into a holistic wellness center that is cleverly disguised as a store would probably make a lot of people feel more comfortable.
Now, we've greatly expanded our product lines at the new Pyramid. But we've really taken on this "support other local businesses" theme...and so most of our products are locally made. The Rutland area has a ton of very talented jewelry makers, for example...so we have lots of the local artwork whenever possible.
Q: And how does that artwork connect with the wellness theme of the place?
A: Artwork is vitally important to wellness on many levels. The creation of art itself for most people is therapeutic. And so from time to time we do have arts and crafts and jewelry-making workshops at the Pyramid. Next month we are going to be showcasing Mary Ellen Rudolph's egg painting...this is the most amazing thing I have ever seen--she takes tiny eggs and paints them in very complex patterns. It is a long process to make one egg, but it is so beautiful at the end.
Beyond that, having beautiful things in our environment helps us to stay positive and can impact the feng shui of our home or work. Taking into consideration color and placement, these original art pieces can really help us feel good.
Q: What about jewelry? Is that the same thing?
A: Yes. Most of the jewelry in the store is made from natural objects like gems, crystals, and stones. Although we make no medical claims about our jewelry, we do note that throughout history, people have believed that certain stones are good for improving different aspects of our wellness. So to be able to provide people with something original that they can wear that may improve their wellness, and support local artists, all at a low price, is amazing.
Q: I walked through the Marketplace and I was stunned. You have incredible pieces that even mass produced would cost hundreds of dollars elsewhere, and your prices were $10, $20, or $30. That is amazing!
A: It really is amazing. Obviously there are times when you want to have or give someone else some very classic jewelry like gold or diamonds. Downtown has several awesome jewelers that we often refer people to. But because we get our jewelry right from the designer and each piece is made of natural materials, we can offer these one-of-a-kind pieces at unbelievable prices. I always tell people that every piece in our store was made and picked personally to be at the Pyramid. When you buy something from us, you literally have a one-of-a-kind piece of art.
Q: And you don't break the bank so you have enough left over to also get a massage.
Q: So why did you create this business in a place like Rutland, Vermont?
A: That is a great question. The simple answer is that I don't know...I just had a feeling. The more complex answer is that I was very cleverly guided to Rutland for other things and it just became clear over time that Rutland NEEDS this stuff. It may not realize that it needs it yet, but it needs the Pyramid. And so even though Rutland is a place where people typically are not as open or may be struggling financially, I am not going anywhere. The Pyramid is not going anywhere. We're doing fine...but I know that there are still tons of people for us to reach.
Q: So what is the secret of your success?
A: The incredible people I work with. I have found people who share this passion for wellness and have a personal mission to do good in the world. These people have a personal investment in seeing the Pyramid succeed--and they are just good, caring, fun people. The Pyramid team works tirelessly--doing anything they need to do to make it work. We have doctors cleaning toilets...practitioners carrying things up the steep staircases...instructors sweeping the floors. We're like a family...or, rather, a functional one. It is amazing.
Q: So tell me--what is your favorite product in the store?
A: Wow...that is a hard question because I love everything there. I guess I really love the essential oil line. I was hesitant at first to have these in the store because I didn't know how a high-end line would do in Rutland--especially when you can walk across the street to the dollar store and get similar scents. But what I have learned is that when it comes to oils that you are going to put on your skin, you do not want to skimp on quality. You only want natural stuff with no chemicals. And since I've seen the difference it has made in my life personally, I love having the oils and being able to share them with the community. I also love having Galen Berry's Marble Art in the store. That is another example of beautiful stuff--and each piece of marbled paper is its own original piece of artwork. The salt products have really been making a different in peoples' lives, so being able to offer them means a lot--because these are not only beautiful, but may improve peoples' lives.
As an almost vegan, it was also important for me to find a protein powder of the highest quality--not only to sell, but to use myself...and our fitness director introduced me to Jarrow Formula's whey protein. Wow, that stuff is incredible.
Q: So do you believe in everything you sell like that?
A: Absolutely! There is no way I could sell something I didn't believe in. I'm not a salesperson, although I'm sure people have sometimes mistaken my passion for wellness as "selling."
