The Technology of Spirit

Offering perhaps conclusive proof that fewer Americans are reading these days, Best Buy’s health and wellness retail experiment, called Eq-Life, will soon occupy the space vacated by Grand Avenue’s now defunct independent bookstore, Bound to Be Read. It’s worth noting that about a mile down the street, the space left open by Ruminator’s closure is now a Patagonia store. Do Americans prefer fleecy jackets, scented candles, and heart monitors to the comforts of a good read? Mike Marolt, the president of Eq-Life, is hoping they do. Marolt’s own brainchild, the new store bills itself as a neighborhood resource for health, wellness, and technology, seemingly unlikely bedfellows. Its first test store, which opened in Richfield earlier this year, has been successful enough that Marolt has decided to expand the control group, opening both the St. Paul store and another in Stillwater later this year.

So what, exactly, is Eq-Life? And why is Best Buy trafficking in health and wellness? And what the devil does that have to do with technology? Before visiting the Richfield store, I pictured a group of women in hot pink capri pants who’d been lured in by the pedicure stations and had gone ahead and purchased more expensive cell phones and picked up an MP3 player on their way out the door, walking ever so gingerly in flip-flops toward their SUVs to protect freshly polished toes. Surely this was Best Buy’s way of selling computers and corollaries—peripherals? Whatever—to women who are intimidated by geeky techno-babble at the company’s warehouse stores, yes? Well, not exactly.

Imagine that by some magic of origami, O magazine could be folded out into an eighteen-thousand-square-foot retail space, and you’re getting a little bit closer. Borrowing from the Latin root aequilibrium—or perhaps just abbreviating the English cognate—Eq-Life seeks to provide its customers with an array of goods and services that “help people find balance,” said Sue Lee, who handles PR for the enterprise. These include salon and spa services (“Sea Facials,” the “Exfoliating Citrus Spa Manicure,” the “Gentleman’s Buff & Shine”); a range of self-help and health care texts (from He’s Just Not That Into You and What Not to Wear to Conquering Infertility and How Full Is Your Bucket?) to organic towels, tampons, and cleaning supplies, upscale scales that read your body fat and metabolic age, blood pressure monitors, fountains, air purifiers, motion detectors for keeping track of grandma, digital pedometers, nail polish, and herbal supplements. It is also the only retail location in the country licensed to sell something that everybody needs at a good party: defibrillators. And it offers consultations with nurse practitioners, diabetes and diet specialists, and members of the Geek Squad.

Mike Marolt believes that the connections between wellness and technology are untapped and many, and noted that one of the store’s most popular resources has been the health notes kiosk, where customers can tap a screen for information on everything from acid reflux to zinc malabsorption. And he knows what you’re thinking: The customer base isn’t just women. “Throughout our research we kept coming back to an equally balanced demographic, progressively minded around health and wellness, people who are online researching this information—highly engaged health and wellness consumers.”

However, many of Eq-Life’s new St. Paul neighbors are worried about all those highly engaged health and wellness consumers logging off and heading to Grand Avenue. Parking will be a huge issue in the already congested Victoria Crossing neighborhood. Then, too, Eq-Life may threaten smaller businesses in the area that offer similar products and services. While Patagonia seems to have received a warm welcome, so far Eq-Life has suffered a fair amount of conflict. Luckily, it has plenty of stuff to deal with that sort of stress. And if precedent is any sign, Eq-Life on Grand will be fine. When I asked Jennifer, a customer loading up on bath products at the Richfield store, why she had come in that day, she laughed and said, “My friend raves about this place. She’s a product whore!” There is undoubtedly an herbal remedy for that, too.

—Shannon Olson