- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

JoAnne Schatz doesn't have any back problems.

That's because the president of JoAnne's Bed & Back Shops is surrounded all day long with back relief products from an electric adjustable bed and easy-gliding lounge chairs at home to properly fitted office chairs and a back cushion in her car.

But most people aren't as fortunate as Mrs. Schatz.

Between 75 and 80 percent of all people will experience some type of back pain at some point in their life. More than 17 million visits are made to doctor offices each year because of back problems, according to the American Asso-ciation of Orthopedic Surgeons. More people see doctors for pack pain than for any other ailment except coughs.

And the reasons for a bad back vary from slouching over a computer keyboard and sitting on an uncomfortable office chair to lifting heavy objects or overusing muscles during a weekend softball game.

No matter what the specific cause it all translates into dollars for the retailers in the back care industry. Specialty back relief stores are reaping the benefits of back pain injuries and the public's heightened awareness of the problem.

While stores are popping up across the country, industry executives say the Washington area ripe with workaholics stuck in cubicles and techies hunched over computers is proving fertile ground for their business.

"I'm not sure that back pain is any more common than it was 20 years ago," said Dr. William Lauerman, chief of the spine surgery division at Georgetown University Hospital. "But people are more aware of things that can be done to take care of it."

Currently there are about 18 back care specialty shops in the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan area feeding off the increase in back sprains, strains and pulls.

Just within the past six years, two new chains Newington, Va.-based Healthy Back Stores and Relax the Back, based in El Segundo, Calif. set up shop in the local market, which has been dominated by Beltsville-based JoAnne's Bed & Back Shop.

These shops all focus on ergonomics the latest buzz word in health care.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting an environment to a person. For instance, an office chair that is ergonomically correct will have adjustable parts that can be moved to comfortably fit a person's body.

While ergonomics is nothing new, it just recently has moved into the national spotlight with a Clinton administration plan to make employers correct injury causing workplace conditions that require repetitive motion, overexertion or awkward posture.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been working for years on a set of ergonomic standards that would serve as a blueprint for U.S. industries on how to avoid injuries that develop when a worker does the same task too many times. Final standards are now scheduled to be released by the end of 2000 and may not go into effect until late next year. Though business groups are redoubling efforts to prevent the standards from taking effect.

Each year, 1.8 million workers suffer injuries related to ergonomic factors and 600,000 people miss some work because of them, according to OSHA. While the injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments and tendons include such problems as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain is one of the biggest problems.

In 1998, there were 440,000 back injury cases that resulted in days away from work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down from 606,000 cases in 1994.

Employers who are turning their attention to ergonomics and people who are more interested in preventing back injuries than dealing with them seem to be helping the overall problem.

But in 1998 back disorders were the top reason for people 18 to 69 years old to have to limit the work they did, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

One size doesn't fit all

All the attention being given to back injuries is good news for the back care retail business. The growing number of back pain sufferers are turning their attention to products like form-fitting mattresses, office chairs, head rests, foot stools, specially designed bags and message chairs.

Unlike most retailers, back care stores don't rely on foot traffic at a strip mall or window shoppers to bring in business. Those people coming into the stores have either been referred by physicians or they know products exist that help relieve back pain.

The majority of back store customers are there because they aren't in need of a great deal of medical attention. Their back pain is most likely a result of bad posture, sitting in the wrong type of office chair or sleeping on a bed without support. Only a small portion of them have actually had back surgery.

People are much more aware of how they can prevent back injuries, said Mrs. Schatz, who has seen her clientele get much younger over the 21 years she's been in business.

No longer just older customers, people in their 20s and 30s also are walking into JoAnne's for back pain relief. Mrs. Schatz even suggests that parents should buy an ergonomic chair for their children to start prevention even earlier.

Mrs. Schatz first started selling ergonomically correct mattresses and office chairs out of her garage in the late 1970s. Although she saw the need in an untapped market she said it was still difficult to get the business going.

"It was a struggle in the beginning," she said. "No one knew what the word ergonomics meant. I had to educate."

