Getting In The Mood

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Jjj 408 Aq Few people would buy a new car without first taking it for a test drive. There's a lot of money at stake.

You could say the same thing about a spa. For many customers, it's hard to plunk down thousands of dollars for a particular hot water experience they've never actually had.

For that reason, many retailers have erected in the corner of their stores a "mood room" where customers can test out a spa in a private setting. Sometimes, that tentative step can push a customer off the fence and get them to buy, notes Chris Callanan, owner, North Shore Pool & Spa, Wakefield, Mass.

"It's really a decision-maker for many spa customers," he says. "It helps flesh out some of their preconceived ideas that may or may not really hold true. It just gives them a good feeling to try it, and it helps break down some barriers they have when they're close to buying."

As important as a mood room is in evaluating a spa, perhaps even more crucial is its role as a venue for building a personal bond between retailer and customer. It offers the salesperson a chance to step out of the typical showroom role and host an esteemed guest in an intimate activity. In this situation, it's much easier to develop the trust so critical to a relationship, and ultimately, a spa sale.

A Discreet Suite

While the idea is simple enough, it's not as easy as it sounds — creating an inviting in-store experience whereby customers become convinced they must have a spa.

First of all, it has to feel unique and distinctive. Think flying economy with a layover in Chicago; then do the opposite.

Despite the fact that a spa room is used by hundreds of strangers, it has to feel as though it's the first time anyone has ever been in that spa.

Start with location and layout. The name of the game is privacy, according to Kathleen Carlson, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Aqua Quip, Seattle. The store has two test rooms, both of which can be completely closed off when in use. "The rooms are also designed to be slightly darker than the rest of the showroom," she says. "When the customers are using them we want them to feel it is private and relaxed. We call them 'Mood Rooms' because we need to get them into the mood to buy."

That's the most common layout, a discreet room within the confines of the store. However, Bachmann Pools & Spas, Madison, Wis., has an innovative outdoor facility with an inviting Caribbean theme to give customers an idea of the distinct joys an outdoor spa can deliver.

"It's not completely finished yet," says Kiya Bachmann, general manager, "but people started trying out the hot tubs last summer."

There are five test spas available in this delightful open-air facility, which features a thatch-roofed gazebo offering shade and some seclusion.

Bachmann also has an indoor room, which has grown to feature an assortment of products for customers to try. "Originally there was only one hot tub in there, a sauna, a steam room and two changing rooms," she says. "Well, the two changing rooms took up too much space, so we decided to take them out and put another hot tub in there. And then we left the steam and the sauna, which can be used as a changing room as well."

Of course, sometimes a customer wants to try out a spa without the water. In addition to the mood room at Johnson Pools & Spas, Huntsville, Ala., they keep dry test spas out on the showroom floor for customers to test out personally, according to Penny Johnson, co-owner. She encourages customers to climb in and find their comfort level among the different lounge chairs and bench seats.

"It's real important to have some spas dry," she says. "Just to get the feel of what the spas are going to be like, and if you've got a person that's really tall, they want to make sure if you've got a lounger that their feet are not going to buckle."

The Mood In The Room

Perhaps even more than layout, the atmosphere inside the mood room is crucial in ensuring a positive experience and outcome. First and foremost, it has to be clean, says Johnson.

"Cleanliness is a big issue with customers," she says. "But you should have every place in your entire business that way. You can't sell an $8,000 hot tub from a warehouse . . . that's a reality.

"We generally do not schedule more than one per day," she adds, "because we would want to make sure it was clean and sanitary for the next couple. We always provide bathrobes and towels; we keep those clean all the time and replace them after each use."

Assuming the room is tidy, a certain ambience is important to creating a memorable experience. Bachmann creates a warm, enticing atmosphere with candles, soft music from a spa stereo, and mirrors reflecting the low lighting around the room. But she adjusts the mood in the mood room to the guest. Not everybody gets the romance.

"It depends on the customer," she says, "If I had some Harley guy coming in I probably wouldn't have that, I'd probably have a beer for him. But we do all kinds of different things, depending on their interest. We just want them to relax and do their thing."

The spa test not only builds appreciation for the hot water experience, it's a great opportunity to show off some of the snazzy features a customer might not otherwise be aware of — or consider paying for. So retailers make sure that while a customer is reveling in the jets and the water, they're getting a good look at all the accessories a premium spa can offer, such as stereos, iPod docks and aromatherapy units.

"That's your cross-merchandising," says Johnson.

