Finnish Line

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George Dalhammer has been selling Finnleo saunas in his Dayton, Ohio, retail store for about 16 years, but neither he nor his customers have ever paid much attention to them. "It has always been something that has really been in the back corner of the showroom," the owner of Hot Spring Spa of Dayton says. The saunas didn't necessarily hurt the company's bottom line, but they weren't an item homeowners flocked to see, either.

But Dalhammer is changing his tune for 2005. With the recent introduction of upgrades for saunas such as televisions, stereos and fireplace/heaters, many dealers are taking another look at saunas — and customers are following suit.

Not Just A Box With Rocks

The American sauna industry is changing, says Keith Raisanen, president and owner of Cokato, Minn.-based Saunatec. "Saunas are very clearly moving more and more upscale — it's no longer just a basic square box. Lots of designs now include curved glass and doors, integral shelving — saunas have become really stunning. It's an amenity homeowners are proud of," he says.

"We feel that the population is where it was 15 or 20 years ago with the spa industry," adds Dalhammer. "It's very much on the ground level; the excitement is there."

A Stylish Sauna

That excitement could be stemming from the many options homeowners can now include in their saunas. However, it's important to remember that not all potential sauna buyers are going to know about all the products available to them.

"People are ignorant when it comes to what accessories they are looking for in a sauna," says Dalhammer. "It would be like if you took a Neanderthal man and he finally made his way out of the cave after many hundreds of thousands of years, and he walks into a car dealership and this car salesperson is trying to sell him on the benefits of power steering.

The guy looks at him and says, 'What the hell is power steering.' because he doesn't even know what a car is!"

Homeowners might not be the only ones caught by surprise with the onslaught of sauna options available. Most dealers probably remember a time not so long ago when stainless-steel buckets, ladles and hygrometers were considered high-end. What has led to the sudden explosion in sauna upgrades?

When speaking with leaders in the spa industry regarding its great success verses that of the sauna industry, Raisanen says he has heard over and over that to the typical American, they know saunas feel good and that they're good for the body, but they say they aren't fun."They talked about spas being an entertainment center that you can literally party around, and we said, 'Clearly there's a way to do that with saunas.'"

Toward that end, Saunatec recently introduced a marine-grade multimedia stereo system for its Designer series of saunas that features a flipup, vapor-proof cover and marine-grade speakers that are installed in the sauna's bench skirts for high-quality sound. The 13- or 15-inch-wide, low-profile television screen is located in a self-contained, tempered-glass shelving unit. The company also introduced its Metro series of outdoor saunas, which feature a spacious changing room (a shower can also be added). And in September, Saunatec will introduce the Sauna Flame gas fireplace/sauna heater. Made of European alder, Nordic whitewoods and western red cedar, the Sauna Flame combines a Heat & Glo direct-vent gas fireplace with a rock chamber that features a black granite top to complement the sauna rocks.

"This was a direct response to dealers saying they wanted entertainment-oriented features added to the sauna to make it combine fun with wellness," says Raisanen.

American Infrared Saunas includes stereo systems in all its infrared cabinets, and the Anaheim, Calif.-based company also provides optional 8inch-wide LCD .at-screen televisions.

And because infrared saunas don't require water to be thrown on rocks for steam, says Michall Ganatta, vice president for American Infrared Saunas, infrared's offer half the air temperature but three times the perspiration.

In addition to these features, says Ganatta, saunas are also becoming easier for homeowners to use and store. "It used to be when you purchased a sauna you had to add a room on your house or you had to build it in a shack out back," he says. "Now they are made where they just snap together without any tools. You can put them in a walk-in closet, a bedroom, a basement, or out on a patio or deck, so it's made it a lot easier and it has opened the market up tremendously."

Sauna Sales

But are all these options attracting sauna buyers. For Dalhammer, accessories and advertising are opening saunas to homeowners that otherwise might not have considered them.

Dalhammer recently began including saunas in his marketing campaign and he has devoted more space in his 8,000-square-foot retail store to various sauna models. Before this year, he only featured saunas on 500 square feet of space — that number has now doubled to 1,000. And in about six months, when he moves in his new 14,000-square-foot showroom, Dalhammer says he plans on dedicating 2,000 square feet specifically to saunas. To further emphasize saunas, he recently contracted separate booth spaces from his spas at the two home shows he's attended so far this year.

