Retailing saunas can add a welcome boost in sales

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At a time when many dealers are looking for products that can add to the bottom line, saunas are providing some retailers a welcome lift in sales revenue.

There are several reasons. The sauna market is still relatively small, giving it more room for growth. And the sauna's size and shape are easily customized to fit attractively into existing homes. Its ongoing operation and maintenance costs are low, too.

But the main attraction is the sauna's health benefits. A growing body of evidence supports the claim that regular use of a sauna has a positive impact on a user's physical condition. And after years of marketing efforts, that health and wellness message is getting through to a buying public that, despite the downturn, hasn't lost interest in staying fit.

But the warning from retailers that are profiting from the sauna trade is that fainthearted efforts are probably a waste of time and resources. If you want to sell saunas, you have to commit to the business.


There are definitely products that continue to sell well in this market, and the sauna is one of them, according to Mark Raisanen, national sales manager, Finnleo Sauna & Steam, Cokato, Minn.

"That's what we've been hearing in the last 24 months and certainly in the last 12 months from our dealers. They've been telling us that saunas are carrying them through some soft times."

Overwhelmingly, Raisanen feels the sustained success of saunas is due to the still-growing wellness movement in America, and the product's promotion as a means of purifying the body.

"The reason saunas continue to grow in this economy is the wellness aspect of it," he says. "The interest has grown from all the positive press that we've gotten over the last few years. Articles about detoxification are coming out in many different wellness publications, and wellness practitioners are promoting saunas, so there's enough awareness out there that if you get a dealer to put up displays and advertise, they can sell saunas.

"They don't have to do so much education as they did 10 years ago.

"That's what I think is driving it."

Go All In

It's a plausible theory. But Raisanen and others in the sauna industry add that while the product appeals to consumers in ever-greater numbers, in order to close the sale, dealers have to meet that new interest with a strong commitment on their end. Just carrying the product is not enough.

That's the phenomenon Kelly King, general manager, Mountain Hot Tub, Bozeman, Mont., and George Dalhamer, owner, Hot Springs Spas of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, observed when they decided to make a bold commitment of retail space and advertising to saunas.

"We'd carried them for years," says King, "usually with one model here in the showroom, but we'd always been hit and miss with sales. It was really two years ago that we started adding more to it, and last year we just went all out and increased our sauna displays quite a bit. We decided to make it look like we were serious about the business. We currently display seven models."

That visible assurance of Mountain Hot Tub's dedication to the product has made all the difference, King says, and has had a huge impact on sauna sales. Given the amount of walk-in traffic the store enjoys, he says, it just made sense.

"We have several thousand customers that visit our stores for our chemical supplies and water-care products. We just decided to expose these customers to the saunas more, and make it obvious that saunas weren't just some side item we carried in a catalog - that we were in the sauna business."

The story at Hot Springs Spas of Dayton is a variation on that theme.

"We'd been selling saunas since 1987," Dalhamer says, "and for 16 years, we were another one of those places where the salesman says, 'Oh, yeah, we got a couple of saunas back there . . . Let me move these hot tub covers and get those brochures off the seat, and you can go in and have a look . . . Watch out for that spider web . . . And oh, by the way, there's only one person that knows anything about these things and he's out to lunch right now.'"

After years of uninspiring sales numbers, Dalhamer says, the dealership finally made the commitment to either "go big or stay home."

The dealership went from two saunas to six, started doing sauna training in every one of its sales meetings, and began including saunas in each and every one of its ads. "It's amazing," Dalhamer says, "all you have to do is just mention you're in saunas, and you get a lot more touches with the buying public."

A prominent display is crucial, he says, for the message it communicates to the buyer. During the winter months at Hot Springs of Dayton, an inviting outdoor sauna greets customers the moment they walk through the door.

"During the sauna off-season, which typically is the hot tub on-season, we flip-flop that. But we now have close to 1,500 square feet devoted to the saunas. We have 15 saunas on display during the winter months, and we knock that down to about 13 in summer."

Have It Both Ways

Among those 13 to 15 floor models, Dalhamer believes it is important to include both kinds of saunas, infrared and traditional.

With a mix, not only does the dealer offer two very different products that meet different consumer desires, but also avoids the temptation to disparage the type not offered. Ultimately, that's not good for anyone.

"I was at a show just last week," Dalhamer says, "and a customer comes by and says, 'So I understand that infrared is the only way to go, it's a lot better for you, and the traditional ones are bad for you, they give you heart attacks …'

"I just smiled at him and said, 'Let me guess. You just talked to a guy that only sells infrared saunas.'

"I just told him that infrareds are great products, but so are traditional saunas. One's not better than the other; they're just different. I myself have one of each at home."

King agrees with that reasoning. Having both types prevents Mountain Hot Tub salespeople from fighting the customer's natural inclination, he says.

"We used to steer people away from infrared. We weren't big fans until a couple of years ago - but now we have customers that really like them. So if they're already sold on infrared, it's easy to just go on down that track with them instead of trying to talk them into a traditional."

At the same time, infrareds and traditionals are quite different products, almost to the extent of deserving different nomenclature, says Rick Mouw, president, Almost Heaven Saunas, Macatawa, Mich. He says the industry would be better served if there were more distance between the two in the way they are presented.

"I think that by blurring the differences between them and putting them both in the same category, the industry suffers," he says.

"I'm not against infrareds; I sell them. I have both in my home. But the infrared experience is not the traditional sauna experience and shouldn't be sold as the same thing."

Of principal importance, however, is to place continued stress on the health and wellness benefits of saunas. "A sauna is more about health and fitness," he says, "whereas a spa is more about relaxation.

"When you get into a sauna, the first thing you notice is that it boosts your heart rate. And for that reason, there is an aerobic benefit to sauna use. And a sauna expands your capillaries, which improves your circulation and gives you a nice glow in your skin that sticks with you. And of course in a sauna you're sweating out the toxins and impurities in your body."

Although these benefits have been understood for centuries in northern Europe, he says, the education effort is finally bearing fruit in America. Here the sauna is still a relatively new product; a fortunate circumstance at the moment, as that means the market is young - waiting, perhaps, for a little push.

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