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9 minutes reading time (1713 words)

Optimum Health Vitamins

by Bruce Cole

To truly understand Optimum Health and Vitamins in Edmonton, AB, one must initially understand its founder and owner, John Biggs. First and foremost, John is a practitioner, and everything he has created in almost 20 years of retailing is viewed through a practitioner's eye.

To truly understand Optimum Health and Vitamins in Edmonton, AB, one must initially understand its founder and owner, John Biggs. First and foremost, John is a practitioner, and everything he has created in almost 20 years of retailing is viewed through a practitioner's eye.

In the 4,800 sq. ft. flagship store on 109 Street in south Edmonton, he and his wife Nicola have masterfully and beautifully brought together the elements he feels a practitioner needs to best help his or her customers to obtain and maintain optimal health. They has combined a mix of unique services and products in a visually pleasing presentation – a retail space that says "wow." And he's supplemented these elements with on-staff professionals made up of university graduates and nutritional consulting practitioners, along with many other individuals trained in specialty areas.

Counselling for over 25 years

John has been counselling people on how to achieve and maintain better health naturally for 25 years. His qualifications include a Bachelor of Science degree specializing in Foods and Nutrition from the University of Alberta. He is registered with the International Organization of Nutritional Consultants (IONC) as a Nutritional Consulting Practitioner. John is also an ongoing student of the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). He has completed the Institute's training course – Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice – and has been an IFM member since 1998.

John started his consulting practice when he finished his nutrition degree, sharing office space with a homeopath on Edmonton's Whyte Ave. Beginning with a modest offering of products, he eventually outgrew his shared space and elected to open a retail store in 1994. And so, Optimum Health Vitamins took form in a 400 sq. ft. space, under the same roof as Debaji's Fresh Market on 109 Street. Optimum proved to be a good compliment to the much larger food and produce retailer. In 1997, John opened a second retail location, in suburban Sherwood Park, and then, one year later, a third in Oliver Square.

In 2001, John elected to leave the space in Debaji's for a larger stand-alone unit. However, in 2004, he was presented with an interesting opportunity: would he entertain moving back to his original location? Debaji's had vacated the location, and there was still a 4,800 sq. ft. space available. This time, he would not be restricted to the previous 400 sq. ft. at the front of the store.

John says he jumped at the chance to create a roomier retail environment, although it was a much larger space – more than he ever had before. He recalled, "We spent a great deal of time considering what to do with all the space."

Goal of store

In the end, he let the practitioner in him dictate the store's concept. "What we're trying to get across to the public is we are a group of people who know what we're doing with nutrition, and we understand all aspects of supplements, how to apply them, and the role they play."

The idea of almost 5,000 sq. ft. to get his message out was a very thrilling opportunity for John. "What made me do this was the excitement of telling people how much you can accomplish with a natural approach, and not just related to prevention. I'm talking about the ability to at least improve virtually every condition with the right natural approach...through food, supplements, essences and homeopathic remedies. If you have the right tools in your tool kit, the more people you can help. It made me say I've got to get this out there."

Look of store

So, with the right "theatre" at their disposal, John and Nicola began to set the stage to create an impressive venue. They had a good raw building to work with, and they elected to do most of the design themselves – colours, lighting, flooring and an overall look – while using very little outside help. "We spent time in the western United States," recalled John. "We saw places like Wild Oats and Whole Foods, and we just looked around for what kind of presentation we wanted. This was our fifth store, so we knew what would and wouldn't work. We picked ideas up as we went along." One idea they gleaned was keeping over-stock on the floor, but behind closed doors on lower shelves, right below where the product was displayed on upper shelves.

The one place they sought outside help, John says, was in a floor plan design, to maximize customer flow and product display. "We were lucky to have a busy, successful designer – who usually does huge projects – step in and help us."

