Forty years ago, Dee Ann Williams and Sheila Marsh shared a vision of creating a place to support wellness through massage and herbs, a place called Radiance. Over the years, while the ownership has changed, the original vision that was embraced and cultivated by their Olympia, Wash., community continues to shine under the guidance of Karin Olsen and Andrea Seabert.
Maggie Feeney: Radiance recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Congratulations!
Karin Olsen: Thank you.
Feeney: Forty years in business is quite an achievement. If I understand correctly, you are the third or fourth owner?
Olsen: My partner Andrea and I are the third group of women to own Radiance. It’s phenomenal to be in business for 40 years, and then to be women-owned the whole time is also pretty cool.
Feeney: I’d say it’s fantastic! What do you attribute your success to these 40 years?
Olsen: I think we have a very supportive community. We noticed a lot in the economic downturn that people would come in and actually say to us, “I’m shopping here because I want you to stay in business.”
Feeney: In the press release for your 40th anniversary, you said that years ago Radiance would have been called a New Age store, but that the times have changed and the New Age has arrived. How do you characterize your business today? Is there a word or phrase that has replaced the New Age moniker for you?
Olsen: Yes, wellness; we focus on wellness. We love to provide gift items that connect people more deeply to their spirit, and we love to help people find ways to be more well in their bodies through herbs and supplements. The nice thing about wellness, too, is you don’t have to be sick to seek wellness. You can be well and seek more wellness; it doesn’t require you to be without.
Feeney: Had you ever shopped at Radiance before you bought the business?
Olsen: Absolutely, yes. Radiance has been a beloved place of mine for a very long time. As soon as I could drive a car, I was driving to Radiance. And, whenever I brought a friend home from college to visit, it was always, “Okay, we’ll go to my house, you’ll meet my parents, we’ll go to Radiance, and then we’ll have dinner.”
Feeney: How wonderful! How long have you owned Radiance?
Olsen: Andrea and I have owned Radiance for about 10 years. Prior to that, for about 12 years I owned a massage clinic called Kaleidoscope Massage Therapy in Shelton, which is about 20 miles from Olympia. I actually even fashioned my practices based on what I knew about Radiance.
Feeney: What led you to buy Radiance when you had such an established massage business of your own?
Olsen: I had fantasized about opening a store like Radiance in Shelton, and we ended up actually being approached by the previous owner, Carolyn, when she was getting ready to retire. Her broker called me one day and asked if I was interested in purchasing Radiance, and I said, “Thank you for calling, and no, but I’ll take your information.” I went home to my partner and told her about the phone call, and she said, “Why did you say no? This is a beloved place of yours.” And I said, “I don’t know, can we?” It just seemed like an impossible dream. She just really broke me open to the possibility, so we ran all the numbers and sought financing, and we ended up purchasing the business from Carolyn.
Feeney: Did you close your business in Shelton?
Olsen: We owned both businesses for two or three years, and then we sold Kaleidoscope Massage Therapy to one of our employees.
Feeney: Well, that worked out!
Olsen: Yes, it worked out really well. We had been running both businesses for about six months when we adopted our son—everything happened at the same time.
Feeney: Oh my gosh, that is a lot of change all at once!
Olsen: Yes, we had been on the adoption path for about eight and half months, but we met our son’s birth mother 48 hours before he was born. It was a shotgun adoption! We went to our store manager at Radiance, who we’d only known for about six months at that point, and said, “So, we have some exciting news. We’re having a baby … today.”
Olsen: It was actually one of the best things for Radiance, because I was able to really have confidence in my team. I said to them, “You guys know how to do your jobs better than I do at this point, so do your job, and if you have a question or if you come to a decision-making point, call me. Otherwise, I’m going to be home holding this baby.” So through this process of adopting our son I was able to implement my style of management. It was divine design.
Feeney: It sounds like it! How would you describe your management style?
Olsen: My management style is I don’t want to be controlling your job because I want you to be doing your job.
Feeney: Did you have any retail experience before you took over Radiance?
Olsen: I’m a third-generation retailer and a third-generation entrepreneur. My grandfather started Olsen Furniture in Shelton in 1936, and my father ran that store while I was growing up, and now my brother runs it. I’m very lucky to be part of that. Owning my massage clinic, I wasn’t really using any retailer skills, and I was surprised when I took over Radiance how many things I just knew coming from a retailer’s family and listening to my parents talk at the dinner table.
Feeney: Does Andrea have an active role in the business as well?
