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Means of Support : Our aching backs are creating a market for stores dedicated to ending the pain. And their success is spine tingling.


It looks like the age of the one-stop shop is coming to an end. Department stores languish and die like dinosaurs while more nimble boutiques thrive. Retail seems to be following the leads of cable and cyberspace, aping their abilities to cater to every whim or singular fetish.

Relax the Back is one of the more unusual and successful niche-hungry retailers to appear in the last few years. With 500 items specifically designed to alleviate back discomfort and prevent future problems, the chain is growing by leaps and bounds, appealing especially to the 30- to 50-year-old set.

Virginia Rogers, founder and president of the Austin, Texas-based company, says she and back pain go way back. At age 11, she was going to a chiropractor three times a week, which her parents could ill afford. "'They told me I'd have to live with the pain and not complain about it," Rogers says, "because nobody likes a whiner." She spent the next few decades in constant pain, trying remedies that never did the trick.

Then, in 1987, her doctor referred her to a small Austin store run by an osteopath. The items she found there helped her pain more than anything she had tried before. A pioneer in the quick-printing industry, Rogers had been retired for six years. But when she learned the store was going out of business, she decided to plunge in and buy it.

Before the deal was closed her research bore out her hunch. She found that, according to the federal government, 80% of Americans, at some point in their lives, suffer from back pain severe enough to keep them in bed for a day or longer, that back pain is the No. 1 reason for workers' compensation claims and the No. 2 cause of hospitalization--just behind childbirth.

Rogers began franchising in 1991. Currently, there are 50 stores around the country--including outlets in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Huntington Beach, Tarzana, Torrance and Oxnard--and 36 more franchisees signed to open in 1996.

Dairl Johnson of Los Angeles, the chain's largest franchisee, was introduced to the store much the same as Rogers was. A onetime computer systems executive for IBM, Johnson was referred to the original store by his doctor after suffering two herniated disks and years of excruciating pain.

Johnson breaks down back care into four crucial areas that he compares to the four basic food groups: work, home, travel and sleep. His own treatment started with a home recliner, which he says, "broke the cycle of pain." He followed this with a special office chair and car seat to help him through the day, but still found that he was waking up every morning with a sore back. Unfortunately, there were no beds on the market that adequately addressed back pain.

Undaunted, Johnson, a 20-year veteran of industrial design and development, decided to build his own. The result is a mattress and lumbar support system on which he and his son, Glenn, now hold patents. Introduced in July, the "sleep system" features an adjustable lower-back support and accounts for 20% of Relax the Back's growing sales.

In 1994, Johnson's Santa Monica store, which he co-owns with Glenn, grossed $2 million. And his location near the Beverly Center scored an unexpected public relations coup last year when Robert Shapiro stopped by complaining of back pain because of that nasty courtroom seating at the O. J. Simpson trial. Johnson recommended a 10-way adjustable, fully contoured chair and everyone else at the trial liked it so much that Johnson ended up loaning out a dozen to other lawyers, the court stenographer and Judge Lance Ito.

Besides this brush with celebrity, Relax the Back also enjoyed a high-ranking spot in Entrepreneur magazine's "50 Hottest New Small Businesses in America," published last fall. But unlike many of the enterprises mentioned, a Relax the Back start-up does not come cheap. Johnson's initial investment ran to $182,500.

If that amount dashes your plans to become a franchisee, then the prices at the store might seem a bit steep too. The chair Shapiro chose, made by BodyBilt Seating, will run you $1,495, while a zero-gravity home recliner, which is said to recreate the position assumed by shuttle astronauts at takeoff, ranges from $750 to $1,350. On the other hand, Johnson's mattress system comes in at 20% to 30% less than top-of-the-line name-brand sets; but to make this purchase pay off, you'll have to get used to sleeping in one position all night long.

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