Q: What is the best part about owning your own store?
A: I guess just knowing that I am bringing some very unique products to a part of the country that would not normally have some of this stuff. I know that at the end of the day, I've given people the best products I could find that really will be helpful to them at a reasonable price.
Q: I read your last newsletter and I saw the piece you put in about some of your prices being high. Can you explain that?
A: Oh, sure. One of my friends came in one day and told me that she was buying a similar product that we sold at another store for somewhat less. I think she was probably embarrassed telling me, but it was actually very helpful to me. So I started looking into it, and sure enough, she was right--another store did have a similar product and they were selling it for 10% less than we were. I've also seen a situation where a chain store like TJMaxx gets stuff in that is similar to what we could sell, but it is WAY less. And the simple reason for that is that they have the buying power to buy in huge quantities for the whole chain at once, and so they can sell the products for way less than my cost. Basically, it comes down to the integrity of the distributor. I am really old-fashioned in my values, and if a distributor is operating in a way that is similar to my values, I will buy the product from him or her, even if it is slightly more expensive. As long as I know that the product is of the highest quality, I am okay with paying a little more for something so that I know I am supporting people with integrity.
Q: I see. Have you ever had a problem with that?
A: Yes. I have had salespeople tell me whatever they think someone in my position would want to hear. They make promises and then do not follow through. Primarily this has been in the advertising part of the business, but it has also been from sales distributors. As soon as I am lied to, or I feel like the person does not care about the product, or is not giving me the best price for my customers, I will not go through that person again...and I will switch to someone who will. Take the teas in our store, for example. We have the most delicious teas you can find anywhere. They are made in NY by a woman who scours the earth to find the absolute best ingredients to use in her teas. Her teas are actually served in the Natural Museum of History in NYC and lots of other great places like that. Typically her higher end teas are more expensive than Rutlanders are used to...but they are amazing and such high quality, and I like this woman's integrity so much that I continue to buy her teas. The reality is, we still sell the teas for $1.50/cup, which is reasonable for what you get. The difference is that I do not mark up the tea...we want people to be able to have an awesome tea while at the Pyramid. So our customers get a great product, and we are selling something I really believe in. Everyone wins.
Q: What is the hardest part about owning the store?
A: Honestly, it is not hard. If you run the store with compassion and keep the customer's needs at the forefront of everything you do, the store sort of runs itself. But there are some things that I do get concerned about, like advertising. In any given week, we are visited by 5-10 salespeople who want us to purchase advertising. They all have wonderful products, and we would love to be able to advertise with all of them...but financially that is just impossible. We've tried every type of advertising you can imagine, and honestly, the thing that works the best for us is word of mouth. When people come in and see all we have to offer, and they experience the outstanding customer service, they come back and bring their friends. We really hope our customers will help us spread the word, because Rutland needs wellness!
Q: What is the most frustrating thing?
A: I guess the shoplifting. I know I sound naive, but I never in a million years thought that shoplifting would be a problem at a holistic center. I know that our regular clientele would never think of stealing anything, let alone from us...but from time to time people do come in and help themselves. I don't think like that, so it is hard for me to imagine doing that. We've learned the tricks now that people use--and we've installed cameras so that every square inch of the retail area is seen and recorded. I just never thought I would have to do that. I don't like having to have signs up in the store to remind people about shoplifting. It seems tacky to me, honestly, but it's the only way I know to remind people. I'd like to think that karma would take care of anyone who steals, but in the meantime, I've got to find ways to keep the merchandise on the shelf. Maybe I should be flattered that it's a store that people want to steal from? That just seems wrong.
Q: How do you compete with other similar stores in the area?
A: Well, first of all, I don't believe in competition. I truly believe that we all have something unique and special and important to offer the world. And so even though you can get incense at a couple different places in Rutland, I know that our incense is unique. It is hand-dipped--by a real person in the US--without the use of chemicals so the smell doesn't overwhelm people when they walk in. And the best part is that the cost is incredibly reasonable for a hand-made product--just ten cents a stick. I know that the people who want this level of quality are going to come to us. And other people will like the incense offered by other establishments.
