Celebrating Change

The publisher of New Age Retailer reflects on 25 years in business.
by : 

Molly Trimble

May 1, 2011

When New Age Retailer rolled off the presses for the first time in 1987, the world was a very different place. Apple and Adobe had just hooked up to create a love child: desktop publishing. The long reign of typewriters and carbon paper was over, done in by the new desktop computer. Cell phones, so indispensable today, were nowhere to be seen. All telephones were firmly tethered to the walls of homes and businesses, and that was where we used them. Conversations carried on while walking down the street needed two things: you and at least one other person close enough to touch. Texting was still another 20 years in the future. Yahoo and Google? Not even a gleam in their inventors’ eyes. Research then was all about phone books, legwork, and libraries. Twitter and Facebook? Only birds tweeted, and “friends” were special people you hung out with, or at least whose names you knew. Everyone else was an “acquaintance.”

In 1987 big-box retailers were rare, and huge discount internet stores like Amazon didn’t exist. Stores typically were smaller then—also three-dimensional and accessible with all five senses. Most were specialized: If you went to a hardware store, you could buy a molly bolt and copper tubing, but mascara or shoes for the kids? You wouldn’t even ask. (Just for fun, quickly name something you can’t buy at Costco today.)

Much has changed in 25 years, in small ways and large. The thing about change is that it’s never completely predictable. Wouldn’t it have been nice to know in 2006 that the economy would very likely tank in 2008? I would have done many things differently. You, too, I bet. Instead—if I can speak for you—you and I did what we always do. We relied on the few principles we trust to keep our companies upright and moving forward, and we stretched as far as we could to see around the bend ahead. And here we are. We both made it—a little battered, perhaps, but still standing, still moving forward in 2011.

A moment to celebrate and reflect

As the publisher, I’ve thought a lot about why New Age Retailer has been able to beat the odds over the past 25 years, especially when our competitors couldn’t. It’s not that we didn’t make plenty of mistakes. P-l-e-n-t-y. For instance, when I started with New Age Retailer in 1994 as a sales rep, the company management structure was consensus among the five department heads and the owner. Do you know how long it takes to reach consensus on every decision in a rapidly growing company? Longer than that. But we were a New Age company and idealism ruled. No evil hierarchy for us. The managers should all be happy with every company decision, the thinking went. Trouble was, they weren’t. Often, they had to give in just to finish the work on their desks before midnight.

We cycled through more consensus-type management structures in the ’90s, until in 1999 the owner sold the company to the employees. We became an employee-owned company, an ESOP to be exact. It didn’t take us long to realize, evil hierarchy or not, we needed a structure in which the lines of authority were clear and decisions could be made sooner rather than six-months-of-meetings later. Our last consensus decision? To hire a CEO. After some adjustment (“wow, we can still be a heart-centered company with a top-down structure!”), we became the professional company we needed to be.

Some things we got right from the beginning. First, we always knew our mission was to help you keep your retail businesses healthy. Second, New Age was our niche of choice, and we were going to support it by whatever name it was called, whether that was body-mind-spirit, conscious living, LOHAS, alternative spirituality, or a new term yet to be coined. We kept our New Age umbrella wide and welcoming deliberately.

Third, as a trade magazine, our big job was to connect our retailers with wholesalers of New Age products. We wouldn’t have made it much past 1987 if our wholesale advertisers hadn’t supported us in this. They were very important to us, and we showed it by keeping our advertising sales friendly and fair. We still do. We have a large club of wholesalers who have advertised with us for 10 years or more. Micki Baumann of Deva Designs is the star of our loyalty club—she’s advertised in every issue of New Age Retailer for 17 years.

Last, we never tried to be all things to everyone. Our competitors, may they rest in peace, tried to woo a broad New Age contingent, and it became hard to tell who their editorial content was speaking to. Wholesalers? Consumers? Authors? Retailers? We learned early to protect our content from drifting into places it didn’t belong. Our content is created for independent retail business owners and their staff. That’s it. No one else.

