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The Sweet Smell of Success

By: Sheila J. Vaughen

Date Posted: 2000-12-22

It is both invisible and intangible, and yet it invokes such powerful human reactions that people are swayed to affection or revulsion because of it. It is that most subtle and subjective of senses - the sense of smell; and it has made a thriving business for one local woman.

Marie Shah is an incense entrepreneur and the spouse of an Army soldier stationed here on Okinawa. After becoming intrigued by a friend’s hobby of making his own incense, she took it over after he left the island. Once in her hands, it was mixed with a little family business know-how, and topped off with a couple of lucky opportunities that made the business even sweeter.

One and a half years after being asked to supply the Kadena USO with her products, Shah’s business, Marie’s Incense & Body Oils, now retails her homemade products at five USO locations on Okinawa. More sales are made by displaying the products at various craft shows around the island and through word-of-mouth.

As a military spouse, Shah is pleased with the fact that most of her sales are through the USO gift shops including the Kadena AMC terminal. “A percentage of the profits of all the gift shops goes back to the USO, and thereby actually goes back to the military community. Plus they are a great bunch to deal with.”

While Shah had not worked for herself previous to starting this business, she says the fact that her parents owned a convenience store and a post office, in Ireland, gave her a basic understanding of self-employment. While Shah stressed that she is not getting rich from the profits of her business, it has empowered her to do some things important to her.

“I have two children and I wanted to be able to work, but still be there at home for them,” she said. “It also helped me pay for a recent trip back home to Ireland.” Apparently her friends and family back in Ireland were also impressed with the incense because she took a lot of requests for products while there.

With more than 16 different scents, Shah has found that there is at least one scent that pleases almost everyone. But she says the thing that sets her incense apart is the quality of the scent. “The fragrances that I use are really a superior quality to many other types you might find anywhere,” she explained. “Each stick burns for one hour. And the scent of my sticks are so concentrated you don’t even actually have to burn them to get the benefit. I actually just keep several sticks in an incense box and they keep my house fragrant.”

Since Shah’s home serves as her own little incense factory, her home is bound to be on odor overload at times. “Its true,” she laughed. “Sometimes my husband can’t stand it when I’m making the incense, it can get quite strong all together like that.”

How does one make their own incense? Shah starts with the basic sticks and cones that she orders from a wholesale supplier. Then she hand dips each one in the oils and lets them dry. “Its more messy than complicated,” she said.

Messy or not, the most popular scents are likely to sound like favorite foods that people like to eat. “Strawberry shortcake, cinnamon spice, peaches and cream are some of the top sellers. Other varieties are taken from popular exotic colognes such as bijan and egyptian musk.” Her customers usually stick with their preferred favorites she explained. “Scents are very personal. Some people might love one kind and others can’t stand it.”

Regardless, Shah’s customers do show that they like her products. “Some months sales slow down, and some months my products are flying off the shelves. But regardless, her business is working.

Shah spoke about the days leading up to starting up the business. “I had gone to the education center at Torii Station to take some vocational aptitude tests,” she explained. “The results all pointed to my being successful at running a business. At the time, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be in business’. But then it just kind of happened.” It seems to be how life often goes; opportunity makes an offer, and the smart ones take it.

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