Olsen: Yes. She’s a bit of a workaholic—she works at Evergreen State College during the week and on Saturdays she’s in the store helping customers. She’s a second-generation entrepreneur—her dad owned the local toy store Wind Up Here in Olympia for about 25 years.
Feeney: Besides the two of you working at the store, how many employees do you have on staff?
Olsen: We have 29 employees, including ourselves. I don’t usually include Andrea and me when I think about how many people we employ, but we do employ ourselves. We have an amazing team of folks that are incredibly knowledgeable and really have embraced our Radiance culture.
Feeney: How would you describe the Radiance culture?
Olsen: It’s based on the belief that people know what they need and it’s our job is to help them find it. For example, with our herbs and supplements, we do a lot of education about ancient ways of healing through plants. We’re not telling people which herb to buy; we’re sharing with them what all the herbs have been traditionally known to do. We expect we will see a spark where, for instance, someone will say, “Oh ashwagandha. The attributes of that plant sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.”
Feeney: What you’re describing reminds me a little of muscle testing.
Olsen: Yes, and we teach people how to muscle test themselves, too, so they can make their own decision about what supplement might be best for them.
Feeney: Besides herbs and supplements, what other good-for-you products do you carry?
Olsen: We carry a lot of skincare and body-care products. We really love to purchase handmade products, so we have a lot of locally made soaps and lotions and things like that. We’re lucky to have Alaffia (www.alaffia.com) in our backyard—they are a wonderful skincare company based in Olympia that creates skincare and body-care products from Fair Trade shea butter they import from women in Africa. They’re a really lovely company. They build schools in Africa and provide classes for people in the villages they work with. They’re working to make this world a better place, and that’s the kind of company we love to sell, companies that have great products that are also doing good work in the world.
Feeney: How do you go about selecting products for your store that fit that description?
Olsen: We look for companies that produce what we consider a clean product, meaning it doesn’t have chemicals in it known to cause damage to our environment or to the individual. For instance, we don’t have fragrance oils in our store, and as soon as we discovered the downfalls of paraben preservatives, we started discontinuing those products from our store, as well. We work toward organic as often as we can, and certainly wild-crafted herbs and products that are biodynamic, which is considered a step above organic.
As far as our gift items are concerned, we like to work with Fair Trade companies. Not everything in our store is Fair Trade because we also carry locally made products. We love companies that have values in alignment with ours that are working toward the greater good. A good example is a candle company we carry called Big Dipper (www.bigdipperwaxworks.com). They’re a local company—they make their candles in Seattle—and we love that. They’re just around the corner from us. Their candles are our best-selling candle by far. People just love Big Dipper. There are times when we cannot keep it on the shelves.
Feeney: You mentioned you’re working towards Fair Trade whenever possible. Do you find that the Fair Trade Federation is a good source or do you have your own process of discovering these wonderful companies?
Olsen: It can be really challenging for a very small company to become a member of the Fair Trade Federation, just as it’s challenging for them to get organic certification, so we don’t necessarily rely on big labels like organic and Fair Trade. We do our own investigating. We like to find out where people source the things they sell or use in their products. The vendors we like to work with are happy to share that information; they are proud of the places they source things from and happy to share how they came to their conclusions.
Feeney: In addition to helping educate your customers when they’re shopping, do you also offer classes?
Olsen: Yes, we offer classes in the spring and fall focused on natural living, healthy lifestyle, how to use herbs, and intuitive arts. We do a lot on psychic development, in addition to how to make a tincture, how to make soap, and those kinds of things.
We try to offer affordable classes, so we don’t charge our instructors any fees, which I know a lot of stores do. We feel one of the ways we serve our community is by providing the space and helping advertise the classes so the instructors can earn the full value of their fees. Our intent is then they can charge lower fees so the classes can be more accessible to our community.
Feeney: Do you have a designated classroom space?
Olsen: We do. It’s small; it only seats about 12 people, but we’ve squished 17 in there before.
Feeney: What is your overall square footage?
Olsen: We have 4,000 square feet. Our retail portion is about 1,400 and our massage clinic is about 1,500 square feet.
Feeney: You took over Radiance a few years before the 2008 economic downturn. What did you implement to stay afloat?
Olsen: We had very strong savings, which certainly helped us, and we shifted the way we buy. Prior to our current strategy, almost every employee in our store was a buyer. We had about 16 retail staff members back then, and all 16 did buying within the three sections of our store: body-care and skincare, herbs and supplements, and gifts. We have team leads for each of the sections, and those folks oversaw the staff that made purchases within those departments. When we shifted our strategy, we pulled all the buying responsibilities back to the three team leads, so now they do all the buying for the store.