Warm Water Encounter

Enter the customer. They may be at any point in the evolution of a spa purchase. Generally, it's someone who has visited the store at least once before, but not always. Sometimes it's someone who just shows up with a swimsuit in hand, ready for a dip. Sometimes, they don't even have a swimsuit.

In that case, Bachmann doesn't miss a beat. "We have bathing suits for people to use. They make an appointment, usually. But if someone just walks in and says, 'Oh, I'd like to try one out but I don't have my swimsuit,' I say, 'That's OK, I've got one for you.'"

There's rarely any embarrassment involved. According to Bachmann, most people aren't shy about getting undressed in a retail store. "I've had people in here bouncing around all over the place," she says. If there is some level of discomfort, however, Bachmann invites them to come in before or after store hours.

When customers arrive for the spa experience at Johnson Pools & Spas, they are greeted by a receptionist who calls a salesperson over for some opening words. It's a 15,000-square-foot store with 13 units on the floor, so customers are guided to the spa test room, where the doors are closed behind them.

"We give them about 20 minutes in there," says Johnson, "and then we knock on the door, go in, and ask them if there's any questions they have. And we'll just talk to them about the jet system and different things."

To a large extent, this moment is what the expense and effort of having a spa test room has been leading up to — that is, an opportunity for a friendly, relaxed conversation with a customer where everyone's guard is down, and Johnson can just listen and chat a bit. She takes advantage of that moment to build a bond with the customers and find out what they really want.

It's just a completely different venue from the showroom floor, she says, "the soft music is playing, and when they find out that you can really talk to them, and they don't feel like everyone's listening to you talk about the tub, they can relax. And you just draw them in . . . it's so much simpler when you're not standing out in the open showroom.

"We have a beverage bar in there, and what we typically will do is offer them some juice or water, and that puts them in a comfort zone. We know that they've spent 20 minutes in the tub, in water that's 102 degrees, and when people aren't accustomed to that, it saps their energy."

Johnson doesn't always ask for the sale on the spot, it just depends on the customer. "We ask them if they have any additional questions, but if they're ready to rock and roll . . . well, you just get the feel. You just know."

Every retailer with a test room adds its own nuances to the procedure, but all agree it's important to allow the customer some time alone with the spa. Bachmann doesn't want to be fussing over them, rabbiting on about features as they climb into the tub. She just says, "Go on in there, start pushing some buttons, enjoy yourself, and think about what you might want to ask me. We'll talk later.

"I give them about 10 minutes in there, and then I check on them, make sure they're drinking water because it is steamy, and we want them to stay hydrated. And then I'll ask them at that point if they have any questions, and then usually they'll be in there another 10 minutes. So it's usually about 20 minutes total. And afterwards they're nice and relaxed, and we sit here at this table and have some fruit or some cookies.

"Once they've been able to really relax and they've enjoyed the hot tub, then I'll talk to them. That's when you find out what they want."

It's entirely possible that what the customer wants is to put off a decision for the time being. That's fine, retailers say, because they'll be hearing from us. All of the spa stores interviewed in this story have their own follow-up program, using the customer contact information provided when the spa test was arranged.

Everything from handwritten notes to videos and popcorn are soon delivered to the potential buyer, just to keep the store foremost in their minds when thinking about spas.

"They may not be ready yet," says Bachmann, "but when they are, they're going to remember us. That's my ultimate goal."

"We're always planning an event," adds Johnson. "So you keep inviting them back until they say, 'No, I've already bought one,' or something like that. It may be three or four years down the road before they buy."

Feeling Safe

The spa test process provides a number of opportunities for a retailer to gain a foothold in a buyer's psyche, which may eventually become the foundation of a sale — whether it's as simple as contact information or something more profound like a tranquil chat in the afterglow of a good soak.

It gives the retailer an event, an active venue for the sales process, which can be shaped according to the salesperson's instincts. Callanan says it gives the customer a way to feel safe early in the process, when they're unsure about the retailer and the product.

"If someone is there for their first visit," he says, "and they're in that stage where they're saying, 'I don't want to give you my name, I'm just shopping,' we can suggest we have the test spa available. And if they say, 'I don't have my spouse with me,' we can say, 'Well, you can both come back and try it out.'

"Very few people make the purchase on their first trip in, so it's an incentive to get them to come back."

A nice spa test room with an inviting ambience also demonstrates commitment on the part of the retailer, which customers can sense. And it gives them a direct experience of what the spa retailer is really selling, according to Johnson: relaxation and fun.

"We take it seriously when people come in to look at tubs," she says. "We don't think that just because we sell them, people are going to walk in and make a $10,000 purchase."

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