While saunas are not nearly as common in America as they are in other parts of the world, things are starting to change. With an improving economy and a health-conscious population, customers are growing curious about sauna use and how it can benefit their lives — and dealers are reaping the benefits.
To learn more, we spoke with two dealers and asked them what’s driving their sauna sales.
Looking the Part
Jim Furlong, manager at Ohio Pools & Spas, saw sauna sales climb by 30 to 40 percent in 2012. How’d that happen?
“We made an effort,” he says. To start, the company shifted away from billiard sales — a weakening area of the business — to free up money and space for a sauna display. And not just for a single sauna or two, but eight to 12 saunas on each of the company’s three showroom floors. It was a bold move, but Furlong says there’s strength in numbers.
“I look like I’m a sauna store,” he says. “We made a monetary investment. There are some people who carry saunas who only have one or two on the floor with dusty windows in some forgotten corner of the store, whereas I have saunas right in the middle, and they’re landscaped.”
While making a visual impact is essential, even more important is guiding the customer through an experience. To that end, Furlong says he always has operating models on the floor for customers to step into as well as a supply of water with eucalyptus oil to give people an aromatic rush.
“It’s so big when a customer’s sitting in a sauna and you ladle the water with oil over the rocks — that whole room fills with eucalyptus steam,” Furlong says.
At Oregon Hot Tub, sauna sales increased by 500 percent in 2012 over 2011.
According to General Manager Steve Ruscigno, this success can, in part, be credited to a sales team that regularly uses saunas — himself included.
“I’ve used mine every day for a year and it’s absolutely changed my life,” Ruscigno says. “A lot of our staff uses saunas daily. Once we got them into the sauna, it made a huge difference in their sales because they’re actually telling the story of how it benefitted their lives.”
They’re not alone. Saunas are getting even more attention from the likes of daytime talk show hosts, whose endorsements often pique a customer’s interest in a sauna purchase.
“People like Dr. Oz and Oprah Winfrey endorse them; all these doctors are coming out to endorse them,” Ruscigno says.
Furlong has also seen greater sauna interest after endorsements on TV.
“Recently, I got four calls after Suzanne Somers promoted saunas on her TV show,” Furlong says. “It’s all the health benefits people read about online or hear through these TV shows that drives them to find out what a product would cost.”
In addition to winning TV viewers, saunas also have the Internet on their side.
“If you Google ‘infrared saunas,’ you won’t find anything bad about them,” Ruscigno says. “With every spa manufacturer, there’s something on there that’s either good or bad. And with saunas, it’s all good.”
However they come to learn about saunas, chances are you as a retailer will need to do some educating.
“They don’t even know two types of sauna exist,” Furlong says. “What we have found is that everyone comes in for an infrared, but most people are far more used to a traditional.”
To help, Furlong explains the differences and encourages customers to experience both in-store to feel the difference. Usually, they wind up with a traditional sauna, he says.
As customers continue to keep safety a priority in their purchases, retailers have found they benefit from carrying high-quality saunas that meet safety standards — something cheaper saunas online and in big-box stores may not guarantee.
For example, Ruscigno says Oregon Hot Tub carries Finnleo, which has a line of low EMR (electromagnetic radiation)/low EF (electrical field) infrared saunas that exceed stringent Swedish EMR standards. While we encounter EMR and EF on a daily basis from cell phones, microwaves, televisions and other electrical devices — and the sun, of course — the new saunas have significantly minimized this radiation.
Finnleo’s low-radiation technology is patent-pending, but Ruscigno sees big changes ahead because of it.
“When that breaks, it’s going to be huge,” Ruscigno says.
Will the Sizzle Fizzle?
In Finland, there are an estimated 2 million saunas for a population of 5.3 million. Ruscigno doesn’t think we’re far away from something similar, if not greater.
“I anticipate there’s going to be a sauna in every household in the United States in the next 20 years. Why wouldn’t you have a sauna if it does all these great things for you? I’m a living testament.”
They relieve stress. Studies have proven stress can contribute to scores of illnesses. Saunas can help alleviate stress by relaxing muscles, stimulating endorphin release and improving circulation. In addition, many say the act of enjoying some quiet time in a private space gives sauna users invaluable time to decompress, which also reduces stress.
They give us a rush. The heat of a sauna stimulates endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that simply make us feel good. Endorphins can minimize bodily pain and muscle soreness while also relieving stress.
They provide better circulation. As body temperature rises in the sauna, blood vessels dialate, which increases blood circulation. That in turn can speed up the body’s natural healing process by soothing aches and pains.
They make us sweat. Sweating is a vital process that has proven health benefits. While sweat production is primarily intended to cool the body, deep sweating in the sauna also helps rid the body of lead, copper, zinc, nickel and mercury — all of which are toxins commonly absorbed through interaction with our daily environment. In addition, sweating cleanses the pores and can even combat wrinkles.
