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Natural Health

A recession proof industry?

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Natural Health

Financial forecasts from many sectors of the Canadian economy have been gloomy of late. But to some in the natural health industry, the future is bright.

Financial forecasts from many sectors of the Canadian economy have been gloomy of late. But to some in the natural health industry, the future is bright.

“Our sales are up 30 percent from January to June 2009 compared to 2008,” says Lou Liberatore, who founded The Healthy Bug in Halifax in 2005. Prior to that, he worked in natural health product (NHP) sales for more than 14 years but wanted something with more security and stability. And, despite much doom and gloom from Ottawa, he’s found it.

July 2009 was a record month, he says, explaining that the reason is surely multifactorial—a growing customer base, good staff, and good store policies.

Yes, acknowledges Liberatore, some shoppers will price check and will buy at big box stores or online, but loyal customers come back because they want personal information and attention from people they can trust.

Lifelong customers

Building relationships is important—and will continue to be, agrees Dave Fuller of Ave Maria Specialties in Prince George, BC. Since his start in business 21 years ago, his original customers have brought their children and now bring their grandchildren.

“Sales are flat,” he admits. “Consumers are looking for better deals. We’re trying to take advantage of sales from our suppliers and pass them along.”

Fuller has seen trends come and go, from exotic fruit drinks to today’s popular gluten-free foods. He’s also seen many vitamin lines come and go, as he eliminates those from his store that don’t meet expectations. He and his staff tour most manufacturers’ facilities themselves “to make sure that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle.”

Quality health solutions

This attention to quality is what he thinks will see retailers through current economic instability. “We have to know our products,” he tells alive. “We have to educate our staff to a higher level than that at a grocery store or pharmacy if we want to stay viable. It costs a lot of money, but we’re willing to do this.”

“Why do customers come to us?” echoes Craig Walker of 1st Choice Health from St. Albert, Alberta. “Because we’re the ones customers perceive as having the education and knowledge to assist them in what they’re looking for.”

Walker doesn’t sell products. He sells solutions. In his early 30s he developed a serious illness that lasted for years. Eventually, a naturopathic doctor tested him for nutritional deficiencies and gave him Earl Mindell’s Vitamin Bible (Grand Central, 1991), which, he laughs, wasn’t exactly an easy read. Nevertheless it started him on his road to lifelong wellness. Now, at 58, he’s healthier than ever and is ready to share what he’s learned.

“It’s an interesting stage in life,” he says, “incredibly rewarding and frustrating.” It’s frustrating in the sense that many people are looking for a quick-fix solution whereas Walker’s message is one of long-term care involving cleansing/detoxification, pH balancing, and nutrition.

“Maintain your effort and change your life,” he says. “The key to health is that you have to maintain the effort for the rest of your life. Stop brushing your teeth every morning and see what happens.”

On the matter of the economy, Walker says, “We’re being affected by those customers who are economically challenged. We haven’t been affected by those who know the value of what they’re buying and how it’s made them feel better.”

Like the Healthy Bug in Halifax, other health food stores are enjoying healthy profits. “Since the recession started, sales are up 30 percent,” says David Best of Green Door Vitamins, which he co-started 10 years ago in downtown Kingston, Ontario. “I’ve read that during a recession people hunker down to focus on family and health.”

NHP concerns

This increased focus on personal health seems to be the case for his supplement shop. At the moment, however, a bigger concern for him than finances is the potential effect of NHP regulations. “Everyone is concerned about these natural health product numbers [that],” he says. Many companies are finding their product license applications to the Natural Health Products Directorate stalled or rejected.

The mainstreaming of natural medicine is a trend that Best says is inevitable and unending. “It’s business. You have to fight for your own turf.” Despite an engineering background, Best has explored many aspects of alternative and complementary healing, which he feels is a unique draw for many customers.

Current popular sellers for him include products for arthritis and pain, which receive many referrals from local health practitioners, including doctors. Just last night, a local CBC-affiliated TV crew was in his shop filming a documentary about immunity and the pandemic of the day, swine flu.

“Exposure to the mainstream populace has increased enormously. Years ago I wouldn’t have seen utility workers coming in asking for bowel cleanses,” he tells alive. “There’s still a lot of growth happening in the industry.”

The voice of natural health

As Canada’s natural health and wellness magazine, alive has been educating consumers about natural health products for the past 34 years. With timely, well-researched articles, alive has chronicled the natural health industry’s phenomenal growth.

alive has kept you informed about issues that affect the natural health industry, such as Bill C-51 and the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD), and we will continue to bring you the latest natural health news.

For information on issues affecting the natural health food industry, visit the Canadian Health Food Association website at chfa.ca.

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