After selling directly to consumers for more than a decade,ThermoSpas Inc. officially launched a spa dealer network in January 2009.

The company’s Sparta spas have been available in Europe for the past three years and will be sold via the new dealer network in the United States.

“People are looking for a manufacturer with something unique,” said Andy Tournas president of Wallingford, Conn.-based ThermoSpas

“And, as crazy as it sounds, the economy has worked to our benefit. Before, if a person was selling 200 spas a year and someone came along with a new concept, they might not have been interested. If they’re down to only 40 and there’s a program with no delivery and service expenses, it’s more attractive. This program doesn’t require larger volume. … They can invest less than $10,000 and have a full line.”

Five rep firms in 35 states have been hired to promote Sparta spas. Tournas would like to sign up 100 dealers total.

He believes the program will be especially attractive for retailers who want to diversify, whether they sell primarily backyard living merchandise, casual furniture or pool products.

The company has deliberately tried to differentiate Sparta spas from ThermoSpas. “Say a customer wants 140 jets and six pumps — that costs money. So we tried to make Sparta with all the sizzle, but not as expensive,” Tournas said. He added that the European-styled Sparta spas retail from $6,000 to $10,000.

The original plan was for dealers to sell only Sparta spas, but that requirement has been altered. While most dealers are exclusively Sparta, some handle another line as well.

Whether the initiative will work in today’s economy is anyone’s guess.

“It’s not a great environment to make changes,” observed industry veteran Brian Quint, president of Aqua Quip, a Seattle-based retailer with nine stores. “What [ThermoSpas] will get with that concept is people new to the spa business, such as stove and hearth dealers. ThermoSpas is looking for new players and right now, people adding new categories are grasping at straws [to get business in a tough economy]. The company will get a more challenging network.

“Andy is nontraditional and creative,” Quint added. “He needs to show that he can draw people into a retailer’s store. He needs to be synergistic.”