Sauna Sales Bright

photo of Pool World's store within a storeBy most measures, the sauna industry is hot. The statement might be trite, it might be clichéd, but the sentiment rings true. Industry and association leaders project overall growth, manufacturers are releasing new products, and the largest sauna manufacturer in the industry reports an upswing in sauna dealers.

Even the Wall Street Journal says that home sauna installation is the hottest trend in home improvements. A Dec. 29, 2010, story reports that, "More Americans are making space for sauna rooms, clearing out basements, converting closets, and even partitioning off backyard sheds."

Kalevi Ruuska, president of the North American Sauna Society (NASS), and owner of Koko Inc., a sauna dealership that works with carpenters and architects, estimates that some 15,000 saunas are sold annually in the United States, and sauna sales are growing by about 10 percent a year. To date, Ruuska estimates that there have been one million saunas sold in the U.S.

Rick Mouw, president of Almost Heaven Saunas, a Renick, W.Va.-based manufacturer of traditional saunas, says that sauna sales are "beaming." This effulgent effect is the result, in part, of dealers' increased efforts and emphasis on sauna sales.

Cokato, Minn.-based Finnleo Sauna & Steam has seen signs of growth throughout its dealer network. In fact, Mark Raisanen, national sales manager for Finnleo, has seen a resurgence in the number of dealers. During the recent challenging economic times, the numbers of North American and Latin American dealers fell, but have been steadily rising. While declining to provide specifics, Raisanen says that the number of North American sauna dealers has rebounded to previous levels, but Latin American dealerships still have a ways to go.

Perhaps most surprisingly, sauna sales compared to hot tub sales are improving. Traditionally, hot tub sales dwarfed sauna sales by a factor of six or seven to one. While only an estimate, Raisanen says that that figure is now closer to one sauna sale for every two or three hot tub sales.

photo of the Canopy Barrel sauna from Almost Heaven
The Canopy Barrel from Almost Heaven is the company's newest model. It builds on the company's barrel sauna, but adds 2 feet creating a sheltered, outside sitting area.

At the dealer level, many companies report improved figures. William Turinski, general manager of Florida Hot Tub & Spa, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., said that sauna sales increased by an estimated 35 percent after the company's Internet presence was enhanced. Dan Meacham, a store manager for Pool World, Spokane, Wash., said sauna sales have grown by double figures. Ruuska, in the Wall Street Journal story, said that his sauna sales were up 50 percent, and in the same story, Rozycki Woodworks, a Royalton, Minn.-based custom maker of barrel saunas, estimated sales had increased by 6 percent per year during the last four years.

Still, some challenges exist. The partisan dissension between traditional sauna dealers and infrared dealers has caused confusion in the marketplace, some experts say. The Internet and showrooms across the country are filled with questionable data on everything from health to cost of operation.

Another industry leader pointed to the sale of low-cost infrared saunas imported from China and sold over the Internet. These units, which often have a price point that is half of what a dealer would charge, have lowered profit margins, and presented a bottom line challenge to brick-and-mortar dealers.

Peter von Hopffgarten, owner of Pool & Spa Depot, Nashville, Tenn., says that in the last five or six years there has been a swing toward infrared saunas, in part because of cost differentials. Internet brokers can low-ball the price of sauna products because they do not have the overhead faced by a retail store dealership.

Sauna sales have dropped off at von Hopffgarten's dealership, and he attributes this problem to the saunas sold over the Internet. In the past, he sold around 75 saunas per year. Today, that figure is about 50 to 60 annually.

Facing the challenges of competing against low-cost imports is a problem faced by all, but one that von Hopffgarten is facing head-on.

Von Hopffgarten employs a multi-pronged approach to the problem. The first prong consists of ensuring a quality product manufactured by a reputable company. He believes the supplier should have a history of standing behind its product and should employ strict quality-assurance controls. For his business, his primary sauna supplier is Finnleo.

Next, von Hopffgarten is fighting fire-with-fire by introducing a low-end Chinese sauna into his supply chain for marketing purposes; essentially to get people in the door so that he and his sales associates can show them higher-end, higher-quality sauna products.

Pool and Spa Depot is also using the Internet to draw customers to the showroom. In recent months, they have started a marketing campaign using Internet keywords. Potential buyers who search for saunas, and live within certain geographic zip codes, receive search results that prominently highlight Pool and Spa Depot.

photo of the design center in Pool World
Pool World's store-with-a-store concept features a design center to help consumers design their unique sauna experience.

Using the Internet and search engine optimization (SEO) keywords has been used with great success by Florida Hot Tub & Spa. Turinski, the general manager, says a major reason for an 80 percent growth in sauna inquiries and sales increases of 35 percent is a redesigned website. Now, the website better showcases saunas, sauna accessories, and provides pricing and ordering information. The response, Turinski says, has been incredible.