Feeney: How many lines do they oversee?
Olsen: We work with over 200 vendors. Part of the reason we have so many is we work with a lot of small, local businesses. We’re at the point now where if we bring in a new product, we have to let go of something else; we don’t have the capacity for more.
Feeney: What other strategies did you implement during the economic downturn to stay strong?
Olsen: One of the best things we did to shift our financial circumstance was we started working with a consulting agency called Retail Smart Guys (www.retailsmartguys.com). They helped us with cash-flow management. They have a program called Open to Buy. It’s an algorithm that considers how quickly something sold and how recently we purchased it. It really analyzes the things we need to buy more of and the things we need to buy less of. Understanding our cash flow and being able to really manage it intricately shifted our cash flow immensely.
Feeney: Does it integrate with your point-of-sale and inventory management systems?
Olsen: It does, yes. They take the inventory management data and draw it into their algorithm with the Open to Buy system, and then they spit out more data for us. Working with the Retail Smart Guys was probably the best decision of all the shifts we made.
Feeney: How did you discover their program?
Olsen: We found them through our POS system. We work with Retail Pro (www.retailpro.com), and they had advertised the Retail Smart Guys. They sent us an email describing how their cash-management system works and how it dovetails with our POS system. Our store had used a paper-based open-to-buy system before computers, and when we purchased Radiance, I asked Carolyn what one tool she thought we should consider implementing again. She said the open-to-buy program, but we were stepping so deeply into using a computer inventory management system that I couldn’t see how we could go backward to paper. Plus, my buyers were already burdened with all the tasks they had to do, and they said the open-to-buy system they used before was too hard.
The Retail Smart Guys’ Open to Buy system basically produces a datasheet that tells us if we have enough inventory in this particular category on hand and how quickly it sold. It looks at the freshness factor; it looks at margins. It’s a whole spreadsheet just crammed full of numbers.
Feeney: How often do you run reports?
Olsen: We run our reports weekly and make decisions based on them about things like displays—what are we going to display that either is a hot product right now or that needs help? If we have a sale coming up, we use it to decide how deeply we’re going to buy into something. We use it to follow our trends, too. Or, if we have a category we love that sales are dropping in and it’s a category we’re not interested in discontinuing, we figure out how to help it along—we talk about it, educate our staff more, educate the public more.
Feeney: How long before you were able to make informed decisions based on the data the reports were giving you?
Olsen: I think we noticed things starting to shift pretty quickly, but you have to learn how to use the system. As we learned more, it became more and more effective. For the first three months, we all just looked at those numbers like, “Huh, there are those numbers again!” Now, we have a weekly buyers’ meeting, and we’ll look to make sure we’re not over inventory in a department.
Our buyers use intuition and data to make buying decisions. We totally encourage and love them to intuitively think about what they want to purchase, and then we ask them to back it up with data. Certainly there are times when you just say, “I don’t have data to back this up, but I feel it’s the trend and the direction we’re headed from a buying perspective, so I’m going to make an intuitive decision.” But, eight years ago, before we had these systems in place, if I would say to a buyer, “What do you think is your best-selling soap,” they would say, “Lavender.” Now I can say, “Okay, now go run your numbers and show me your data.” So often they will come back and say, “It wasn’t lavender! Lavender was my third top seller!”
Before implementing the Open to Buy program, we would find they were buying as if lavender was the number-one seller. They were buying deeper on lavender, but they weren’t buying deeper on their number-one seller. It was really fascinating to be able to start leaning on that a little bit—look at your data and prove yourself right.
Feeney: Experts have been touting the benefits of using “big data” the last few years, yet it can seem unattainable for small businesses. You hear “big” and think, “That’s what Target uses,” but you’re proof that it can work for independents, too.
Olsen: It certainly has been cash-flow magic, that data. I do want to say, though, that Carolyn, the former owner, really did hard, amazing work to create this rock-solid business. We were able to step in and not be mired in the foundation, because it was so strong and built up already. We were able to really look at growth. 2008 to about 2012 were definitely the harder years for us, but this year has been phenomenal. We are up seven percent, which is a lot for the year, and for July we’re up 12 percent! Part of that has to do with our 40th-anniversary celebration. We’ve had a lot of press because of it. We’ve really tried to get our name out there in a way that it hasn’t been out before.
Feeney: How do you promote your regular classes, events, and sales? Which marketing avenues have you found most effective?