"Whenever we put them in before, we might put one sauna in and it would be in the same booth as the spas were, so it was the step-child of the spa," says Dalhammer. "It was plain — it didn't make an impression. When you're walking in the home show and you see a 20-by-30foot booth with five saunas, that in and of itself attracts people."

Ganatta adds: "When dealers show them at the home shows, they use the accessories to draw customers in."

Taking time to stop at a booth in a home show is one thing. Are these options also pulling homeowners into retail stores. Yes, says Dalhammer. In fact, a few days after one of the home shows, he says one couple came to the store to get more information and another customer who saw the saunas at the show called to say he's ready to purchase a custom-cut sauna.

"The feedback was phenomenal, not only from an interest standpoint but also from a sales standpoint," Dalhammer says. To put it into perspective: Hot Spring Spas of Dayton's fiscal year runs November through October. Last year the company sold approximately eight saunas. Through January of 2005 (after attending only one home show), Dalhammer says his company's sauna sales, in the first quarter of its fiscal year, are already 50 percent over sales from last year. "We've already doubled our sales in February over the first quarter, so we're probably 250 percent over last year," he says. Dalhammer anticipates sauna sales will be close to 10 times what they were last year.

"Even customers that come in all the time to buy chemicals now walk in and the first thing they say is, 'Gosh, you guys carry saunas.' We've had them here for 15 years!" he says. "If you don't look like you're in the game to yourself, you certainly don't look like you're in the game to your customer."

Dalhammer says this response from customers has led him to believe the timing is right to sell saunas. "People are ready for something different in the arena of home relaxation," he says. "The interesting piece of it is that this is the same customer as the spa customer — the infrastructure is already set up, so it's a relatively easy thing to roll into."

A Healthy Dose Of Fun

Once dealers grab the consumers' attention with optional upgrades such as stereos and flat-screen TVs, they can sell the sauna on its performance, quality and health benefits.

Ganatta says he has seen the sauna market double every year, which he believes has happened because people are becoming more health conscious and, he says, more aware of the toxins they need to get out of their body in order to live a healthy life.

"Product knowledge also contributes to sales," he says. "It used to be you went to the gym and you used a sauna and you knew it made you feel good, but nobody realized why. I think that with more and more dealers and manufacturers in the marketplace, people are starting to realize there are a lot of benefits to using a sauna."

"As people become more aware of the health benefits, they are using saunas as a detox method to better their lifestyle and well-being," says AnnaMaria Vetta, relations manager for Bolton, Ontario-based Saunacore.

Delhammer also attributes sauna growth to over-the-picket-fence competition. "When you're talking about people that live high on the hog, they all like to try to out-do each other. I think we've got a little bit to grow before we'll see that happening with saunas, but I honestly feel that it will. As soon as saunas start to show up in houses and their peers see it, they'll say, 'Wow! Did you see what they had over there?' and all of a sudden they call up and say, 'I want a sauna just like so-and-so has.' And then you just sit back and you get to see some of the growth."

Future Forecast

If saunas today include televisions and stereos, what does that leave for the future? Dealers and manufacturers have high hopes.

Raisanen says he sees dramatic changes in saunas within the next 10 years — changes based on the desires of the American consumer rather than what's happening in the European marketplace. "I think historically we tuned into a lot of the technical aspects and maybe even the room designs from Europe, but we haven't necessarily listened well to what the typical American wants," he says. "In traditional sauna, I see further enhancements in the whole audiovisual realm and we see continual enhancements in the technical side of the sauna. We're trying to get the vast majority of Americans that haven't decided they need a sauna to give it serious thought."

Ganatta compares the sauna industry today to that of the spa industry in the late '70s and early '80s.

"It's just starting to really kick in, and I think in the next five or 10 years, it's going to be a lot like the spa business is," he says. "There will be a lot of manufacturers and sauna will pretty much be a household name. There will be a lot of people out there that own them and have them in their homes."

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