Of all the phrases in retail, none may be as loaded, complex, and important as these two words: Customer Experience. Ensuring shoppers have a positive interaction with a store, the staff, the products being sold and, ideally, with the final transaction is a vital concern for any business. But it’s no exaggeration to say it’s doubly important for spa retailers.
If that sounds melodramatic, consider this: Pretty much everyone in America knows how to drive a car or has driven in a car or needs a car. As spa retailers frequently remark, not everyone knows how to operate or even sit in a hot tub. And the fact that hot tubs are typically considered a luxury item means the number of potential customers for a spa retailer is considerably smaller than, say, a car dealership. So the pressure to create a meaningful, informative interaction with an interested spa shopper is, in sense, far more urgent—and therefore more daunting.
For spa dealers, the focus of customer experience—that nebulous term to describe the interaction between a shopper and a retailer—takes place in the showroom. We spoke to a number of spa retailers about their approach to different customer touchpoints in and out of the showroom to shape their customer experience.
Soft Sell Strategy
At Mountain Hot Tub in Bozeman, Montana, the goal of showroom design is two-fold, says sales manager Ben Rainey: “To blow customers away and also make them [feel] relaxed when they walk in. So we want an easy-to-approach environment.”
We don’t jump on customers, but we greet them quickly. We’re here to help. ~Ben Rainey, Montana Hot Tub
Visually, there’s a lot to take in. The 5,000-square-foot store boasts nearly two dozen spas, showcased by carefully arranged track lighting. Unlike many spa and pool stores, signage is kept to a minimum. “We want you to focus on the spas,” Rainey says. That means there’s also no assault on a walk-in’s other senses. “We don’t shoot fragrances in the air,” Rainey says, because MHT doesn’t have the chlorine odor that has been known to overwhelm pool stores.
Instead, customers’ visual senses are engaged by the store’s extensive product line. And an attentive sales team is ready to answer questions. “We don’t jump on customers, but we greet them quickly. We’re here to help.” To Rainey that means explaining the differences between tubs, highlighting special features, and gently encouraging customers to “take a soak.”
The Mountain Hot Tub experience starts small—literally. The first tub customers see is a three-person tub. From there, customers who move counter-clockwise through the store will see a full range of models, a four-tub test room, a display for saunas and winding up at an inviting, open sales counter that also offers spa and pool water care products.
White Glove Service for White-Out Terrain
One of Rainey’s frequent customer questions involves installation. “Customers want to know if they need to install their tubs in the spring or summer,” says Rainey. The answer is that the award-winning retailer delivers year round—provided the temperature stays above negative 20.
That “anytime all the time” credo is something the store strives to impart, says Rainey. “The customer goes with us because of the white glove service that goes with shopping with Mountain Hot Tub. If the buyer purchased a tub and it snows a foot the night before delivery, our guys are going to be helping clear the area so they can get the job done. We want that installation to go as smoothly as possible, and our guys will do whatever is necessary to make that happen.”
A soft-sell, show-and-tell-focused customer experience strategy is also at the heart of California Hot Tubs in Santa Monica, California. Just blocks away from the headquarters of tech giants like Facebook and Google, the showroom of the 30-year-old has no TV screens or other large-scale installations. But the distinct lack of clutter—no screaming signs, no product-heavy end caps—gives the store a streamlined look that echoes the warehouse chic so often found in the digital world.
“We’re a pretty small dealership,” says Bruce Gold, who bought the 30-year-old store two years ago. “If you read our Yelp reviews the biggest kind of compliment we get is: “It doesn’t feel like a car dealership—which, I guess, some hot tub dealerships do. We’re not too pushy.”
He wants his customers to focus on the product, which he sees as tailored to his L.A. clientele. Customer-focused, Gold wants visitors to share what they are looking for and to focus on the product, which he sees as tailored to his L.A. clientele. Then he wants them to put their hand in a hot tub and explain that customers can choose the type of water therapy provided by different jet arrangements.
“The tubs I sell use less chlorine, less energy and of course, here in L.A. many people are green-oriented. When we talk to someone and discover that energy conservation is important to them, we might stress that selling point. Some people don’t care at all, and some care a lot.”
Gold says the upscale clientele his store attracts is a blessing. Coming across as accommodating and easy-going is of utmost importance. “Some of our customers are a little finicky. There are a lot of people who are used to getting their way.”
The distinct lack of clutter—no screaming signs, no product-heavy end caps—gives the store a streamlined look that echoes the warehouse chic so often found in the digital world.
That’s important to remember, especially when it comes to delivery. Ordering a crane to make an aerial delivery to mansions with limited backyard access is not unheard of. But that’s the kind of customer service clients remember.
Extending the Showroom
For many spa retailers, sales no longer begin and end in the showroom. Dan Friedman, co-owner of The Hot Tub Store, a chain with stores in Santa Rosa, Folsom, Rocklin, and Vacaville, California, views his chain’s website, hottubstore.com, as a perpetual, round-the-clock showcase. “From our viewpoint, the website is another showroom,” Friedman says, noting a customer can see every model for sale, calculate energy costs, and learn about installation options.