Even the manufacturer Finnleo has gotten into the act with a viral marketing campaign on Facebook. The company ran a contest called, "Win a Piece of Finland." To enter, contestants had to Facebook "friend" Finnleo to get a single chance to win a trip to Helsinki. To improve their odds, contestants could recommend Finnleo's Facebook page to up to five friends and receive additional chances.

Not all successes are derived from electronic efforts, however. Mouw of Almost Heaven says he is seeing more effort on the part of dealers to more prominently and attractively display sauna goods. In the past, he says, many dealers would put a sauna in the back of a showroom and hope the unit would sell itself. To be successful, he says, dealers need to have a visible display, and they need to "talk the product up."

One dealer that has taken that advice to heart is Master Spas of West Michigan, in Grand Rapids. The dealership, which has a 7,000-square-foot showroom and attached warehouse, used to sell a thousand spas a year, but those days have passed, says president Mark T. Nelson. To augment its business, Nelson says the company increased its sauna presence to about 1,500 square feet to show the product and created a staging area to explain the sauna types and available options.

In addition to the in-store display, which is full of flowers and other attractive ornamentation, Nelson says that the company obtained a license to display a sauna on the side of one of that area's busiest roads. "Consumers have to physically see the product," he says, "You've got to show it to sell it."

This philosophy can also be found at Spokane-based Pool World. The company had been a sauna dealer for more than 15 years with limited success; basically, it had utilized a store fixture stocked with brochures. That tactic did not work well.

In late 2008, its Finnleo regional sales representative approached the dealership with a plan to more effectively merchandise and sell saunas. In February 2009, Pool World put three saunas on display, and the reaction from customers was positive, says Meacham. There was a great amount of interest, he says. Sales were picking up.

photo of Finnleo's CarbonFlex infrared heating systems
Finnleo’s CarbonFlex infrared heating systems operate at a wavelength of 8.4 to 9.4.

That was just the beginning, however. In Fall 2010, Pool World made a major sauna commitment. It launched a store-within-a store concept called Sauna World at one of its four stores. Meacham said the program began with six saunas collectively on display. Recently, he added two more saunas to the site. In addition, he expanded the Sauna World idea into two of its other showrooms. For potential buyers who want to test out the sauna, Meacham says they have a sauna heated and ready for them to try. The sauna is a combination infrared and traditional sauna unit.

This dedicated space also afforded Pool World the opportunity to showcase additional merchandising materials and sauna accessories. The centralized area in the showroom gave customers a view of available options including heaters, controls, wood types, bench styles, lighting effects and other choices.

Sauna manufacturers are continually introducing value-added options to better entice customers. This can range from high-end electronic equipment, comfortable seat and back assemblies, or expert construction that allows buyers to integrate saunas into small niches in their homes.

Finnleo, for example, has integrated numerous lighting options, televisions, and electronic products, and, most recently, an iPod locker. The electronic device is stowed in the locker and activated by a handheld control.

The company also offers the InfraSauna product that gives customers the choice to switch between a traditional heater and an infrared heater. The InfraSauna features the CarbonFlex Far-Infrared heating system that recently earned an ETL safety mark for custom sizes. The ETL listing is proof of safety compliance. Historically, infrared heater ETL listings were limited to fixed sizes and heater models. Now, Finnleo, working with ETL, says it was able to test whole rooms and get rooms safety certified up to 420 cubic feet.

photo of Finnleo's sauna
Finnleo's saunas can come in a variety of custom sizes and shapes

Not all accessories and enhancements are so electronically minded, however. Almost Heaven, for instance, recently introduced the Canopy Barrel sauna that builds on its traditional barrel sauna concept. The new models extend the length of the sauna by two feet. This additional space is used to create a sheltered sitting area outside the door of the sauna room.

Another example of carpentry giving consumers more choice can be found at Royal Spa, in Indianapolis. Owner Bob Dapper says that his carpenters can custom design a sauna in "a little niche, a spare closet. We can build the sauna room to width or length." Using a simple assembly process, the sauna goes together quickly and within a short time, the customer can enjoy the benefits of a sauna.

The health benefits of saunas are, of course, one of the major reasons to own a sauna. And, many consumers appear to have greater knowledge of these benefits.

Not everyone thinks that today's consumers are more educated, however. Consumers, says von Hopffgarten, are better informed, but the level of their knowledge is worrisome. There are so many "bogus claims" on the Internet that need to be dispelled. An ethical store is bound to try and clear up the confusion. Yes, he says, there are health benefits, but it is not the fountain of youth. It won't reverse the aging process or cure cancer.

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