For hot tub retailers, today’s economy provides few certainties.

A banner two-month stretch could be followed by a three-month dry spell. Then, with little warning or prompting, sales could just as easily spike again.

As a result, forecasting has become nearly impossible.

Indeed, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to spa consumers’ buying patterns, industry veterans say.      

“This year has been strange,” says James Boardman, retail manager at Pool & Spa Concepts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Fortunately, since June it’s been consistently good spa sales.” 

To get a sense of the national climate, Pool & Spa News recently surveyed a number of hot tub retailers across the country. And while a handful of trends did emerge, regional differences were as pronounced as ever — for example, one dealer’s mid-range tubs were thriving, while another saw his nearly devoid of interest.

The following snapshots provide a glimpse of what’s selling where, and why.

What they’re buying at Jelly Belly’s Pools and Spas, Westfield, Mass.

These days, manager Dean Delamarter fields frequent questions on energy-efficiency, as well as the construction of the hot tubs he sells. Because of his firm’s Northeast location, shoppers typically seek information regarding the benefits of full-foam vs. other means of insulation, he says. Ease-of-operation is another area of interest, he adds.

On the treatment side, customers at Jelly Belly’s are requesting mineral purifiers in order to reduce their reliance on spa chemicals, Delamarter says.

He’s also getting out among the public. Over a span of 17 days in September and early October, Jelly Belly’s sold approximately 100 hot tubs during The Big E state fair in West Springfield, Mass.

However, only about 25 percent of those sales were price-inspired, Delamarter says. Most units fell into the mid- and upper-level — $6,500 to $8,000, and $8,000 to $13,000, respectively.

“That middle range is what’s selling best,” Delamarter says, adding that 70 percent or so of buyers took advantage of the financing programs he had available. “A lot of it is based on hydrotherapy, and the mid-series in both lines we carry meet that quite well. 

“In fact, the majority of our customers are therapy-driven in their purchases,” Delamarter says. “People are getting away from the sizzle — the stereos, the TVs and so forth. They’re telling us they have problems with their back, or their neck or legs. Their whole thing is water therapy.”

What they’re buying at Dublin Spa Center, Dublin, Calif.

Five years ago, David Seim only carried his spa supplier’s top-shelf line. But today, he says, “consumers want to be well under that.” So a high-end market that used to account for 70 percent of his business now makes up probably 30 percent, he says.

Indeed, most of his spa sales today — 60 percent or so — are for units that fall between $4,999 and $6,500, but still retain the characteristics of higher-priced tubs.

“Our manufacturer has produced a line that is very comparable pump-wise and in terms of jet count and looks,” says the general manager of Dublin Spa Center in Dublin, Calif.

“We have the ability to promote it during holidays, at home shows and at the end of the year. We display a model at the front of our showroom, and it’s always in stock. Plus, we get very good marketing support for it.”

Though Seim is selling a healthy 150 spas annually, it’s his parts and service departments that have picked up. He attributes this in large part to a trend he and others have observed, namely owners holding onto their spas a lot longer.

“People used to rotate their tubs about every 7 years or so,” he says. “But that’s not as much the case anymore.”

Whereas Seim’s prospective customers for years wanted to know what made his products the best, those questions have been replaced: “Now it’s ‘What is the cheapest?’ Price is the No. 1 thing they’re looking at. They’re also asking how long the tub will typically last. It’s a valid question, but we never used to get much of that before. People are really hanging onto whatever they have.”

What they’re buying at La Costa Pool & Spa, San Marcos, Calif.

Used spas comprised approximately half of all hot tub sales at La Costa Pool & Spa last year. But when his manufacturer produced a new price-point line that retailed at around $4,000, the pre-owned market shrunk to about 20 percent, says Jeff Jamroz, sales manager of the San Marcos, Calif.-based company.

In addition to hot tubs and swim-spas, Jamroz is investing a sizable amount of time these days into boosting his store’s online presence. After all, he’s picking up business through his Website with notable frequency: In a recent span of a few weeks, Jamroz says seven of eight spa buyers visited his Website first; the other came on referral.

Jamroz isn’t certain about selling the tubs themselves online. At the moment he’s concentrating on spa supplies and water treatment products — algaecides, pH balancers and bromine tabs, among others. La Costa also is looking to add another manufacturer’s line to the mix.

As for his primary target market, it’s clearly existing clients.

“We’re losing out on the aftermarket,” Jamroz says. “Our customers love us to death, and they would buy from us, but we’re just too far away for a lot of them. They’ll drive to see us, but they’re not always going to drive 45 minutes for something like chlorine.”

What they’re buying at Pool & Spa Concepts, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Hot tub customers at Pool & Spa Concepts are turning away from heavy chemicals, and Boardman is happy to oblige. In response, he is directing his clientele instead toward low-chlorine, low-bromine systems that combine ozone and mineral cartridges.

While a small fraction of his hot tub buyers dip below the $5,000 range, most choose units priced between $5,500 and $7,500, Boardman says. And cost is still the determining factor in probably 80 percent of spa purchases, he adds.

Among the features most sought-after are auxiliary control pads, waterfalls, whirlpool-action foot jets, and stereo systems with MP3 docking stations.

Today, new customers represent more than three-quarters of the company’s hot tub buyers, Boardman says, noting that his spa-upgrade business has fallen off of late.

“I haven’t seen much in the last two years on trade-ins,” Boardman says. “People are holding onto them a lot longer. Some customers are getting 16-plus years out of their tubs, so it’s been pretty slow on that end of things.”

The days of same-as-cash financing also have tailed off. Boardman estimates that fewer than a dozen prospective customers have inquired about it since late 2009.

“People are just coming in and flat-out buying,” he says. “The economy here hasn’t been as bad as in many other places.”

What they’re buying at The Pool & Spa House, Tigard, Ore.

They don’t make them like they used to. Or maybe they do. Either way, Don Somppi recently sold a customer two replacement jets for her 22-year-old spa. Earlier in the year, it needed a new pump and heater.

“It’s an oldie, that’s for sure,” says Somppi, retail manager of The Pool & Spa House in Sellwood, Ore. “But she’s happy with it — she just keeps replacing parts on it and keeps going.”

This nationwide trend toward tub longevity also has helped boost the market for hard covers, Somppi says. And when the time does come for a new one, customers are frequently switching to a thicker vinyl and thicker foam better suited to the Northwest.

“A lot of people are upgrading to a cover material made for the area they live in,” he says. “Most initially didn’t realize that they needed to specify, and a year later they’re having to replace it. People are finally understanding that you need to look at what you own and buy accordingly, as opposed to just getting the cheapest thing out there.”

Somppi also has observed hot tub customers using the products year-round, easing the water temperature down when the air temperature rises. Among everyday users, he says, is a growing population of diabetes sufferers who have discovered the therapeutic benefits of hot water immersion in addition to certain water treatments.

“Some hydrogen peroxide-based sanitizers have a chemical base that helps control blood sugars,” Somppi says. “So we’re turning a lot of our customers onto those products.”