Central Pennsylvania organics taking advantage of thriving product market

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Shaun and Heather Donovan started selling all-natural candles as more of a hobby than anything. Somewhere along the way, they stumbled onto a major economic trend.

The Wormleysburg couple owns Appalachian Organics, an Internet and mail-order business devoted to all-natural food, cleaning and other household products. They are using several creative acquisition, stocking and delivery options to succeed without a traditional, brick-and-mortar store.

“What we found is when we started adding these other products, the sales increased. We started doing more business with these other products we were adding,” Shaun Donovan said. “These past couple years, we started seeing steady growth.”

The company has access to more than 15,000 products, with 10,000 available on its website, said Donovan, who is by day an economic development specialist at Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC. So far in 2014, Appalachian Organics is on track to double its 2013 sales, he added, which mirrors the national trend.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales totaled $35.1 billion in the United States last year, a new record, and 12 percent over the prior year.

Barbara Haumann, senior writer/editor for the association, said the organic movement is mainstream now and largely driven by families.

“They're people who recently had children, or who are raising children, and basically, when they have a new life in their family, they start thinking about the world differently,” Haumann said.

Good news/bad news

The rising popularity of organic products is a good news/bad news scenario for Appalachian Organics. While the potential customer base grows, so does the competition, along with the availability of many items it carries.

No longer just found in niche specialty stores, supermarkets are now the main source for 70 percent of households buying organic, according to an OTA survey of more than 1,200 homes.

Lack of availability of organic products was cited by 12 percent of respondents as a reason for not buying organic, down from 21 percent who claimed that was a barrier last year. Just 3 percent of respondents said organic products were not available where they shopped.

“It is so mainstream now,” Haumann said. “It used to be the West Coast, the East Coast and college towns in between. Now you can find organic everywhere.”

Donovan subscribes to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. He cited Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day product line as an example. The cleaning products rely on plant-derived ingredients, oils and synthetic ingredients to clean without leaving a chemical smell.

Formerly only available by ordering, Mrs. Meyer's cracked the mainstream marketplace.

“Today, you can find them at Target and other retailers,” Donovan said. “As they grow in popularity, it kind of helps us keep some position as well.”

The Donovans are positioning Appalachian Organics to respond quickly to demand, Donovan said, with plenty of products available. Doing that with a part-time, home-based business requires creativity.

For example, Appalachian Organics has partnerships in place with three other companies to share co-op space for inventory.

“One of our strategies as we find out products are popular is to have them stocked and on hand,” Donovan explained.

Shipping options

Likewise, the company uses Amazon Prime two-day shipping but also other shipping options. The Donovans attend several annual shows to market their products, including Natural Products East, a major show held every fall in Baltimore.

“That's where we connect with our suppliers and find out what's next and best in the market,” Donovan said, adding that Appalachian Organics' biggest market is New York City.

While non-organic products, such as cleaners and personal care items, are growing, food still accounts for 92 cents of every dollar of organic sales.

Adam Andersen, show director for Natural Products Expos, said the healthy food trend is just one factor boosting the organics industry. The convenience and accessibility of organic options, as well as increasing transparency in labeling, are also factors.

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