Main section of store

Optimum Health's flagship is comprised of the three basic sections: the main store in the middle, with the other two sections – the spa and the apothecary – flanking it at opposite ends. The central store is where customers find supplements, homeopathics and health and beauty. Everything is laid out in a bright, spacious manner, using light maple shelving. Customers can easily locate the supplements they seek by reading custom-made wooden signage, which hangs slightly above the matching wood shelving. Sections are identified with key words like kidney, blood sugar, weight loss, menopause, cleansing, allergies and immune systems, to name just a few.

In the health and beauty section, products can be located in two ways: by key word – nail polish, hand and feet, perfume, shampoo, shower, bath, skin care, etc. – or by brand name.

John tips his cap to his wife on the product mix in this section. "Nicola searched for clean and pure skin lines. If you're selling health and beauty products, and they're not high quality, it defeats the purpose of taking all the pure supplements and foods you ingest. So, with our health and beauty lines, we look for extremely high quality products that produce great results, but that are as natural as possible."

In the store's main section, customers will also find the Information Centre, a unique and valuable resource for people looking to answer health-related questions and learn more about supplements.

"Our goal is to teach our clients to make their own good decisions with the most powerful health tool available: education," says John.  "We offer a huge selection of reference material which includes natural health books, medical journals, health articles and peer-reviewed journals."

Day spa promotes optimal health

The Kolya Naturals Day Spa – which was founded as a stand-alone store in 2002 – became part of the flagship store in 2004 when Optimum moved into its current location. "The spa has been providing Optimum's customers with the best natural skincare products we can find," explained John. "Our spa is founded on three basic principles: supreme quality, organic and biodynamic products and achieving optimum health.

"We promote beauty from the inside out, and encourage people to understand and respect their skin as a living organ," said Nicola. "Our recommendations for proper skin care are based on encouraging the skin's natural processes, while feeling rejuvenated by nature's herbal gifts."

Aromatique: a store-within-a-store

Earth's Aromatique is the third component of Optimum, an herbal apothecary, a store-within-a-store. It occupies the front part of the store in what was once a café. It is so unique, so different from the other two parts, and as John points out, it plays a very important role in the operation's overall strategy. "When things started to happen with the regulatory issues, as we started to see more products disappear from our shelves and products getting back-logged waiting for NPN numbers, Nicola suggested we get back to basics and get back to working more with raw ingredients.

"Aromatique allows us to continue to create products regardless of the regulations, and work directly with customers to create custom products which precisely suit their needs."

John suggests other retailers look into creating their own version of Aromatique, as the regulations, he says, have no impact on what happens in this area. "If you look at the regulatory impact analysis from Health Canada – which preceded the current regulations – it says a certified practitioner can compound anything he or she wants for a customer. This is because practitioners are regulated by provincial jurisdictions, so Health Canada's edicts have no affect on what they do. This allows us to work directly with our customers and if what they require is not on our shelves, we can create it for them based on their particular needs."

John says the most untapped potential in the natural health realm is in essential oils. "They have so much potential. They are effective, but you have to be careful and know what you are doing. There is vast potential for clinical results."

"We have something special"

Regardless of where a retailer is in their stage of development, John stresses it is important that you – and the entire industry – stay vigilant and active in preventing the government from exercising undue influence on the industry. "We have to stay active and vigilant or we risk losing everything we now take for granted. So, be active and do not stand for inappropriate and ill-motivated bureaucratic interference. We do not want to lose the traditional health food store, and the way we have traditionally served people."

And for those retailers who may be at a stage where they are questioning what they are doing – wondering if it's all worth it or if you're making a difference in your community – John says to hang in, as we're on the cusp of something huge. "Don't underestimate what you've got. There is so much potential. As society realizes the value of a natural approach, I feel we haven't seen anything yet. Be diligent in preserving what we're doing and in pressuring those who want to see us fail. I believe a massive switch-over from chemicals is coming.

"So, if you're questioning what you're doing, it's time to be very excited. You can genuinely say to people we have something special." •

 

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