It’s no secret that new technologies and an uncertain economy have caused stark changes in the way consumers buy hot tubs.

In order to survive, spa sellers must change as well. Here, experts explain recent trends in hot tub buying, along with tips for addressing clients’ concerns.

The pleasure police

Even among those who have the disposable income to buy a spa, there are society-influenced arguments against making the purchase.

“The pleasure police are out in force,” says Alice Cunningham, co-owner of Olympic Hot Tub Co. in Seattle. “There used to be a joy in purchasing something like this and everybody was happy for you. Now, people feel bad about these perceived luxuries and can’t flaunt their good fortune.”

This also has translated to a drop in referrals for many hot tub retailers, because clients often don’t like to tell their friends and family that they’ve spent a large chunk of money.

To combat this trend, play to the human need for rationalization, experts say.

“You have to give people justification to tell their friends,” Cunningham recommends. “You can always suggest that they say ‘it’s a health thing.’ If you give them the ammo to explain the purchase to the people in their lives, you take those types of arguments off the table.”

Other justifications to offer your clients include emphasizing energy efficiency, or framing the purchase as an “it-would-be-stupid-not-to-buy” deal.

Musical dealers

Standard procedure for hot tub buyers used to be if they found a dealer that carried the product they liked at a reasonable price, and hit it off with the salesperson, they would make the purchase right away.

“There was a day when we had the attitude that if they walked out, the chances of buying were pretty slim,” says Larry Berczyk, president of Valley Pools & Spas in Burnsville, Minn. “Now, we expect them to leave and come back.”

Many spa dealers estimate that consumers will hit three to four stores before making a final decision. Even repeat customers of one dealer will visit several others to make sure they’re getting the best price. Today’s buyers are conditioned to shop around as much as possible, and use their findings as leverage when they negotiate with retailers.

Sometimes, buyers will fib a little on the cost of a tub they saw across town, though spa dealers who know their market can usually tell instantly if it’s true. In such a case, it’s actually better to let the potential client get away with the falsehood.

“You still have to let the buyer save face, so you give a little and they feel better about it,” Berczyk says. That way, the customer is not embarrassed by being caught in a lie and still gets a price break, like they wanted.

Additionally, being prepared to draw out the sale over several visits, or even several months, is key. The trick is to reduce the pressure at first contact, instead using that time to question the client about what they want in a spa and a dealer. Then, follow up by phone or email once every week or two to keep your product and company top of mind. At each contact, build up the values that are important to them (for example, family time or ease of maintenance) while also selling your store as the best place to buy.

“Test your staff and ask them to explain to you why customers should do business with your store,” says Marco Longley, author of The Ultimate Hot Tub and Pool $ales Book. A thoughtful, concrete answer will give buyers confidence.

Internet interest

Perhaps the biggest driver behind the change in hot tub purchasing is the Internet. In addition to adding competition for brick-and-mortar dealers, online research often distorts shoppers’ views of the hot tub buying process, creating another hurdle for salespeople who have to set the record straight.

“Customers are trying to use the Internet to compare apples to oranges, which isn’t realistic,” Longley says. “Upon seeing a ‘budget tub’ online for $3,999, the consumer’s perception can become skewed, and they falsely believe that if they pay more, the retailer is trying to rip them off.”

Again, the key is to emphasize what your physical store can provide that online spa sellers can’t.

“Shopping online, you just get a driveway drop-off,” Cunningham says. “[Then those people] call us because they can’t get the water right, they need service, etc. If they had just been less diligent in finding the ‘best price’ online, they would actually get a better deal,” because the solutions to such problems often come standard with a spa from a real store.

It also helps to see the Internet not only as competition, but as an arena to better market your own business. Dealers like Berczyk have moved much of their marketing online in order to boost their presence among the many Websites their potential clients are using for research.

Longley suggests taking this a step further and familiarizing yourself with the materials available online to gain a sense of what buyers might have seen, and prepare responses accordingly.

“Sometimes they get confused and put a lot of value on things that don’t make a big difference, like pump size or number of jets, that online companies will make a big deal about,” Berczyk adds.

By doing the same research as consumers, you can preempt their concerns. Also, search your own company online to see if any bad reviews pop up, and address them.

Although it’s controversial, some experts recommend posting starting prices on your store’s Website.

Opponents may argue this is stooping to the level of price-slashing Internet sellers. But Longley believes it is necessary to keep up with competition that isn’t going away.

Otherwise you run the risk of that customer believing you are concealing higher prices by not listing them, he says.

By understanding the new way consumers think and playing to those concerns, hot tub dealers can avoid potentially cheapening their products, and businesses.