By  on June 1, 2007

NEW YORK — The flame is far from out in America's candle business.

Candle sales fired up in the Eighties and Nineties, giving even traditional fragrances a run for holiday gift sales. Retailers flocked to the category and merchants were burned by overstocking commodity products. Now, the natural movement that is bringing new life to many mass market categories is also delivering shoppers to the $2 billion candle business.

Retailers said the business was propelled by the true users, who tend to burn candles within a week of purchase. Many of these consumers are drawn to aromatherapy products and more and more demand "green" products.

"We see an opportunity with a great product line to start small and keep up with demand for candles that are all natural and fit into the channels dealing with wellness," explained Rick Ruffolo, senior vice president of brand, marketing and innovation at Yankee Candle Co., which purchased a small, natural company called Aroma Naturals in 2005.

Aroma Naturals was founded in California by Tina Rocca, an aromatherapist to the stars who had a commitment to natural ingredients.

"The good news is that we work side by side with the team at Aroma Naturals as we work to understand the business and broaden the opportunity," noted Ruffolo. He knows a thing or two about candles, having not only worked at the leading brand of candles in America, Yankee Candle, but also as part of the development team behind Bath and Body Works' White Barn Candle Co.

The time is fortuitous for Aroma Naturals as more and more mass market retailers, especially grocery chains, seek to add organic and natural departments in their stores. And the ranks of natural-only stores such as Whole Foods are growing. "We are looking at the channels who have embraced natural and wellness, and to align our efforts," said Ruffolo. Among the retailers extending natural sets are Shaw's, Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Dominick's and Wegmans. Candles are merchandised in natural areas near foods and health and beauty aids.

Drug chains, which are adding more mini clinics and boosting a health care image, are also logical doors for more aromatherapy and natural candles.A major message from Aroma Naturals is that certain pockets of the country are populated by people intensely interested in natural. These so-called natural lifestyle consumers represent as much as 30 percent of the population, according to some studies. What that means is that retailers probably have stores where natural candles are a good fit. Chances are consumers who are looking for healthier groceries will also want candles that will enhance their overall wellness. The candles carry attractive gross margins and are priced between $6 and $21.

What's good news to retailers' ears is that the natural candle selections are building sales rather than cannibalizing from existing candle sales, said Ruffolo. While Aroma Naturals doesn't see a spot in every shelf across the nation, the company does think more and more shoppers have a burning desire for its natural formulations. As in cosmetics, the company introduces new scents according to seasons. Packaging is environmentally friendly.

The link between wellness and skin care will be hammered home when Aquafina Advanced Hydration RX hits stores in a few months. To accent that point, more than $10 million will be spent on the launch, which is a licensed agreement between Added Extras and PepsiCo. The ads will appear in Allure and In Style magazines, and be touted via Aquafina-sponsored events such as the Tribeca Film Festival.

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