Sauna Sizzle

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Emotions may not completely control consumers' buying decisions, but they certainly play a big role. That's why you talk about relaxation and family togetherness when selling spas, and that's also why it's a good idea to talk about relaxation and rejuvenation when selling saunas. Peter von Hopffgarten, owner of the Pool & Spa Depot in Nashville, Tenn., a dealership that sells over 75 saunas a year, is certainly on board with this strategy. "We sell saunas more on emotion than product knowledge," says von Hopffgarten. "Now, certainly we have product knowledge, as well. We can talk to you about the heater and the wood species and how they're made and how they're insulated, but really that's not what sells saunas. What sells saunas is telling them about the experience, walking them through the whole seven steps of the Scandinavian sauna process, and explaining all the health benefits and the euphoric feeling you get having had a sauna. We sell the sizzle, not the steak."

Don Chandler, owner of five Spa Brokers stores in Denver, certainly covers the health benefits of saunas with customers, but finds that those who don't really know much about saunas have little interest in buying them. On the other hand, clients who do know a little about them want to know more. "A lot of people coming in looking for a sauna are already planning on putting one in their house. They want to be convinced to buy one," says Chandler. "They already know about the relaxing part of it, but they may not know all about health benefits of it, and when you add all those up, that's many more reasons to buy one."

Interestingly, Chandler encounters a lot of former hot tub owners who now want a sauna instead. "It's because they can get a similar result out of it," he says. "I think saunas give you so much with little or no effort — all you do is sit in them and relax, but they get you to perspire, they get your heart rate up and you burn calories." But a sauna costs less over time, adds Chandler, because it only runs when you want to use it and you don't have to buy chemicals for it. "So it's very low maintenance, and it also relaxes you, detoxifies you and makes you feel good."

Even though he believes saunas do provide a number of health benefits, Tom Bunting, general manager of 10 Paradise Valley Spas stores in the San Francisco Bay area, does not say too much about them. "We explain to them, just like we would for a spa, that it's very healthy, and it helps with circulation and sleep habits, but we don't get very technical," he says.

In general, it's a good idea to not make any health claims you can't substantiate. When customers want to know more about the health benefits of saunas beyond what Bunting explains, he suggests clients visit their physician to pursue that.

What Bunting does stress is how quickly one of the heaters on the saunas he sells fires up. "We can demo this heater in seconds. If a client says he's interested in a sauna, we walk over to the sauna, open the door, go in, close the door, fire up the heater in two seconds, and he's sweating in three seconds. It's impressive. Finlandia's Ever Ready AV heater is the key to a lot of these deals. It's a sauna heater that's made in Finland, as all of theirs are, but it's unique in that it uses the same technology as the space shuttle as far as ceramic insulation, so you've got a heater that no one else can even come close to."

In fact, all three dealers AQUA spoke with mentioned how critical it is to have customers try out a sauna; and, unlike convincing clients to wet test a spa, getting them to step inside a sauna is a cinch. "Even if it's just for a brief moment, most customers are willing to go into a sauna," say von Hopffgarten. "So we keep fresh water with eucalyptus at all times in a bucket in the sauna, so when customers step in, we ladle off a little water onto the rocks and they get to feel and experience what the sauna does."

"If you want to sell a sauna," says Chandler, "just open the door, have the customer go in and ladle water with some birch or spruce essence on the rocks."

They Buy What They See

Just as with spas, it's ideal to display a variety of saunas since customers will buy what they can see and sample. "We have 12 to 15 saunas on display," says von Hopffgarten. "The consumer sees the size of the display and will consequently buy because they believe it is a major category. We also light them all up, so they have kind of a warm glow."

Since merchandising saunas can be challenging, as three of their four sides are not very pretty to look at, says von Hopffgarten, "we make an island with some of the saunas so that all you see is the front face of those saunas."

Another way to spruce up saunas on the floor is by displaying sauna accessories along one of the side walls, if, for instance, you had two set up back to back. "Displaying accessories not only encourages repeat business, but it also makes you look serious about the business," says von Hopffgarten. "Spend $1,000 and bring in some thermometers, buckets, ladles, aromatherapy, and possibly some robes and towels from Finland. Then, on the other side of these two saunas back to back, I would put lots of banners and point of purchase, which Finnleo is very good at."

Even though 75 percent of von Hopffgarten's sauna sales are of the traditional units, he also carries infrared cabinets because "by carrying both, you're giving the consumer unbiased information. If all I sell is traditional and the consumer comes in with information about infrared they got off the Internet, I'm having to sell defensively the whole time as to why you don't want an infrared. The traditional is certainly a better niche for the pool and spa guy because if you go online, 95 percent of what you're going to find is infrared, predominantly imported from China."