The website features a number of calls to action for potential customers on its homepage. There’s an 800 phone number, an interactive pop-up widget appears asking “How can I help you today,” and an invitation to take a short quiz to narrow the search for the perfect hot tub. “We want to be as available and interactive as possible for our customers. The better informed they are, the more comfortable they’ll feel making decisions.”
All those calls to action serve another purpose: lead generation. “The website is a lead generator. We let our customers chose how they’d like us to contact them by filling out forms—by phone or by email. That is the other reason to have a site.”
Financing makes it easy...We talk payments, not prices. When someone buys a car, they’re buying a $400 a month payment, not a $40,000 car. We should be no different. ~Dan Friedman, The Hot Tub Store
The site also promotes financing options, which Friedman believes can have a huge impact on customer experience by enabling some clients to complete their purchase. While the majority of buyers pay for their spas upfront, he estimates 20-30% of customers use financing. “It makes it easy,” says Friedman. “We talk payments, not prices. When someone buys a car, typically they’re buying a $400 a month payment, not a $40,000 car. We should be no different.”
A New Paradigm
On Saturday, September 15, David Isaacs, owner of Isaacs Pools & Spas in Johnson City, Tennessee opened his second store, Bullfrog Spas of Tri-Cities. In experiential retail terms, the store represents a whole new level of engagement for customers–that is, it’s filled with interactive technology designed to inform, instruct, and entertain.
Isaacs spent a year researching his dream showroom, traveling to see what other retailers have done. “It’s now a boutique hot tub store. It has the pool stuff in the back.” Taking notes on everything from lighting and signage to scenting, he was inspired by Campbells’ Pools in Knoxville Tennessee, which completely rethought its design. Then, he discussed some customer experience concepts with a number of marketing experts and began creating a one-of-a-kind, tech-savvy spa retail experience.
“One of my goals is to allow the customer to take ownership of the process as much as possible,” says Isaacs, who believes the the spas he sells make personalization a huge selling point.
That’s why Isaacs installed a sequence of easy-to-process features, starting with a 8-foot-by-16-foot wall displaying different spa design components. Once they take that in, customers are directed toward a unique store feature: a walk-in, cut-away hot tub. “That’s where a lot of the fun happens,” says Isaacs. “The idea of the installation is, it takes away the barriers of someone not wanting to step over and into a tub. The cutaway allows them to step in and sit down in an actual hot tub and start to understand what our spas really offer.”
One of my goals is to allow the customer to take ownership of the process as much as possible. ~David Isaacs, Bullfrog Spas of Tri-Cities
Isaac says at that point, store employees will ask customers if they’d like to have a virtual reality experience “to really get a sense of being in a tub. They just sit down in the right corner of the tub [and] put on the VR headset.” It’s a very visceral experience, he says, noting a six-minute-long video version of the VR presentation streams from the store’s website.
More Interaction and the True Immersive Experience
The next stop in Isaac’s showroom is an interactive touchscreen that lets users select their height. An onscreen figure appears and demonstrates how various water jets will hit their body as they sit in the tub. “They are literally picking out the tub,” says Isaacs. “These tools help ensure customers get what they want. We want them to customize their tub.”
One other unique experience built for the customer in the 8,000 square foot showroom is a “Design Wall,” which lets customers mix and match real-sized interior and exterior color combinations. “It’s more hands-on than anything in the room.” What you see really is what you get.
Only about 15% of our customers take a soak...But 90% of those that do, buy.
While all of these engagement and education tools make for a compelling experience, they are ultimately meant to encourage what for Isaacs is the ultimate sales conversion experience: soaking in an actual tub. He estimates the vast majority of customers who actually get in a hot tub end up buying one. That’s why his website allows customers to schedule a soak on his website. “That’s one more call to action that allows us to engage with potential customers,” explains the owner, whose family has been in the spa and pool business for 40 years.
The new store has a mood room with sliding doors to give customers privacy. “We find customers enjoy exploring the tubs. The kids are [driving therapy and design decisions]…so they immediately start taking ownership.”
“Only about 15% of our customers take a soak,” estimates Gold of California Hot Tub. “But 90% of those that do, buy.”
Rainey of Mountain Hot Tubs agrees, the soak is the most compelling experience for any customer. The mood room in the corner of his 5,000 square foot showroom boasts four full tubs and a private changing room. If a customer doesn’t have a bathing suit handy, the store sure does. “We offer brand new swimsuits in a number of sizes with the tags still on. The customer can take the suits home or leave them and we’ll donate to Goodwill.”
An Early Verdict
While the old school method of try-and-buy continues to be the dominant experience retailers want for their hot tub customers, as far as Isaacs is concerned, the early feedback indicates he has a hit on his hands. After the opening of the new Tri-Cities store, an employee who worked at Isaacs other location made an observation. “He said, ‘People stayed in our store a lot longer than the other store,’” recalls Isaacs. “The proof will be in the actual buying, but in retail, having customers hang around is usually a very good thing.”
Until proven otherwise, experiential retail will continue to translate into more store traffic and more sales for spa dealers. It’s also a great opportunity with the transition to millennial buyers. Baby boomers still make up a significant portion of the hot tub market, but it often seems like times are changing faster than we can keep up with. With these dealers taking the lead, others can take note and build off of their success.