Lucy Miller's career as the owner of the Healthy Hut health food store almost ended before it ever really got going. All is well now, but it wasn't without the type of challenges that make some people throw their hands up in frustration and walk away.
Within the first year of buying an underperforming health food store in Cochrane, Alberta in 2003, Lucy had some serious obstacles tossed into her path. For example, after only a year into the venture, she was told she'd have to move (in the middle of winter), as her lease wasn't being renewed."..." Read More
Lucy Miller's career as the owner of the Healthy Hut health food store almost ended before it ever really got going. All is well now, but it wasn't without the type of challenges that make some people throw their hands up in frustration and walk away. Within the first year of buying an underperforming health food store in Cochrane, Alberta in 2003, Lucy had some serious obstacles tossed into her path. For example, after only a year into the venture, she was told she'd have to move (in the middle of winter), as her lease wasn't being renewed.
Then, she was shutout by virtually every bank in town when she went seeking financing to help her purchase her dream property. And just days before opening, the town of Cochrane presented her with a three-page list of things she'd have to do to her building and property before being allowed to open.
The good news is she found a place, and obtained the financing via a loan from her mother, and also from a banker who saw her vision. Then, she somehow addressed the dreaded list to the town's satisfaction before opening the doors of her new location in March 2005.Journey to better health
Nothing but minor inconveniences, Lucy recalls of them. After getting them out of the way, it was back to her passion – the business of helping people on their journey to better health. This was a familiar route to Lucy, a journey she herself had taken some 20 years earlier.
Having experienced working at – and then managing – a Morning Sun store for Alice Chung in bustling Calgary, it took Lucy some time to get accustomed to her Cochrane customer base. Founded in the 1890's as a ranch, Cochrane was a full-fledged western cowboy town. It has changed, but there is still that "wild west" aspect to the place. Much of the town's heritage has been preserved in period-accurate wooden facades along the main street. "It can be very redneck, with plenty of 'don't even mention that hocus pocus stuff to me' kind of people," relates Lucy. "But we've also got a huge population that is very fitness orientated, people doing the iron man, cyclists, marathon runners, etc. And then we've got our loyal-to-the-end locals who will only shop in town and on the other extreme, you've got people that work in Calgary and will do everything in the city."
Although the townsfolk gave her a lukewarm reception when she bought the store, Lucy says it was a number of factors that ultimately won them over. "Having a very visible location with ample parking helped, and in time, people began to rely on the knowledge, expertise and overall experience they get from my store. My prices are good, if not sometimes better, than in Calgary. I like to pass on the savings from suppliers when I get them. I also offer a senior's discount, as I would rather see people rewarded for their age than being put on prescription drugs because of it; hence, I would rather see them in my store than at the pharmacy."
The town's three big drug stores are Healthy Hut's main competition, while the one smaller independent pharmacy has been known to carry health products that sometimes undercuts her prices. "But we all know that a drug store experience just isn't the same," she says. Competition from Calgary's big health food stores hasn't been a concern either, Lucy offers. "Heck, even I shop at Community and Planet Organic and Amaranth, and I see my customers there. It's all good."
Lucy runs seasonal customer appreciation days every three to four months and Healthy Hut's anniversary party is a two-day event. "For our fifth year," said Lucy, "we had five days of customer appreciation with many different demos everyday." At the end of the last day, after the store is closed, Lucy thanks all the sales reps and local media that help her throughout the year by having a huge wine and cheese get together. "We always have great music, great food and great fun." Each year, Lucy takes her message of natural health out of the store, giving two free talks at the local library, one in the Spring (Taking the Confusion out of Holistic Healing) and one in the fall/winter (Building Immunity for Winter). "The more people who hear my message, the better."
Like most natural retailers, staffing has always been an issue for Lucy. But recently, she has been in a great place when it comes to having good people on staff. And everyone has brought a holistic healing background to the team. Her sister Martha Collins, who has been with Lucy from the very beginning, has always been very reliable, helping out in every capacity. Martha is currently president of the Feng Shui Society of Alberta. Cathy Rauscher has been a good, solid worker, keeping the shelves stocked and handling orders for pricing. Her interests are in bodywork as she is both a massage and a Bowen therapy practitioner. Emma Forman – a fulltime dance instructor – was hired to do data entry work. "She is very friendly with the customers," explained Lucy, "and as we know with the younger generation, she has no fear of the computer and that kind of work."
The newest staff member is Suzanne Alter (or as Lucy calls her, "my all-star"), who hails from Montreal and possesses a diploma in naturopathy. She is a member of the Canadian Order of Practitioners in Naturopathy and Natural Therapy.
As an herbalist and certified reflexologist, Lucy knows the benefits of having in-house practitioners. And her store offers that, thanks to a large finished basement. "We have yoga classes downstairs and there is also an awesome treatment room, which currently has a practitioner offering hypnosis-regression therapy and the ionic footbath. "We're hoping this spring that Suzanne and Cathy will be seeing clients in there, as well as having other practitioners use the space on a rotating basis. I have used the space occasionally but my focus really has to be the store, though."
With a solid team in place and five years in the current location, Lucy feels the time is right to chase some of her goals and aspirations. "Expansion was always a question of financial resources and staffing. Now that I have a good team, I might be able to make some of my plans a reality. We are working on setting up information sessions in-store and I've even got a kitchen, where cooking classes could take place. The potential is huge!"
Looking back, striking out on her own seven years ago would not have been possible without the support of some important people. "My time at Morning Sun was great. I have the utmost of respect for Alice Chung and her business savvy. Although I was leaving to start my own store, she offered me her 1-800 number and told me to call her for advice anytime. We meet and greet at the CHFA shows and I will always be grateful that my first and only retail experience, ever, was at Morning Sun.
"And without my loving family and their support, helping with store pricing and stocking in the early days – my husband dealing with both of our now teenage children's activities – I wouldn't be in business today."
At this point, Lucy has never been in a stronger position to move forward. "I am ready for any challenges I might face, because I'm not so green in business anymore. I am always seeking tips from key people in the industry because – although my passion has always been natural health – I know I can always be better in the business and marketing department. I have a good following here in town, yet I know it could be so much more." •
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