Is the Boston Wellness Industry Over-Saturated?
Summer 2013 was the summer of yogurt. Shops popped up en masse, flooding the market with a wave of self-served fruit and miles-long flavor lists. Then, suddenly, they started to disappear, leaving behind vacant storefronts and empty topping bins. The trend crept away as quickly as it started.
Is the wellness industry headed for the same fate?
Health may not be a fad in the way that frozen yogurt was—it’s a vital part of life, after all—but the uptick in wellness-focused businesses is undeniable. Juice bars and specialty fitness studios of all kinds have popped up at an unprecedented rate, with new ones opening seemingly every week. The question now is whether that’s a rate the city can sustain.
“There’s over-saturation,” says yoga instructor Jenna Hill, who cofounded her non-traditional yoga company PopUpAsana in part because of studio competition. “You can pretty much find a yoga studio, or some kind of fitness studio, on every street corner.”
The same could be said of juice bars, the healthy food trend du jour. “When we started, we were like, ‘There’s such a huge market for this in Boston, and nobody’s doing it. If we don’t, somebody else will,'” remembers Mother Juice cofounder Ellen Fitzgerald, who started her company in 2012, well ahead of full-on juice mania.
Fitzgerald was right. Somebody—many, many somebodies, in fact—did start doing it, perhaps more than she, or anyone, could have known in 2012. For evidence, just check Eater‘s brilliantly titled timeline, “Boston Will Float Away in a Sea of Cold-Pressed Juice.”
But does competition automatically mean over-saturation? Gregory Stoller, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says that’s largely dictated by the market. “The consumer,” he says, “does a pretty good job of determining what’s working and what’s not working.”
If endless Fitstagrams and throngs of juice-clutching, yoga pant-clad pedestrians are any indication, the consumer has determined that health and fitness is working. Stoller cautions, though, that juice bars feel reminiscent of the great frozen yogurt bubble burst. “I think the problem with yogurt, and the problem with juice, is there’s only so much you can do,” he says. “There’s only three ways you’re going to compete: One is on location, one is on price, and one is on service offerings.”
Indeed, expanding service offerings is one of the main ways wellness-oriented businesses are trying to stay relevant. Hill notes that many yoga studios now also offer barre and Pilates to keep customers coming back; Fitzgerald says Mother Juice added salads, breakfast bowls, and snacks to complement juice, and food now accounts for roughly half of the business’ sales.
Cate Brinch, owner of Recycle Studio, says locally-owned businesses also offer a totally different feel and service set than national chains moving into the city. She should know: Recycle was Boston’s only indoor cycling studio when its first branch opened in 2011. Now, it shares turf with big names like SoulCycle—which has opened three Boston studios since 2014, with another on the way—as well as a slew of local startups, and it’s hard to go more than a block or two in certain well-to-do neighborhoods without finding a studio.
“We are a true boutique studio—we are small and focused on reinvesting in our offerings, rather than opening additional studios,” she says. “It’s such a different business model, so it’s hard to compare boutique studios to big-box studios. It’s like comparing the presence of Pret A Manger in Boston to the presence of Flour.”
Sure, but can a city like Boston sustain both the Pret A Mangers and the Flours, the Recycles and the SoulCycles? “If the market size is staying the same and you’ve got each competitor in the market getting less and less market share,” BU’s Stoller says, “that’s the definition of saturation.”
As Mother Juice’s Fitzgerald sees it, however, the wellness market isn’t staying the same size—it’s growing.
“To some extent, more juice bars popping up means you’re creating a market for juice,” she says. “If there’s more juice bars, there’s more people drinking juice. In my view, that’s a good thing.”
Ché Knight, spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission, makes a similar point. “Being physically active and eating healthy foods are two critical habits for lifelong health,” she says. “As more people recognize this, it’s not surprising that demand for these resources has grown and that there are many businesses responding in kind.” (Whether juice is actually one of those healthy foods is another matter.)
Knight goes on to say that in one critical area, there may even be a shortage of health-focused businesses. “There is still tremendous unmet demand in Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods for affordable, healthy food and fitness options,” she says. “There could be great opportunities for businesses in this sector to further expand into neighborhoods where their services would be valued.”
Whether businesses will target neighborhoods that need and want these services, however, remains to be seen—just as whether, in a few years, the skeletons of abandoned juice bars will litter the streets like the yogurt shops of 2013.
Still, yoga studios, boutique gyms, and juice bars seem to be thriving for now, as-yet largely untouched by closures. And Fitzgerald says she doesn’t see a downturn happening any time soon.
“I think about [coffee]: You’ve got your neighborhood coffee shop, or your neighborhood juice shop,” she says. “I think it will hit that point.”