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It's a wonder saunas aren't more popular in the United States. They've been used in Finland for more than 2,000 years, caught on in much of the rest of Europe some time after the Middle Ages and have been found in North American hotels, health clubs and pool stores for about as long as hot tubs have. Still, many Americans view saunas as mere curiosities.
"They're intriguing, they increase traffic, but people are more familiar with spas," says Matt Rumpsa, director of dealer relations for Great Lakes Home & Resort, Holland, Mich. "We've found they're a magnet in showrooms, but sales haven't been as much as some expected because people don't understand them."
Getting customers to understand them, then, is the key to increasing sales. But in order to do that, dealers must understand their customers — and the reasons many give for not wanting to buy the sauna that's caught their attention in the showroom.
"There are several objections a salesperson will face, and they're all about equal," says Mark Raisanen, national sales manager for Finnleo Sauna & Steam, Cokato, Minn. "But they're minor and pretty easy to get around."
Among the protests sauna sellers are likely to hear is that they're too expensive — an objection hot tub salespeople have experience handling.
As with hot tubs, or any product for that matter, knowing sauna's benefits is crucial in being able to sell them and get past issues consumers have with price. And considering those benefits — mainly relaxation and health — selling them should be no sweat.
"People might ask, 'Will it help me lose weight.' Yes, sitting in there can burn calories. It's like easy exercise," says Rumpsa. "If the salesperson can't communicate the benefits, they're never going to sell anyone anything."
Daniel Lam is the national account manager for Kingston Sauna & Billiards, the Chinese manufacturer of Saunagen saunas. He's among those who believe the United States is a market with a lot of potential.
"We sell a lot of traditional saunas in China, and we've been exporting them to Europe for many years. Even the Middle East, which is hot like hell, is a big market for us," he says. "So we decided to bring them to the United States."
The biggest objection to a sauna purchase is the cost, most manufacturers say, whether it's the initial investment or the month-to-month operating expenses. Getting around the cost objection is pretty simple, according to Shiva Noble, executive vice president of Cal Spas. It all starts with selling the benefits.
"When they say they're too expensive, what they're really saying is they don't understand the benefits," she says. "Once they understand those, everybody wants one. The retailer's job, then, is to educate them about those benefits."
Reino Tarkiainen, owner of Finlandia/Harvia Sauna Products, agrees. "Health-wise it's a good investment for the entire family," he says. "It opens the pores, which is important for people who work in offices and never get a chance to sweat. In a saunas, you can sweat out the poisonous things you may have in your body."
The other benefits, which many say include a sense of well-being, weight loss, and relief from arthritis and skin problems, are more qualitative than quantitative, so caution is urged when using these benefits to sell. In other words, don't forget that you're a salesperson and not a doctor.
"They're great for relaxation and detoxification, but we don't sell it as medical equipment," says Won Lee, director of sales for PLH HealthMate Saunas, City of Industry, Calif. "But those aren't the only selling points. They're also durable and will last a long time. It's worth what they're paying."
Fears of high monthly utility bills are even easier to assuage, says Rumpsa, because saunas just aren't that expensive to run. A good approach might be to compare it to a hot tub. A hot tub costs about as much as a sauna initially but, because you've got to keep the water heated up all the time, costs about a dollar a day to run.
A sauna, on the other hand, is going to average about $4 to 6 per month in energy costs, according to Raisanen. "Even if you use it every day that's only about $10," he says. "So it's a non-issue.
"And if they don't have space in their electrical box [for a 220-volt heater] and don't want to rewire, they can just go with a portable infrared model, which doesn't need a dedicated circuit."
Of course, offering saunas at different price points is another way to win over customers who balk at the cost of higher-end models. Most manufacturers make smaller units — whether they're two-person traditional saunas or single-user portable infrared units.
"There are DIY kits for about $1,700, which come with everything but studs and insulation, all the way up to high-end designer rooms that retail for $9,000 and more," Raisanen says. "And portable ones are around $3,000. That's within most people's budget."
Hesitant shoppers are also likely to tell you they don't have enough room for a sauna. Here, too, showing a wide range of models can help. Also helpful are some ideas for creative use of space.
"Many times they'll say they have to go home and measure the space," says Lee. "In many cases that's a valid point. You wouldn't buy a big-screen TV without doing some measuring.
"But an infrared sauna can be placed just about anywhere there's a regular outlet — in the garage, bedroom, exercise room. The location isn't important. They can decide that when they get home."
Another option is to put a unit outdoors, where it can be part of a homeowner's outdoor living room. If set up near a pool, it can even serve another purpose.
"Putting the sauna outdoors allows you to kill two birds with one stone," says Tarkiainen. "If you have a pool or spa deck you can build a sauna with a little dressing area. And if it's big enough, it can hide some of the pool equipment.
"Plus, you can jump into a cool pool after the sauna. It feels so good. Your skin just tingles."
Still, Tarkiainen and most others recommend placing the unit indoors, preferably in an area where it'll be used frequently.
"Inside is best, where you have a shower," he says. "Most people build huge closets, which don't do you that much good. So a customer can take a little of that space for a sauna. And if that's by the master bath, that's the best."
The key is to offer a range of sizes and to be creative in helping the customer imagine some places it could go.
"I think I could find a place in anybody's home," Raisanen says.
Diffusing cost and space objections will often take care of a customer's concerns, but there are several other roadblocks that may still stand in the way of a sauna sale.
Raisanen says one common complaint about saunas is they're too hot and too hard to breathe in.
"With a husband and wife, one of them will say saunas make them claustrophobic, and there are reasons for that," he says. "Usually it's from an experience at a hotel that had a poor sauna. It was either too hot or not ventilated."
These complaints can be addressed in several ways. First of all, every manufacturer today ventilates its saunas, which allows the air inside to circulate and makes breathing easier. It also helps to have a good heater, Raisanen explains.
"A well-built heater with a deep and large rock mass translates into a softer heat and softer steam," he says.
"Say you're on the bench of a sauna with a small rock mass and you pour water on the rocks. That can really jolt you with a sharp blast of steam. That experience alone can form an opinion that will stick with them.
"Designs with lots of glass address that concern, too. The customers say, 'I love all the glass and it opens things up so much for me.'"
Other customers may have a basement with a NordicTrack and a Bowflex gathering dust already, and visions of another expensive product taking up space and going unused scares them away. "It would be great to have a sauna, but I doubt I'd use it enough," they might say.
Lee, of PLH HealthMate, says not all shoppers are worth pursuing, especially if they come up with the "won't use" excuse.
"People who say stuff like that have no intention of buying. Period. There's no sense in wasting your time with them," he says. "Sometimes you just have to let go."
But if a salesperson does think a shopper is worth the time, he or she might suggest places in the home where it will get used more often than if it were in the basement or garage.
"It should be in a handy place where they'll use it all the time," says Tarkiainen. "So have them put it near a shower and their bedroom. You can have a spa next to it, too.
"You can always find room for, say, a 4-by-6-foot sauna. Go in the sauna for 15 minutes, take a shower, go back in, then take another shower."
Anyone who's been around customers long enough knows there's no limit to the types of excuses they'll come up with for not making a purchase. What's important to keep in mind, though, is that setting the record straight about saunas will lead to greater acceptance of the product. Remember, the people who buy spas are the same types of people who buy saunas: They like spending money on home relaxation and recreation.
"People may not think about it unless you point it out," says Raisanen. "But isn't health and wellbeing worth it?"
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