Digital Growth

How retailers are still growing in e-commerce

Without a doubt, e-commerce is still hot as ever in the spa industry.

When the pandemic forced nationwide shutdowns in March 2020, many spa retailers started selling products online, scrambling to continue cash flow while their showroom doors closed due to lockdowns.

The way many survived — and now continue to thrive — is through online sales. In fact, many found sales boomed because home-bound spa owners still needed essential chemicals and other items even if they weren’t allowed to pick them up in person. These days, customers can order everything from hot tub filters and chemicals to spa covers and even entertainment packages — all without ever having to step into a real showroom.

“People told me we couldn’t sell covers, service or valet on our e-store,” says Don Riling, president of Olympic Hot Tub, a Washington state-based retailer. “I proved them wrong by figuring out how to do that and to only offer the items that would successfully make it to someone’s shopping cart.”

Olympic Hot Tub showcases various spa-related categories on its e-store homepage to make it simple for shoppers to locate what they are looking for.

A Massive E-Commerce Boom

For many retailers, there’s no going back to half-heartedly maintaining a store website.

“Our e-store business exploded during the pandemic,” says Riling, who used Volusion, an e-commerce website builder, to create his online store. It continues to grow at a “staggering” rate, he says: As of April 2022, its e-store business is at a 73% increase over the same period in 2021.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported the total e-commerce sales for 2021 reached an estimated $870.8 billion — an increase of 14.2% from 2020.

Thanks to the popularity and ease of e-commerce, consumers have gotten used to buying everyday items and even hot tubs online. Even if that’s, say, at 3 a.m.

Gunnar Graven, vice president at Steepleton, an outdoor retailer in Louisville, Kentucky, that sells hot tubs, remembers one such sale in the middle of the night from a service member stationed in Korea. He purchased a hot tub for his wife while overseas to have it set up before he got back stateside. The Shopify site Graven uses for his company shows him buying timestamp notifications, so he knows when those odd order times happen.

“You get a notification when a purchase is made and that dinging at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ ” he jokes. “It’s always a pleasant notification.”

Upping the Ante

While the pandemic added extra pressure to spa retail businesses trying to find a new normal, it also offered an opportunity to review marketing methods.

For Dan Friedman’s team at The Hot Tub Store, which has several locations in the Sacramento area, the company website needed to be a top priority during the pandemic. Even with a skeleton crew of staffers, his team launched a site that generates regular customers.

“We’re not talking Amazon status,” he says. “A good day would be six or eight orders. It’s nice when orders come in the middle of the night and no one’s working.”

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While it’s not the main revenue generator for The Hot Tub Store, it is a complement to what sales teams are doing on the showroom floors. Now, several orders trickle in daily from the site, and it’s an ingrained part of the marketing and sales process.

A screenshot shows the e-store look of The Hot Tub Store in Northern California. Customers who order online get free shipping for orders over $100.

“We needed to look at the e-commerce side of our business, and it was a good excuse to focus on our e-store,” Friedman says. “It was and now is the equivalent of a showroom.”

The online store continues to be a focus for his team and an outside web design agency that works with The Hot Tub Store regularly. Customers usually order chemicals and other small items to be sent to their homes to skip a trip to the store. With gasoline over $4 a gallon in many places, buying chemicals from home is attractive to many customers of The Hot Tub Store. Especially when you throw in free shipping, Friedman says.

Bold font on the company’s site reminds customers they get free shipping if they spend $100 or more. Friedman says this perk is essential to encourage customers to buy more. “If it’s $96 and it’s just a few more bucks for free shipping, why wouldn’t you do it?” he says. “It amazes me when people don’t do that.”

Small Businesses Can Go Big, Too

Riling says it mystifies him why any dealer would hesitate to invest time and resources into their website. Too many are scared of the bigger websites, he says, but it hasn’t stopped his company — and he lives in Seattle, where retail giant Amazon is based.

We’re a specialty retailer. We’ve never tried to compete or price match with online shops, and we shouldn’t be expected to do so…Plenty of our customers want to support us after the sale. You shouldn’t make it hard for them to do that.”

Don Riling, Olympic Hot Tub

“When I talk to other retailers in our business, they automatically default to talking about not being able to compete with Amazon or other e-commerce sites,” he says. “We’re a specialty retailer. We’ve never tried to compete or price match with online shops, and we shouldn’t be expected to do so. We’re a small business with local employees and give back to our communities in which we do business. Plenty of our customers want to support us after the sale. You shouldn’t make it hard for them to do that.”

He advises sending customers specials to give them reasons to revisit a spa e-store often.

“Let them shop with you at 2 a.m. if they need to because that’s when they remember they need shock or filter cleaner,” Riling says. “Why force them to shop somewhere else? You deserve that business.”

A screenshot of Steepleton’s website shows the company’s hot tub selection. The company also sells swing sets, gas grills, trampolines and more online.

Limitless Potential

The other secret to keeping customers coming back? Keeping inventory fresh, just like an in-person showroom, Riling says. His in-house marketing manager handles that and is incentivized when sales increases happen.

“Everything we sell in our showrooms is on our e-store,” he says. “Customers can buy covers, set up home-delivery services and purchase selected valet and service tech visits.”

And whenever possible, give new products a try. They don’t take up the space on a website like they would in an actual showroom, Graven says. It’s a simple way to test them out before bringing them into the showroom and shuffling products around for display.

“Look full-service, and as much like an online showroom — and you’ll be amazed at the revenue,” Riling says. “We consistently market to our customers weekly about current specials, have free shipping promotions and gift with purchase promotions. We’ve not reinvented the wheel. We just do some of the basics that all online retailers do.”