Olsen: We have a really strong customer base that wants to hear from us. Olympia loves Radiance—we have 10,000 people on our email list, and certainly, having a 10,000-customer list is helpful! We tell them what we’re doing, and we also honor their desire not to hear from us every day.
Feeney: So how often do you contact them?
Olsen: We send out somewhere between two and four emails a month, and each time we do, I find we have a marked increase in sales. Even with that, though, I resist the urge to send an email every week, because we definitely hear from our customers on a regular basis, “I do want to hear from you, but not too much.”
Feeney: Yes, there’s definitely an email saturation point.
Olsen: Exactly. Another place we get the word out about what’s going on at Radiance is on Facebook. We have almost 3,000 Facebook fans, so that’s where to get the daily “hit” of Radiance. We post there daily about new products, or we might talk about a sale, or we might talk about community events we think are interesting—or even other community resources that are in alignment with our values.
Feeney: Is someone on your staff the designated social media poster or do you divide it up among the staff?
Olsen: I do that all myself.
Feeney: Oh gosh, that’s a job in and of itself!
Olsen: Yes, it is. I send out the emails, and I manage our Facebook page. Because we’re only sending four emails a month, it’s not a super burden. I also open our website every day to make sure the site is up and running, and I always log on to our Facebook account to check messages and do a post about new products or special events.
Feeney: What are some of your special events?
Olsen: One is put on by the downtown merchants in Olympia. We get together and host an afterschool trick-or-treat event at Halloween. It’s usually a Halloween scavenger hunt with a theme of some sort. The kids will come in their costumes to trick-or-treat the store, and they’ll look for the scavenger-hunt item. It’s the same item in every store. For instance, one year every store had a big, plastic crown hidden in plain sight. When the kids find the item, they get a raffle ticket for a prize drawing sponsored by the local toy store. It gets families downtown, it’s a safe place for kids to trick-or-treat, and I think there are not enough opportunities to dress up in a costume.
Feeney: I agree wholeheartedly!
Olsen: And, since we are a natural-health store, we give out locally made fruit leather instead of candy. It’s a way for us to reflect our values and participate locally.
Feeney: Do you do anything special to promote the event?
Olsen: All the local, downtown businesses pool together our resources and advertise on the local radio station. The local toy store that usually sponsors the event collects $100 from each business and uses that money to advertise on the local radio station, mostly, but they also produce a poster that goes up around town. It’s become a downtown tradition. It’s another way we use social media, too. We’ll take pictures of the adorable costumes and post them on Facebook throughout the afternoon. My favorite was a dad and mom dressed as Han Solo and Leia, with their two-year-old in a Chewbacca costume. They were made up so exquisitely, and it was so cute!
Feeney: I bet people loved it!
Olsen: Yes, and the photo got a ton of likes and a ton of attention on Facebook, and it’s a feel-good opportunity. When we have events going on, we try to post photos as they’re happening.
Feeney: Speaking of community involvement, your website has an extensive list of the local causes and charities you support. How do you manage all these donations?
Olsen: We get donation requests almost every day, partly because we’ve been around for so long that people think of us and also because we generously donate to our community. We have a budget we donate throughout the year, which is about $1,200. That’s the dollar amount we donate. We also donate a ton of stuff in kind. For years we donated just gift certificates, but as my son got older and we started going to school auctions and fundraising events, we noticed that when you donate just a gift certificate, what gets put out on the table is usually something made up by the auction coordinators that doesn’t have any of your contact information or business logo on it. Someone just handwrites, “$40 gift certificate for Radiance.” Part of our intent is to support the community and part of our intent is to let the community know we’re supporting them, so we found it really important to include our own promotional items with our gift-certificate donation. Now, with every donation we provide a jute bag that has our logo on it and a recipe book that includes recipes for homemade items like soaps and salves and things. Sometimes we’ll also include a water bottle with our logo on it. When you include these kinds of physical items at an auction, they get put with your gift certificate and help you build brand recognition. It was a valuable discovery for us.
Feeney: What do you love most about owning Radiance?
Olsen: I love what I do. I am one of the luckiest people on the planet because I get up every morning and I get to go to work. When we bought Radiance, it felt very presumptuous to say we are the owners of Radiance, because it is such a community institution. From the moment we purchased Radiance, we recognized we were stewards of the business and that this business will go beyond us. We hope Radiance survives for another 40 years. Its longevity is not just based on us as owners but on the desire from our community to have the things we provide.
Feeney: Hear, hear! Congratulations on 40 years in business, and thanks for sharing your story with us, Karin!
First published in Vol. 29 No. 6 of Retailing Insight. © 2015 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.