Amid the economic hardship of the last year, sauna sales in the United States have remained steadfast, and that promises an even brighter future when the economy eventually picks up.

The chief impetus is the buying public's perception of the product. The evidence is anecdotal, but there's reason to believe that the longstanding assertion of a broad range of sauna health benefits is finding new traction.

That's how Mark Raisanen, national sales manager, Finnleo Sauna & Steam, Cokato, Minn., sees it. "The health part - we believe that's why the sauna industry is growing right now, because the word is finally getting out about the health benefits. People want to look better, feel better, sleep better, and saunas do that. And the population has finally tuned into it.

"There's been lots of positive press and exposure and the message is really getting out there. That's what's driving sauna sales."

Even with these gains, widespread consumer ignorance and misapprehensions of the product remain, and these are obstacles to potential growth. The key to boosting sauna sales in the years to come lies in mitigating negative impressions, while promoting opportunities for consumers to understand and enjoy the sauna experience.

Experience Needed

For many sauna industry professionals, the product's greatest handicap has been the relative difficulty in experiencing a sauna under salutary circumstances.

This fact stands in stark contrast to most other products. If someone gets a ride in a neighbor's Chevy Tahoe, or just borrows their mitre saw, that person is left with a fairly good understanding of what using the product is like. But saunas are different.

Most people have their first sauna experience at a hotel or health club, which is a far cry from what it's like in the home, notes Kalevi Ruuska, president of the American Sauna Society, Fishkill, N.Y., a group that promotes the traditional sauna experience to its full cultural extent. Ruuska believes that many public saunas may do more harm than good in promoting the sauna lifestyle.

In visiting these public setups, Ruuska observes that the sauna is usually an afterthought of another, larger facility, and management lacks a good understanding of how to create a great sauna experience. In addition, he adds, "often they don't maintain or clean these saunas, and for a person who goes there, it does not leave a good impression.

Raisanen agrees. "It's a big challenge," he says. "In fact, one of our goals used to be to get the best commercial saunas out there because once people used those saunas and enjoyed it there, they'd want one in their home.

"And while that's true, it's really hard to do, because we can't control how a club or hotel maintains its sauna. They could put in the best sauna on the market, and if they don't get in there and maintain it or mop it, it will smell like old sweat socks in a few months."

Some of the things Ruuska looks for in a good public sauna include heated rocks in the sauna and the ability to pour water on them to control humidity, good ventilation throughout the area, and a cool-down area, drinking water and a shower immediately adjacent to the sauna.

Market Confusion

Another source of dissonance in the sauna marketplace has been public confusion between traditional and infrared saunas.

The advent of the infrared sauna has been a source of enormous growth in the industry, offering a product similar to the traditional sauna, but different in its cost, operation and effect. At the same time, however, this same contrast has provided a pretext for competing dealers to cast doubt on rival technology.

The press has played its part, too, Raisanen says: "A lot of writers that have talked to us in the past like to play heavily on this 'difference between infrareds and traditional saunas.' And it's primarily because most of the dealers either do one or the other. And they're going to bash the other to bring the point home.

"Our attitude is we'd rather not even make it a story. They're both great, and great for you, so why struggle over the difference or which one's better? Just fit consumers in the one that fits them better."

Although both products heat the body, on close inspection they are quite disparate. "The infrared is much more quick," notes Raisanen. "Since you're not heating the air, you can enter the infrared sauna in maybe 15 minutes and start to get the effect of the infrared wavelengths."

This rapid availability of heat lends the infrared to use as part of a workout, where the user can switch it on, warm up muscles in the sauna, and upon emerging from the unit, be ready to exercise.

On the other hand, the main advantage of the traditional sauna, says Raisanen, "is the ability to have steam, which is good for your sinuses, good for your skin and lungs."

Ruuska believes the traditional sauna is more of a lifestyle product. "It's more of a relaxation ritual," he says, "with heating up and cooling down, and perhaps eating and drinking something. But both have a place in the market, and people should try to test both types so they can choose for themselves."