She moved out of the garage and opened her first official store in Bethesda in 1978. Mrs. Schatz and her husband Skip now run JoAnne's, which has grown into a nine-store chain with sales of about $6 million last year. A brief seven-store venture in New York three years ago was too big of an expansion for the chain and JoAnne's closed operations there about a year ago.

JoAnne's Bed & Back Shop, which remains focused in the Washington area, was once the dominant back shop in town. But as the industry has grown, so too has the local competition. And by 1994, JoAnne's was competing head on with Healthy Back Stores, which opened its first store in Rockville just blocks away from Joanne's Rockville location.

Tony Mazlish, founder of Healthy Back and a back pain sufferer himself, felt that back pain relief "was an underdeveloped industry from a retail standpoint."

Now, thanks to a strong economy, people are able to dish out the extra dollars for a form-fitting bed or ergonomic office chair. He believes after people take care of their basic needs like food and shelter they are more willing to pay for comfort because it's important to them.

And the industry, he said, has the potential to grow even bigger.

"The biggest challenge is growing awareness that these kinds of stores exist," said Mr. Mazlish, who now runs the 23-store chain. "We could use a lot more competition."

Healthy Back, which had $9.6 million in sales last year, added much of its growth through acquisitions. In 1998 Healthy Back acquired Natural Back, a specialty retailer based in Southern California and last year bought the Better Back Stores based in Colorado.

And that may not be the end of the consolidation. Industry officials say Healthy Back and Relax the Back, which has 110 stores and $62.5 million in sales in 1998, are negotiating a deal to merge the two companies. Officials from both company's would not comment.

Currently Healthy Back has four stores in the Washington area.

Hunter Sled, a local Relax the Back franchisee, opened his first store in Richmond in 1996 and has since opened four more locations from Baltimore to Richmond. Although he has no specific plans yet, his development agreement with the company allows him to open two more stores in the Washington area and two more stores in the Annapolis area.

In addition to the specialty shops, these retailers are also competing against stores like Brookstone which carry ergonomic gadgets, pillows and chairs.

But the competition doesn't seem to bother the retailers.

"Competition hasn't affected us," Mrs. Schatz said. "It just makes people aware."

Sometimes, however, customers may be confused between the stores. Mrs. Schatz said people have come in her store looking for an item the Healthy Back Store may be advertising.

But officials say their stores are distinct. While some of the stores may carry some of the same merchandise, they also carry products made exclusively for their company.

For instance, JoAnne's carries an adjustable bed that has mattresses split halfway down the middle. The bed, specially designed by Mrs. Schatz, allows each sleeper to adjust the top part of their side of the bed to fit their needs.

"I think we're well equipped to compete," said Mr. Sled, who sells about 300 different products in his stores. "I feel we're separate and distinct. We sell items not available anywhere else."

Mr. Sled said his product mix has evolved through trial and error. Sometimes he will have products on the floor that "are winners and some that don't work out," he said.

"I think there are probably good products at these stores," said Dr. Lauerman, who admits he's never visited one of the stores but suggests his patients at least check out some of the products and find out more information about them. But he added that a product that works for one back pain sufferer may not be the right product for another.

The retailers say their staff is knowledgeable and go through extensive training to help customers find the right fit.

"It takes a great deal of knowledge to sell these products," Mr. Sled said. His 19 employees have all gone through extensive training.

Finding the on-line fit

Like any other traditional retailer, these back care specialty stores are confronting on-line competition. They all have an on-line presence but it is not their focus.

Mr. Mazlish said the on-line component is out of convenience for the store's many repeat customers who know what they want.

"Purchasing things on line simplifies things," he said. It also translates into sales when a customer refers the company's products to someone else. If that person doesn't have a physical store near them they might opt to buy the product on line.

The products that aren't exclusive to each of the chains can probably be found on line. Sites like Comfortliving.com headquartered in Gaithersburg, and Back Be Nimble, an on-line catalog based in Houston, offer ergonomically correct merchandise.

JoAnne's is gearing up for a new and improved electronic commerce site that will feature some of the chain's products but it won't be a big part of the business.

"We're not going to push it," Mrs. Schatz said. "We'll be there for those who want to be on line. But I think you have to come in and try [the merchandise]."

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