Times they are a-changin’

All along, our task has been to keep up with the changing times. Before 2000, that was easier for us. Online magazines didn’t exist. Magazines then smelled faintly of ink, and you licked your finger to turn the pages. Advertisers never asked us how many unique clicks their ads were getting. Websites were simple affairs and mainly for the government and techies.

After 2006, all hell broke loose, technologically speaking. We’re now firmly in the Personal Screen Era: laptops, mobile devices, iPads, GPS, Kindles, with more tech tools on the way. To play with the big boys, businesses like yours and ours now have to stake out significant territory online. If you’re not on the other side of your customers’ screens, you’ll have one heck of a time competing for their business.

And social media? Now we have to stay “connected” and promote our companies with blogs, tweets, posts, and texts. It’s like “drinking from a fire hose,” as the saying goes. I dream that one day tech developers will take a breather and let us all catch up. What’s that you say? When what freezes over?

Like you, we do our very best to keep up with the times at New Age Retailer. We’re fairly successful at it, too. We’ve done major redesigns of our website four times, with a fifth on the way. We have a Facebook page we post to regularly and an email newsletter our readers seem to like. Our biggest ode to technology right now is our online edition of the magazine—it’s seriously cool with amazing features. (Check it out at www.newageretailer.com.)

Next on our tech horizon, we’re looking at a mobile application for New Age Retailer. With the speed technology is moving, we had better hurry up or we’ll have to buy the 3-D hologram version. That’s a joke, but I promise if it comes down to it, I’m going to loudly remind everyone our print version is real 3-D.

What’s “new” about New Age?

Keeping up with New Age, watching it evolve and reach new population segments, has been a joyful part of publishing our magazine. People who would never (never!) consider themselves New Age keep becoming interested in body-mind-spirit subjects in spite of themselves.

When our magazine began in 1987, New Age was a special, esoteric niche Oprah didn’t talk about on her show; but that year, Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb television miniseries got the mainstream talking in a big way. By 1995 The Celestine Prophecy, a truly New Age novel, was being read across all demographics. In 2007 The Secret upped the ante and interest in New Age subjects exploded, with Oprah leading the way. Today, energy medicine and the nature of consciousness are grabbing all kinds of headlines. Safe to say, it’s not the same old New Age anymore. We’re fully out of the hippie era and sending new green shoots into science and medicine. The adventure continues.

We’ve got some daunting challenges to face in 2011, you and I. But if you were doing business in 2008 and you’re still in business today, be proud. No one will be erecting a statue to either of us in the town square anytime soon, but today my staff and I feel like heroes. You should, too.

What Time Has Taught Us

Four business lessons from the front lines

  • Decide what matters. Plato said it first: Know who you are and what you value. (Actually, Plato said, “Know thyself.” He was a succinct kind of guy.) When you have to make compromises in business (and we all do), make sure they aren’t about things that really matter to you, like how you want your staff to treat your customers. Lesson: Stand tough on the issues you care about. You’ll lose heart if you don’t.
  • Don’t become delusional. In 2000, the new CEO at New Age Retailer decided we should be in the side business of running travel tours to sacred places around the world. Mind you, we were a publishing company; none of us had ever even been on an organized tour, but, gee, wouldn’t it be fun to see crop circles in England? The company spent a lot of money preparing for a tour to I-forget-where. No one signed up … because it didn’t make sense. Lesson: Don’t get off-track with your business.
  • Trust yourself. When Y2K was freaking everybody out in 1999, I had a strong conviction the hype was way overblown. I had no reason to trust myself on this. What I knew about technology then could have fit in a thimble with room to spare. But I knew. And that saved the company time, money, and panic. Lesson: Watch out for bandwagons heading in the wrong direction.
  • When you’re stuck and out of steam, get some help. In saunas, there are big signs that say, “15 minutes maximum allowed in the sauna.” Why? Because we’re warm-blooded animals and sitting too long in a small space heated to 190 degrees could really mess us up. When you run out of steam for your business, it’s a clue you’ve been sitting in the heat too long. Get out, call a mentor, a consultant, or a wise business friend, and change something you’re doing. Lesson: Someone somewhere knows something you can do to improve your business. Believe it. —Molly Trimble

Molly Trimble is the publisher of New Age Retailer.