Reaching The Market

The basis for existence of saunas in the United States has always been health and relaxation; they've never had the same social connotations as they do in other cultures.

But health and relaxation keep rising ever higher in importance to consumers, and that's what's really putting up the numbers in sauna sales, according to Raisanen. "The reason why saunas are growing so fast right now is because they are healthy for you, and the health industry and the aging baby boomers are driving it."

Depending on the brochure or Web site, saunas are purported to relax muscles, soothe aches and pains, relieve stress and induce a deeper sleep. They are especially noted for their ability to flush toxins, cleanse skin, improve cardiovascular performance, burn calories, and to promote the immune system and an overall sense of well-being.

A list like that is hard to digest in one sitting. And consumers don't want to be served a disordered heap of benefits; they are looking for straightforward, specific reasons why they should invite this expensive space-eating product into their homes.

Alice Cunningham, co-owner, Olympic Hot Tub Company, Seattle, a renowned retailer that added both infrared and traditional saunas to its product lineup in February, breaks down the broad marketing category.

"Here are some of the niches that I think we need to go after," she says. First of all, there are the athletes warming up or recovering from a workout. "What do the Seahawks do on Monday after a tough game on Sunday? Well, three or four of them [including record-breaking running back Shaun Alexander] use a far-infrared sauna, because it speeds up the blood flow and helps the healing process."

Another group to be considered, she notes, is people with chronic health conditions. "People who have fibromyalgia or arthritis, these are people who need heat just for mobility."

Beyond these types of treatments, Cunningham believes there could be a future for saunas in alternative medicine. She doesn't have any definitive studies in hand, but there's a fair amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest a "sauna effect" could figure into the overall wellness movement.

"If you look at the amount of money spent on 'alternative medicine' every year, it's like, 50 to 60 billion. People are taking their health in their own hands, and they're willing to try a lot of different things. Their experiences are passed around and passed around, and finally the NIH (National Institute of Health) studies it. And that's how it starts."

A retailer has to identify and reach all these groups and others, she says, increasingly through non-traditional means. "I think that viral marketing, through word of mouth and blogs, is going to be huge in the future. Some of these blogs are read by a million people. They're just people telling their stories on the Internet, but they're seen as far more trustworthy sources than something like an ad."

Beyond the marketing opportunity that saunas pose for her stores, Cunningham feels that saunas complement Olympic's spas due to their common overall theme. A customer comes to the store looking for an in-home relaxation product, but she believes the final selection can be based on events deep in their past.

"When it comes to the choice of saunas or hot tubs, it really comes down to this question: When you were young, did your family vacation at the beach, or a lake or a river? Because if it did, you are going to want to own a hot tub or a pool.

"Or did you go to the mountains or the desert? Was it a non-water vacation? In that case, you're going to want a sauna." Looking at the matter this way, putting saunas alongside her spas makes perfect sense. "If you're going to relax (and as you know, we are in the relaxation business) we want to have relaxation for the water people and the desert people. So we just raised the umbrella slightly and let another product in," she says.

Becoming Mainstream

As Cunningham's ideas illustrate, there's currently a lot of brainstorming and optimism in the sauna industry. Raisanen clearly believes the industry has turned the corner. "I don't really think we need to do more to educate the public about saunas," he says, "I think it's happening right now."

He sees a continuation of the trends of the last few years in the traditional sauna market, with more customized saunas at the high end, and at the lower end, the small but fast-growing portable segment - plug-and-play saunas for people on the go.

On the infrared side, he says, "There's a glut of manufacturers that have helped raise awareness, which is good. A lot of the best Web sites out there now from a commercial standpoint are infrared, and infrared is going to keep growing at a fast rate."

With consumers catching on to the sauna lifestyle, Raisanen thinks the industry has turned the corner in North America. "We just want to keep the momentum going," he says. "It's becoming mainstream. It's a product people want."

Scott Webb is Executive Editor of AQUA Magazine.