NEW YORK — Yoga has long been touted as a spiritual endeavor, but these days many studios are pursuing retailing almost as much as they are Nirvana.
Manhattan’s Om Yoga, for example, now has a small boutique brimming with merchandise such as yoga mats, books, jewelry and T-shirts, much of it with the Om Yoga name.
“We have had things for sale since we started, but when we moved last year we enlarged our boutique,” said Om founder Cindy Lee, who oversees the boutique with some members of her staff. “We see this as a growing part of our business, and we think it has the potential to grow even more, and we are also selling online.”
The increased selling space at Om illustrates a growing trend in the yoga world, as studios of all sizes open or expand in-house retail operations. In some cases, boutiques can account for as much as 30 percent of a yoga studio’s business.
“Yoga requires a very specific kind of merchandise that you can’t purchase in a department store,” said Lauren Hanna, co-owner of Sonic Yoga here, which is in the process of expanding its retail business within the studio. “It’s also a way for yoga studios to make an additional income since yoga studios aren’t highly profitable.”
Linda Pushkin, co-owner of Inner Power Yoga in Calabasas, Calif., noted that selling yoga clothes at a studio is a natural fit.
“What better place is there to have it?” she said. “We know what works for a yoga practitioner, much more so than a big corporate chain with cookie-cutter stores and products.”?
Yoga has seen explosive growth in recent years, and so have yoga-related products. An estimated 15 million Americans now practice yoga, according to a survey by Yoga Journal magazine, the bible of the yoga set. The average practitioner spends about $1,500 a year on related merchandise, workshops, books and apparel, a recent article in the magazine stated.
And as yoga studios continue to proliferate across the country and cater to increased demand, they are growing their retail businesses with areas that range from a single rack of clothes to a dedicated 900-square-foot boutique.
“Our retail store is a convenience and an added amenity for customers,” noted Annbeth Eschbach, president of Manhattan’s new Exhale Spa, which offers yoga classes as well as spa treatments and sells products such as yoga pants, T-shirts and body lotion. “The retail business is a big part part of our concept, and we expect it to be more than 10 percent of our business.”
Boutiques attached to yoga studios — once the kind of place where people might buy an inexpensive T-shirt because they left theirs at home — are also now becoming destination shops, even for people who have no interest in learning how to do the downward dog. The boutique at Om Yoga was even listed in the recent Zagat New York City shopping guide, the only yoga studio boutique to make the cut.
At Sacred Movement Center for Yoga and Healing in Venice, Calif., a small space selling books and CDs that was part of the studio when it opened two years ago has developed into a 900-square-foot boutique selling several high-fashion lines. And while customers might browse through the cropped sweats and tie-dyed tanks while waiting for a class to begin, boutique manager and buyer Stephanie Cate is seeing an increase in the number of people coming in solely to shop.
“Not everyone is coming in for a class,” said Cate.?“They’ve heard about the store and stop by to browse or to buy a gift.”
Considered one of the largest and most comprehensive yoga-studio boutiques in Los Angeles, Sacred Movement carries everything from antique Chinese and Indian statues to handmade yoga mat bags and Balinese jewelry. While the ambience is decidedly funky and bohemian, the racks are filled with fashion-oriented clothes that are priced from $18 to $74, and include trendy brands like Hard Tail, Omgirl, Be Present and Donna M. The store now accounts for 30 percent of the center’s annual sales.
Other studios are expanding their offerings of nonyoga items. At the L.A. Yoga Center in the L.A. suburb of Westwood, buyer Aletha Loftfield said the center’s boutique carries a comprehensive line of tank tops, Ts and sweats in technical and environmentally conscious fabrics such as hemp. Brands carried include Yoga-specific Inner Chi and Shiva Shakti, as well as T-shirts from Free People or Urban Outfitters, which don’t cater to the yoga set. Sales at the center amount to about 20 percent of the total, and are on the rise.
“It’s not our driving business as it’s still brand-new, but it’s a growing part of the business,” said Loftfield.?
While some critics view the boutiques as the commercialization of yoga, most owners assert that having a boutique doesn’t detract from the spiritual element of the practice.
“Being spiritual and business-oriented is not a conflict,” said Om’s Lee. “The idea for us is to provide products that are helpful to people, and this business helps the studio stay open. If our store gets bigger, and we make money from it, to me that is positive.”
Om and many other studios also use their retail business as a form of brand-building by selling T-shirts and other apparel emblazoned with their studio names. Some studios even ask the instructors to wear only its merchandise when teaching, and many give discounts to teachers. In New York, a competitive city on nearly all fronts, yoga devotees are often deeply committed to their studios and wear the namesake merchandise as a way to show their pride in and allegiance to a specific center.
The increase in sales at yoga studio boutiques is good news for manufacturers as they have become another sales outlet in addition to department stores and athletic chains, which often don’t carry a large amount of yoga merchandise.
“Department stores haven’t made a commitment yet to this category,” said Norm Zwail, president of The Marika Group, a San Diego-based firm that makes yoga apparel and activewear. “Gyms and yoga studios are doing a better job selling yoga apparel now.”
“It works well because it’s a supplement to their business,” noted Carol Chang, the U.S. representative for Chibi, a high-end yoga line that sells in studios as well as specialty boutiques. “And so much of the time, it’s impulse buying at the yoga studios.”
Another fashion line, L.A.-based Bella Dahl, does about 40 percent of its business in yoga and fitness centers such as Equinox, L.A. Sports Center in L.A. and City Fitness in San Francisco, as well as fashion retailers like Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue. The yoga/activewear side of the business has exploded, making up 40 percent of overall sales of the brand.
“Yoga today is received by the mainstream and is not considered the cult thing that it was 10 years ago,” said Kerry Jolna, ceo of Bella Dahl. “There is more of a consciousness about staying in health as people age — and while they do that, they want to look great. It’s not just about throwing on an old pair of sweats.”?
Nonetheless, yoga studio owners often have little experience with the retail arena, and areas such as merchandising, inventory and sales are sometimes new for them. Lee said she now goes to gift shows to get ideas, while Exhale Spa has a buyer who specifically oversees the merchandise and planning for the boutique.
“It takes a lot of planning,” said Jasmine Tarkeshi, co-owner of Laughing Lotus Yoga Center here, which has a small but growing boutique. “We work with different suppliers because most of our stuff is made locally. But we find that people often can’t wait to get the newest shirts and sometimes they call us and want us to put something aside for them before they are all gone. Everyone wants to take a piece of the studio home with them.”
— With contributions from Kavita Daswani, Los Angeles