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All stressed out? Businesses will sell you some peace

8:37 AM, Aug 5, 2013   |    comments
The Ostrich Pillow - via USA TODAY
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(USA TODAY) - Deepak Chopra says he never feels stress.

He wakes up at 4 a.m. daily and meditates for two hours. Then, he writes for an hour before going to the gym. The famed 66-year-old holistic health guru takes no medicine. He's never had surgery. And he's never been hospitalized.

"This is embarrassing," he says, "but I do not get stress."

Even then, he has made millions off the unrelenting stresses from which the rest of us suffer - linking his name to everything from stress-busting techno gadgets to spiritual retreats. Few things, it seems, are more stressful, or expensive, than trying to shed stress.

Savvy marketers have discovered that almost as much as the quest for eternal youth, consumers are in relentless pursuit of eternal calm. To thousands of marketers that sell everything from stress-reduction drinks to stress-reducing apps to noise-canceling headphones, stress is a six letter word spelled: p-r-o-f-i-t.

"We're entering the dawn of the super-stress era," says Ann Mack, global director of trend spotting at JWT, an ad agency that picked "super stress" as one of 2013's most highly charged trends. "Since it's become a cost issue and serious medical concern, you'll see more efforts to prevent or reduce it."

Little wonder in a nation that could be the world's poster child for stress. Last year, some seven in 10 Americans said they regularly suffered physical symptoms due to stress, and 67% said they regularly experienced psychological symptoms because of it, reports the American Psychological Association. In a still-recovering economy, it's no surprise that the top three causes of stress last year were related to money, work and the economy, reports the APA.

"We're just not very good at dealing with stress," says David Ballard, the group's assistant executive director for organizational excellence, who assists with its annual Stress in America survey. But consumers can't necessarily buy their way out of stress, he warns. "Anytime someone is trying to sell you a product to reduce stress, that's a red flag," he says. "They have another interest in the matter: to make money."

BILLIONS ON THE TABLE

There is plenty to be made. No one tracks the money shelled out on de-stressing as an industry - the definition is simply too fuzzy - but some of that cash is well-spent. Ballard points out the potential benefits of yoga, for example. Yoga, alone, is a $6 billion business and ranks as one of the 10 fastest-growing industries, according to IBISWorld Industry, a market research firm.

On a much smaller - but faster-growing - scale, relaxation drinks were a $521 million industry in 2011, reports Nielsen, but growing at a 20%-plus clip. Luxury massage chairs are a $250 million industry in the United States, estimates the largest U.S. distributor of such chairs. And therapeutic massage is roughly a $13 billion industry, according to Massage Envy, the nation's largest therapeutic massage chain.

One cultural anthropologist finds the marketing of this trend laughable. "You can't buy un-stress just like you can't buy love," says Robbie Blinkoff, managing partner of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore. "Unstressing is easy and inexpensive - sit still for 10 minutes every day and breathe. It will do wonders."

Chopra agrees. He says that simple meditation - which costs nothing, of course - can be the best way to de-stress. And he's very clear about recommending that option, above all else, as the best way to chill out. He notes, though, that many people prefer to be held by the hand and led there, even though they could get there on their own for free.

Enter, the Dream Weaver. To be more precise: The Deepak Chopra Dream Weaver Light and Sound Mind Machine. This is a $299 device - worn like a pair of goggles - to help folks relax. The techie goggles - to be used only with eyes closed - mix a variety of light and sound pulses to help users "reach a beneficial state of consciousness," says David Mager, the inventor of the device. Users "see" a kaleidoscope of colors and dream-like images. A far-less expensive Dream Weaver app for iPhones is due out this summer.

"There are many paths to the top of the mountain," says Mager. But Dream Weaver, he notes, "is the turbo elevator to get there."

WILLING TO TRY ANYTHING

Brett Belcastro says he happily, and regularly, rides that elevator.

"Stress is something I've dealt with a majority of my life," says the 37-year-old audio visual producer from Atlanta who travels around the country as a high-priced DJ. Belcastro, twice divorced, says he has suffered at different periods of his life from depression, anxiety, ADD and OCD. "I'm passionate about relieving stress," he says.

Then, in March, his girlfriend's father recommended Chopra's website. Since then, says Belcastro, "I started to consume anything Deepak."