Make The Most Of What You've Got

However, not every portable spa dealership has the square footage to display more than two or three saunas.

Nevertheless, you can light them up and position them so customers will notice them. Chandler places saunas and accessories next to the sales counter so that customers can't miss them, and he has also displayed a sauna in an "outdoor retreat" vignette that included a portable spa, an outdoor barbecue and gas firepit.

In addition to displaying a Finnleo Designer sauna in a couple of his showrooms, Chandler also uses cutaways to help clients get a sense of what that model has to offer. "We have a small, two-panel cutaway of a custom sauna that shows different types of wood they can get and how the room is framed and what the bench looks like and the insulation and the foil vapor barrier."

Chandler notes that many of his clients purchasing high-end saunas show interest in wiring the unit for speakers and doing a custom bench configuration. "Finnleo has the Vgrain interior, the classic interior, the Sunburst interior and they have a new Deco interior, and that's interesting. I like that. I bought one of their displays. The bottom bench basically fills up 95 percent of the room. And then they have modular upper benches, so you can make two long benches, or one short bench, or you can stack the benches up or put them in the corner, so you can sit on this lower platform. And why would people want to do that. Maybe they want to do yoga or meditate or stretch out in a heated room."

Bunting, whose stores sell over 100 saunas a year, says he does not have the square footage to display multiple saunas in his Bay Area showrooms. But the Finlandia models he does display "are dressed up to the max. With the outdoor ones, we've got a roof package on them with Western red cedar shingles, which is real attractive. And we upgrade the sides you see, so whatever your eye can see on the outside is going to be Western red cedar. And we put side windows in — one on each side of the door — and we have all stainless hinges on it. We put a skirt across the gap between the upper and lower benches so it looks real finished. And we put backrests all the way around. So it's fully dressed."

However, quite a few of Bunting's sauna clients never see even one of these saunas on display. "We're here in Silicon Valley, and everybody here owns a computer, so our Web business is immense. We update our Web site every few months and stay of top of that because it helps generate a tremendous amount of leads and sales. I've had people buy saunas that I've never met — we've done the whole thing over the phone while looking at Web sites.

Plus, much like pool builders who do a lot of work for particular home builders, Bunting has sold quite a few saunas to particular contractors. "I have one guy who has built many condominium projects over the years, and he usually puts a large 8-by-8 precut sauna into every one of his projects down in the workout area."

Training Pays

It seems obvious that salespeople should know all about the products they're selling, yet everyone has encountered salespeople who can't answer their questions — even in specialty retailers. Von Hopffgarten advocates frequent training: "Get your salespeople trained and constantly train them, even if you're going over old ground."

When your sales staff is well trained, not only will customers be happier, but the salespeople will also get excited about selling saunas because they'll better understand them and their appeal. "I send my salespeople to the manufacturer sales training," says Chandler, "And they just love me for that because they went to the factory, they saw where they're assembled and they had a sales trainer there. They also took them out to this retreat area by a lake, and they had a freestanding new outdoor sauna with a wood burning sauna heater in it, and after they experienced the sauna, they jumped in the lake. Then they had a fish fry and beer, and they just thought that was the best thing ever.

"That really changed my salespeople," adds Chandler. "Before, they were afraid to talk to people about saunas if the customer wanted more than a portable, two-person sauna. If the customer was interested in a custom unit, they just shut down because they didn't know as much about that. But now they understand the health benefits and they understand why people want to get into a sauna."

"I think one reason we sell a lot of saunas is because we have experience, and we're able to answer all the customer's questions, so they feel more comfortable with us," says Chandler.

Bunting, who has been selling spas and saunas for 20 years, also believes his experience makes a big difference. "People come in and tell me, 'We've been to two other stores and nobody has said anything you've mentioned, like you should use stainless-steel hinges on an outdoor sauna. Don't these other people understand the things that should be brought up.' I tell them, 'I don't know,' but I can tell people appreciate that I know what I'm talking about."

Fortunately for those who don't have as much experience as Bunting, taking the time to understand saunas and their benefits can go a long way toward helping you sell them well. Sauna makers can help. Even though they may not have as much in the way of dealer support programs that some industry suppliers offer, they do want you to succeed and do help where they can. Says Chandler, "When I started with Finnleo, I asked a lot of questions and they came out and showed me. They even came out and helped me build some, so I could get that experience."

To retailers who are concerned that carrying saunas would be a hassle, particularly on custom jobs that require electricians and site surveys, Chandler says, "Manufacturers can help you with that. They can walk you through it."

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