Bath Junkies Clean up With Do-It-Yourself Idea

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For two women with a nose for retail, success smelled of pink grapefruit and honeysuckle, and it was wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper.

Judy Zimmer and Jocelyn Murray, the mother-daughter co-founders of Bath Junkie Inc., don’t claim to have the business smarts or financial wisdom it takes to launch a successful company.

What they did have was a concept for a line of custom-made bath products that would eventually lead to a nationwide reach and $1.6 million in 2007 revenue.

The idea was born out of Murray’s simple desire for bath products that didn’t make her sneeze or itch. She found what she was looking for at a small bath shop in California, where she was living at the time.

Murray and Zimmer loved the store’s concept of custom blending and decided they would try to sell the products.

They started bringing the products to home parties and taking orders and then opened a small store in a shopping mall.

The store didn’t last, however.

“We did everything wrong,” Zimmer said. “It was a disaster.”

Zimmer and her husband soon retired to Fayetteville and Murray followed.

“At the time, there wasn’t a bath shop here,” Zimmer said. “We started talking about it and I said if I could do it again, I would do it all differently.”

They came up with the idea of mixing the product in the store, in front of the customer.

In 1996 they cashed in Murray’s 401(k) and used Zimmer’s husband’s retirement fund to open a kiosk in the corner of a friend’s dress shop.

Six months later they opened their first standalone store, then called the Soap Opera.

When that store did well, they decided to open a second location in Eureka Springs followed by a third in Tulsa.

In 2000, after numerous inquiries from investors wanting to buy stores, they decided to franchise.

The duo ditched the Opera moniker and trademarked the name Bath Junkie, a term they often used for each other and their repeat customers.

By 2001, Bath Junkie had six stores in three states. In 2005, they had nearly 50 stores across the country.

The company now has over 70 franchises and four corporate-owned stores.

Murray and Zimmer tell prospective franchisees that an investment of $110,000 to $210,000 is required to open a store. The initial investment includes the $45,000 franchise fee, initial inventory, store build out and the first three months of operating expenses, not including rent. The franchisee pays ongoing royalties of 5 percent of the net sales to the company as well as a 2 percent monthly marketing fee.

The company works with the franchisee to select a site, designs the store and builds the fixtures while the franchisee is responsible for preparing the leased space and getting it ready for the company’s opening crew.

The Concept

What started as bath salts and body lotion is now a full line of bath products, pet care products, and household cleaners, all of which can be scented and tinted to the customers’ liking.

That creative process of mixing scents and choosing a color is what attracts the customers, Zimmer said.

“People love the process,” she said.

They don’t just want to come in and buy a tub of bath salts.

“They want to touch it, smell it and create it.”

The customer can choose from 200 fragrance oils, mixing them as they please.

Everyone from Michael Jordan to Britney Spears has a signature scent, Murray said. At Bath Junkie, anyone can have a signature scent.

Like the popular Build-a-Bear Workshop, a big part of the product that Bath Junkie is selling is the experience.

Major retailers have taken notice of the company’s do-it-yourself concept.

In August, Dillard’s approached Murray and Zimmer about setting up a kiosk in its Northwest Arkansas Mall location.

“I was honored to get that call from Dillard’s,” Murray said. “For a major retailer with that many stores to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘let’s meet,’ that says something.”

In October, they were approached by Sam’s Club to participate in a road show, a sort-of testing phase to see how the products would go over with the retailer’s customers.

They set up near the front of the store, offering free spa hand treatments with their best selling product, the salt scrub.

Zimmer and Murray said they don’t know what will become of the road show but they were flattered to be considered.

They are excited about the company’s prospects to open more stores before the end of 2008. A store is soon to open in Puerto Rico and the company has had interest from Denmark.

They’ve teamed with Zimmer’s 84-year-old sister-in-law to open a location in Manhattan, which they hope will lead to five or six more stores in New York City.

By February, Murray said they hope to be able to sell products on-line, something they’ve gotten thousands of requests for.

The company has also launched a green initiative, offering discounts to customers who bring back their recyclable bottles or shop with the store’s reusable tote bag.

They’re purchasing renewable energy credits to offset the electricity use in their stores and they’ve reformulated all of the products to be more environmentally friendly.

The Challenges

Mother and daughter are quick to point out that it hasn’t been easy. Mistakes have been made along the way, they said, such as the time they decided to venture into cosmetics.

And there have been obstacles. They were sued by franchisees who claimed they were misled about the profitability of the stores.

Zimmer said some people just don’t have the spirit that it takes to run a profitable business. There are enough success stories, she said, to prove that the business model works.

A store in Webster, Texas, a suburb of Houston, grossed $500,000 in 2007.

“We had no idea you could make that much money,” Murray said.

Another franchisee in Fredericksburg, Texas, is about to open a second store in San Marcos.

Those kinds of stories, Murray said, are the most rewarding part of owning the company.

“It’s about being able to see people take this idea that my mother and I had and push it to a level that I had no idea it could go,” she said.

But the two are realistic and are expecting sales to take a big hit as the nation goes through an economic downturn.

“We’ll probably see some stores close but we understand and we’re prepared for it,” Zimmer said.

But even if the company doesn’t survive the retail slump, both women said they’ll be proud of what they’ve accomplished.

“I don’t know what the economy is going to hold for us,” Zimmer said. “But if we end up in the big economy dumpster, my daughter has always said, ‘I’ll be the happiest waitress at the Cracker Barrel.’

“When I’m sitting in a rocking chair, I’ll be able to say, ‘I gave it my all and it was fun while it lasted’, that’s always been our philosophy.”