He attended a $2,100 "Seduction of Spirit" seminar in Carlsbad, Calif., at which Chopra spoke. And, to aid his meditation, Belcastro purchased the Dream Weaver and at least 15 different downloads for it at about $15 a pop. Each download features different sounds and imagery - like the sounds of a rain forest or the image of flicking lights after the sound of thunder.

He's not shy about wearing them while traveling, even on airplanes. The biggest skeptic is his mother. "She just laughs at me," says Belcastro. "She figures that anyone wearing goggles with lights flashing in his face must be strange."

He doesn't mind that. Since using the goggles while meditating, he says he dropped a 10-year habit of smoking marijuana. "I can finally meditate without being dependent on a substance."

Other stress-busting outlets attracting consumers:

•Sit & de-stress. Some folks are spending up to $8,000 for luxury massage chairs specifically made for massage and relaxation. At the very highest - and priciest - end of the category is the Sogno DreamWave Massage Chair, a Japanese-made luxury chair distributed in the U.S. by Inada.

At first glance, it looks more like something you'd expect to find Capt. Kirk comfortably seated upon while guiding the Starship Enterprise. It's big. It's wide. And it's got a space-age-looking remote. Last year, Inada sold more than $20 million worth of them in the U.S., says Cliff Levin, president of Inada USA.

Some people get the chair because their jobs have physically worn down their bodies, he says. But others, "who have everything," and who already enjoy regular spa treatments and massages, view this chair as "special luxury," he says.

The chair is programmed to do different kinds of massages, he says, all designed by Japanese massage experts. There's also a cheaper $5,300 model that's smaller and doubles as a rocking chair.

Sales are rocketing. They jumped 45% last year, and this year company sales will grow about 25%, says Levin. To those skeptics who say the chairs are a waste of money, Levin replies, "They haven't tried one yet."

•Drink to chill. Savvy marketers looked at the $8 billion energy drink and shots markets and asked themselves: What else can we do to cash in?

Enter, the relaxation drink. There are still no giants like Red Bull or Monster, but consider iChill and Slow Cow.

Slow Cow, which began in 2008 in Quebec, got early name-recognition when Red Bull filed a lawsuit - which it won - because Slow Cow''s logo was so similar to Red Bull's.

Slow Cow agreed to change its logo, even as it reaped tons of free PR. A bottle, which fetches $2 to $4, contains eight "natural" ingredients including L-Theanine, a relaxant commonly found in green tea.

"Relaxing doesn't mean sleeping on the couch," says Kasper Hansen, executive officer for international development of Boisson Slow Cow. "It's about a state of mind."

Consumer Reports recently studied a handful of relaxation drink brands to see whether their ingredients were accurately presented. Most were. Even then, says Maxine Siegel, the consumer group's food and sensory manager, "We don't really know if any of these are going to do anything for you - so you might want to save your money."

•Nix the noise. Executives at Bose won't say how many noise-canceling headphones the company sells. But the category itself is growing at a double-digit pace, says Sean Garrett, vice president of the Noise Reduction Technology Group at Bose.

It's all about consumers wanting to control their environments. "If I can control the noise around me, I'll have a better experience and be more relaxed," says Garrett.

While its most popular model is still the $350 Quiet Comfort 3 headphone, it recently rolled out $299 noise-reduction earbuds that are worn much like iPhone earbuds.

•Rub-in relief. Getting a massage used to be a luxury. Massage Envy, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., appears to be on the way to changing that. With 892 locations in 47 states, its membership is now about 1.4 million, says Chief Financial Officer Greg Esgar.

"We took a luxury and made it part of a normal health and wellness plan," he says.

Members sign one-year contracts at about $700 annually to get a massage or a facial every month - though the massages can carry over to the next month. About 70% of the customers are women, says Esgar, though it's working to attract more male clients.

"Whatever stresses people are going through," says Esgar, "sometimes that massage can be the best hour they've had that month."

Then, there's the Ostrich Pillow.

That's a $100 pillow that, much like it sounds, allows people to go into instant ostrich-mode. It fits over the head, with a small opening for the mouth and nose - and an ever-so-slight opening for eyes. There's even two side openings in which you can tuck your arms, so you can comfortably place your head down on a table and nod off.

Creator Ali Ganjavian says the pillow can be used anywhere. It's especially popular in airports, he says. He's sold about 10,000.

"Spending $100 to sleep better is not a lot," he says. "A good pair of shoes costs more than that."

USA TODAY

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