You see it everywhere: lines of people waiting overnight for the latest iPhone, coffee shops full of laptops, smartphones we use for gaming, streaming and surfing more than calling. Now more than ever, we have an inextricable tie to electronic technology — we are the gadgets we carry, and keeping up-to-date is the name of the game.

Much like smartphones, TVs and computers, hot tubs are rapidly advancing in technological advancements with automatic sanitizers, streamlined controls, fewer required chemicals and smartphone synching, all of which make hot tub ownership easier than ever.

But are customers as aware of these updates as they are the latest apps? Are retailers closing more deals because of new gadgets and gizmos?

In this story, two spa retailers share their views on hot tub technology and how it’s addressed on the showroom floor.

A Paradox

Times have changed since the hot tub era of old — customers are more likely to walk in your store armed with information they found online. According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of all adult Americans do online research on products and services they consider purchasing. When looking at internet users alone, that number jumps to 78 percent. In the hot tub industry, some retailers, like Kim Ghigliotty, retail general manager of Allen Pools & Spas in Williston, Vt., would estimate higher:

“Ninety percent of shoppers do research online before they ever step foot in our store,” Ghigliotty says.

While potential customers are likely to have done their homework, their perceptions of hot tub cost and upkeep are likely to be askew. According to the Harrison Group, the majority of hot tub prospects believe hot tubs are more expensive to maintain and operate than they were five years ago. And when asked to estimate the average monthly operating costs for a hot tub, prospects estimated $89 while owners said $68.

There is a silver lining, however. The Harrison study also found that technological advancements in the past five years have reduced the burden of hot tub ownership.

“Customers are aware of these innovations, but they need to hear it from us and we need to properly educate them about their benefits,” Ghigliotty says.

Facilitating the Experience

According to Dan Sjoblom, regional sales manager of the southwest region for Bullfrog Spas, the most attractive hot tub technology will enhance the user experience. On the shortlist of such technology: flashy LED lighting and enhanced music capabilities. 

“I think we’ve seen great advancements on the music side of hot tubs: the stereo systems and the way they now interface with the way people are storing and listening to their music,” he says. “For a lot of years, we expected people to carry their CD collection out to the hot tub, and quite frankly, that wasn’t going to happen, and people don’t listen to music that way anymore.”

The idea of controlling the various facets of their hot tub via smartphone is a huge draw for potential customers, Sjoblom says.

“Most of us now use our phone as kind of home base for everything we do, it’s where we get our email, it’s where we check the news and it’s certainly where we communicate with friends, family and colleagues,” he says. “Some people are controlling their entire homes with it. So when they find out that that same device can now control their hot tub, it can provide music to their hot tub wirelessly, they get excited about that.”

However, every customer has different needs. With that in mind, Sjoblom and Ghigliotty say it’s important to promote the right technology to the right people.

Meeting Wants and Needs

Cost of purchase is of course the main obstacle to hot tub ownership, but the Harrison study also found that among rejecters (or those who said they wouldn’t consider a hot tub purchase), upkeep was ranked high on a list of barriers to purchase. Ghigliotty also finds that the most common concern among prospective customers is maintenance. When talking to these customers, she makes a point of explaining how the latest developments make hot tub ownership easier and more enjoyable.

“I own my own spa with a saltwater sanitizing system on it, and I show them what they’ll need to do versus what they might’ve had to do a few years ago. It used to be 15, 20 different bottles, testing and balancing every week. Now we have an intuitive system on the control panel that asks how many people use the spa and what size it is. And I tell them how it generates five natural, powerful cleaners to clean that saltwater 24 hours a day,” she says.

Sjoblom takes a similar approach on the floor. He opens with questions about who in the family would use it, as well as more targeted questions about the user experience, like “Do you want to listen to music while you sit in your hot tub?”

“This gives you an opportunity to explain how wonderful and relaxing that can be on a quiet night, to sit and soak with your favorite music playing,” he says. “It opens the door for you to wow them with some neat, new technology.”

However, don’t use technology as your leading pitch. Find out what they really want first.

“If you lead with the technology, you don’t know if they care about that technology. As a salesperson, I think you can steer, a little bit, what their needs are, and you can introduce new needs to them. But you want to make sure you’re using that technology to fill what they think is a need,” Sjoblom says.

Turning the Tide

Customer misinformation about new technology and ease of hot tub maintenance are only a couple problems that face hot tub retailers. A third is a reputation for tough sales tactics that continues to follow industry professionals.

“I think for many years, we made the mistake of telling consumers what was important and convincing them they needed the technologies that we were introducing,” Sjoblom says. “For example: You need ozone, and you need to be concerned about how that ozone is produced. And you need to be concerned with how that ozone mixes with the water and where it mixes with the water. And in reality, what consumers really want is to know what the experience of using the hot tub is going to be like — how it’s going to feel, how’s it’s going to sound, it’s going to smell. The things that affect their senses.”

Is Technology the Key to Sales?

In just the past five years alone, hot tub technology has advanced at a rapid rate, and manufacturers show no signs of slowing. While Sjoblom says technology alone isn’t likely to sell a hot tub to a potential customer, it is critical to building anticipation for the hot tub experience.

“Hot tubs are something that certainly within the industry we think everybody needs, but many consumers believe they could live without. So we need to create the excitement that makes them want it, and makes them want it now. And some of these gadgets could certainly put them over the edge,” he says.

When it comes to hot tub sales, Ghigliotty says her sales have increased consecutively since 2009 — and more and more, it’s current hot tub owners looking for a technological upgrade.

“We do a lot of trades,” she says. “Because of technological advancements that have been made over the past four or five years, people are trading in for the newer product.”

Sjoblom also notes “very steady and very strong growth” among Bullfrog retailers under his eye. And, thanks to the latest in technology, he expects prospects will only improve in 2013 and beyond.

“From a retail standpoint, it’s a really exciting time to sell hot tubs because year after year, we’re not going to be selling the same old thing,” he says. “We’re going to have something new and exciting to offer consumers. And that creates a lot of opportunity.”

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail cailley@aquamagazine.com.

Cailley Hammel is Managing Editor of AQUA Magazine.