By Jenny Neyman
As the “go green” campaign grows, manufacturers are continually coming up with new products, tinkering with old ones and hyping their advertising to put more items on the shelf with the magic buzzwords of “natural,” “organic” and “safe for the environment.”
Those words are a big part of the sales pitch for Joyce Shuler and the company for which she sells. She rattles off cleaning products that are plant-based, biodegradable and nontoxic, cooking spices that are United States Department of Agriculture certified organic, and body-care products that have achieved the Natural Products Association’s seal for being made of at least 95 percent all-natural ingredients.
The difference for Shuler is she’s not jumping on the bandwagon of the green campaign. Her company has been in that realm long before there was a bandwagon, back in the days when the products were sold by an actual wagon.
Shuler sells for J.R. Watkins, based in Winona, Minn., which has been around since 1868, for more than 140 years.
“They used to go around by horse and buggy, door to door, farm to farm,” Shuler said. “They would make the rounds all the time. A lot of people remember that and would say, ‘I remember the Watkins person would come by the farm,’ and I say, ‘I still do home delivery, I just don’t come by horse and buggy.’”
The company still retains its old-time, simple logo, and many of its products have been around since the days when personal-care items were classified as apothecary. Paging through a catalog, there are tins of Petro-carbo Medicated First-Aid Salve, Menthol Camphor Cough Suppressant, Beef, Iron and Wine Tonic (for iron deficiency) and different varieties of liniment.
Other items show the company has grown with the times, like tins of chai latte and soy-vanilla drink mix and tubes of mango-scented body cream.
“People ask, ‘Liniment? What’s that?’ I have to really explain the product and tell them about it. But the good thing is if they don’t want, say, liniment, there are other products to do the same thing that are easier for people today to accept. Watkins tries to have a wide variety, and people love our logo. That’s one thing that draws people to the products. They love the old-fashioned logos,” Shuler said.
The natural aspect of the products has become more and more popular as that market expands, Shuler said. People increasingly want products that aren’t made with a long list of chemical gobbledygook. With Watkins, a lot the products were around since before some of today’s chemicals and synthetic materials were. And Watkins is constantly revamping its products list, adding new, natural ones and removing other ones that weren’t as green or didn’t sell well, she said.
“Organic seasonings have just come on the scene lately, but ours have actually been around since 1929,” Shuler said. “We won an award for our organic seasonings in 1929.”
Shuler said she’s done quite a bit of independent sales over the years, for Tupperware, Avon and Mary Kay. She grew up in Kenai, moved down south for several years and moved back to the peninsula with her mother in 2001. She wanted to get back into independent sales but wanted to do it for a company she really liked.
“I was very, very picky. It took me like two years before I found Watkins,” she said.
Her mother had used Watkins products back in Iowa, and when Shuler started trying them out she found she liked them. She has migraines and found the vitamins helped alleviate them, and the other products were mild enough that they didn’t cause new headaches, she said.
“I love the products. I haven’t found one I absolutely don’t like. And I have to really believe in a product in order to sell it. I also love the setup of Watkins. It’s just an excellent company to work for. The customer service is very, very highly rated, and that’s what really drew me to them,” she said.
Shuler is a manager for Watkins, and said business varies from month to month but overall is growing. She was nervous as the national recession mounted, but the other main Watkins retailer in the area, Coleen Sykora, who sells Watkins products and second-hand items in a shop on the Sterling Highway between Soldotna and Kasilof, told her not to worry. A company that’s been around as long as Watkins knows a thing or two about weathering economic ups and downs.
“I was like, ‘Oh no.’ But Colleen said during the Great Depression we actually grew instead of faltering. That gave me some real hope,” Shuler said. “It’s items that we can save people from going to the store for, that they need. It’s not luxury items. It’s things they need.”