We do overlap a bit with the local food co-op in terms of our products, but mostly we have different brands or different selections of items. I feel a very comfortable comradarie with the co-op so I don't feel any competition there. We actually refer people back and forth all the time. I personally shop at the co-op as often as I can.
Otherwise, I do not think there are many places in our area that offer the types of things we offer. In general, I support every other local business. When your mission is truly to see people get and stay well, it doesn't matter to me where people get the products as long as they get them. And of course, as long as we stay afloat financially, it is all good!
Q: You have a really unique take on running a business. I don't usually meet someone who is so not focused on the money. Is that true--are you for real?
A: HA! HA! Of course I am for real. I learned a long time ago that if you focus on doing good work, the universe or God or whatever you want to call it will provide you with everything you need. And so I do try to not worry about money as much as possible and just focus on doing the best I can for our customers. So far that has paid off as despite floods and thefts and all of that stuff, we have survived...thanks to the hard work of our staff and the support of the community. We are all so grateful. The trick is really finding a balance between doing this work and managing the facility to make sure that every need is met and the bills are paid.
Q: You mention gratitude a lot. What role does that play in your business?
A: It is the focus of not only my business, but my life. It is a central tenant to the Yoga belief system I hold...and it goes to the core of my beliefs about the laws of life. We get what we focus on, quite simply. And when you acknowledge and express gratitude, you keep getting more good things, which allow you to do more good work, for which you can be more grateful for, which brings you more good. It's a cycle. And honestly, when I acknowledge gratitude, it feels great. The Pyramid is a huge complex, and there is no way I could run it myself without the help of lots of people. Our staff is the most amazing group of people you could imagine.
Q: I also saw in your newsletter some subtle jabs at pharmacies who claim to be holistic wellness stores. Can you say more about that?
A: Oh, please do not get me started on this because I don't know if I will be able to stop. I am usually a pretty mellow, easy-going person. And I do not believe in competition, and I believe in everyone's right to make a living in a way that works for them. But I find it very upsetting when a pharmacy creates an aisle of holistic wellness products and then calls itself a holistic wellness store. Now don't get me wrong--I really don't have anything against the pharmaceutical companies because a lot of their products do enhance peoples' lives and in some cases save lives. But I do have a problem when businesses make money through the pharmaceutical company but also pretend to be something they are not. Just be honest about what you are and your expertise. Don't try to be an expert in an area you are not. And I guess it wouldn't matter to me too much except that because they have the financial resources to do a ton of advertising, they are truly misleading the public about what holistic wellness really is. They are selling products that they may or may not know anything about...often at outrageous prices...and often they do not know how to instruct their customers on how to use these products. And they make disparaging remarks about us to their customers. For a long time I just bit my tongue about these wellness stores, but now that I realize the amount of money they are spending on advertising to try to convince the public that they are the best option for holistic products, I am extremely bothered. I want people to know that holistic wellness is something different than you can get from a pharmacy that markets itself as a holistic place.
Q: What is your funniest story about the store?
A: Well, at the time it wasn't really very funny, but soon after we opened the second location, a woman came in and talked to us for a long time. Then she explained that everything in our store was stuff that she wanted...and she started pulling tons of things off the shelf, asking us to wrap them up. She had a whole crate full of items by the time she was done, and everyone working that day had to help wrap up her items. She picked out lots of intricate things that had to be carefully wrapped, like gemstone chess sets, hand blown-glass products, and more. So while we were all frantically packing up her things, she said she was going to the parking lot to bring her car closer. Given the bags of items she was purchasing, this made sense...but she never came back! Now, I don't know if this is something she does regularly and it is a thrill to have so many people waiting on her, or if something weird happened and she had to leave...but she has not been back since. And we then had to unwrap every item and put it back on the shelf.
Q: Any advice you have to other store owners out there?
A: Well, I think the biggest thing I have learned is that the more diverse your offerings, the more likely you are to survive these difficult times. So I would suggest offering multiple lines of products. And like I said earlier, just focus on doing a great job for your customers and everything else seems to fall into place!