They make us sleep better. As we know, endorphins increase with sauna use. In the hours after sauna use, the slow decline in endorphins helps lull bathers into a deeper sleep.
A Heavenly Partnership
Saunas and hot tubs have a lot in common: high temperatures, presence in retail stores across the country and popularity among customers as a place to unwind. To Rick Mouw, president of Michigan-based Almost Heaven Saunas, the products have a much more important commonality: customer base.
In March 2013, Almost Heaven Saunas announced a partnership with UK-based Passion Spas. While Passion Spas already served as the UK distributor for Almost Heaven Saunas, the development marks a mutual symbiosis that, as Mouw says, “just makes sense.”
“Spas and saunas are very different products, but they’re sold to the same buyers,” he says. The difference is in the message.
“I’ve always been an advocate for targeting a different message to the same buyer,” Mouw says. “So the spa has had a different storyline than saunas. Saunas are about wellness and fitness and health, whereas in my opinion, spas are about recreation and relaxation and family time.”
Mouw says these different, yet complementary ideas provide an opportunity dealers can take advantage of.
“The more products the dealer has for the consumer, the more opportunity he has to create a sale,” Mouw says. “If somebody’s buying a spa for their backyard, they’re also a candidate for a sauna for the backyard because they’re very different experiences, which is why, I think, the sauna business grew through the pool and spa industry in the first place. It’s a natural channel.”
While saunas and hot tubs are sibling products in the industry, there’s one big difference between the two: customer perception.
As Steve Ruscigno told us in the retail section of our State of the Industry issue (May 2013):
“When you’re talking to the consumer about the hot tub, it’s usually all about price. But when you’re talking to a customer about a sauna, it’s all about the health benefits. And that’s coming from the consumer.”
Furlong agrees, and says that mindset persists because of the differences in marketing.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen a spa ad that said anything other than ‘save this much money.’”
Conversely, the marketing for saunas is benefit-oriented.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen ads for saunas that are price-related,” Furlong says. “Maybe a ‘starting at $1,999,’ but every sauna ad is more, ‘It’ll do this for you, it’ll do that for you.’”
It’s a disparity that Furlong finds frustrating. A 25-year hot tub owner, he sees the hot tub as a product that does everything a sauna does, yet awareness of that fact is low.
“I don’t want customers to just think of this hot tub as something you go out and party in. This is going to do all kinds of wonderful things.”
Finnleo’s FSC-certified wood sauna packages can be custom designed for your project and may contribute towards the LEED MR 7 credit and other green certifications. A leader in green friendly products, the company says the certification shows a continued commitment to the environment and responsible forestry.
Specializing in authentic Finnish saunas for almost 50 years, Finlandia manufactures precut sauna packages in standard and custom sizes. Exclusive to Finlandia is the modular sauna, which has a unique locking system to ensure easy assembly while remaining strong. Saunas are available in a selection of clear select Western woods and are made by hand in the U.S. Sauna heaters, etched glass doors and other authentic accessories are also available, the company says.
For 30 years, Health Mate, the largest infrared sauna manufacturer in the world, has provided quality infrared saunas ideal for deep relaxation, soothing comfort, improved health and healing. The company handles each stage of production from raw materials to the finished sauna.
Almost Heaven Saunas
Almost Heaven Saunas has manufactured cedar barrel saunas for nearly 40 years. One of the few sauna manufacturers in the U.S., the company handcrafts each sauna from Canadian western red cedar. A variety of models and sizes are available, and each sauna comes with a lifetime warranty, the company says.
Integrating both traditional sauna and infrared heat, Bathology’s Experience 470 immerses bathers in limitless colors, relaxing sounds, inspiring fragrances and indulgent warmth. Designed by sauna enthusiasts, the company integrates an exclusive starlit ceiling, glowing Himalayan salt feature, ambient sauna stone wall, high-fidelity sound and a four-zone LED lighting system to create a unique bathing experience.
Northern Lights Cedar Tubs & Saunas
Northern Lights is a leader in barrel-style saunas and hot tubs. Exported around the world, the company uses clear western red cedar for their saunas, which are available in wood-fired, electric or infrared-heated options and feature a 7-foot diameter for a spacious interior.
Clearlight Infrared Saunas
With more than 15 years of providing high-quality infrared saunas, Clearlight Infrared Saunas is one of the largest and oldest infrared sauna manufacturers. High-end sauna cabins, unique combination carbon/ceramic heaters and safe low EMF technology set Clearlight saunas apart, the company says.
Cailley joined the AQUA team in August 2012, and serves as the magazine's managing editor. She commonly writes about the hot tub industry, social media and retailing. Follow her on Twitter @CailleyH or send her an email.