Best Place to Buy a Spa: Internet vs Big Box Store vs Local Dealer
So you’re thinking about buying a hot tub, but you don’t know where the best place to purchase a hot tub is. What you’re likely to find as you begin your search is that your hot tub purchasing options include 3 main channels: e-commerce sites, big box stores, or local specialty spa dealers. So what’s the difference between these shopping experiences and which one is right for you? That depends on your answers to the following questions:
- How much are you willing to pay?
- What level of quality are you looking for?
- Do you want the seller to install it for you?
- Do you want an experienced, knowledgeable seller?
- What level of customer support are you looking for?
- How long do you want your spa to last?
This fun and informative video can shed a little light on what you can expect from each of these purchase experiences.
Here’s a full breakdown of these options with a little more detail.
Scenario #1: The Internet
Appreciate the convenience of ordering from your own living room, not having to deal with any personal interaction? Imagine this: Sitting on the couch with MacGyver in the background and a laptop in hand, you find a general product description with specs and reviews, then push a button and pay. A few weeks later, your spa is delivered curbside. Awesome and easy…to that point.
How about the rest of the picture?
You chose this spa because it had positive reviews, the price was visible from the get-go, and it looked like a good value, right. Sure, there were a few unexpected add-ons that bumped up the total cost of the hot tub when you went to pay, but at that point, you were invested emotionally and set on seeing the purchase through.
Now for getting your new spa installed. First, you have to work out a way to move the 700-pound spa from the end of your driveway to the backyard deck without damaging it, or yourself. Then there’s the electrical—you hadn’t anticipated needing to upgrade your system to accommodate the 220V breaker close to where you planned to place the spa. You’ll probably just have to call an electrician.
Ok, your hot tub is in place and working. The first thing you notice is how loud the pumps are, making it difficult to hear the relaxing tunes you selected for your soak. Then you get your first electric bill since plugging in. You’re spending twice as much on electricity than you expected. What’s going on? Who do I call about this?
Here’s the lowdown on most of the hot tub products available online. Quality is a real concern, especially when it comes to the materials, design, and manufacturing processes of a spa. Cheaper materials, inefficient designs, and poor manufacturing processes all contribute to higher post-purchase costs, including maintenance and repair issues…not to mention the replacement cost due to a shorter overall lifespan. Would have been nice if the product description on that web page had included this info, right?
No worries, you’ll just call customer support to address problems as they arise.
Well, here’s what that looks like:
After you wait on hold for half an hour since the supplier is from China, you find out the limited lifetime warranty doesn’t actually cover one of the issues you’re calling about. It does cover the other, but the supplier doesn’t have any local service support they can refer you to.
So if you can find an independent service tech on your own that’s willing to perform work on a third-party warrantied problem, you can get that one problem fixed at no cost…except for the service and travel fees charged by the technician for showing up.
What to Expect:
- The convenience of ordering from home
- Have to rely on the online product, brand, and seller reviews
- Spa-only base price can be misleading
- Poor product quality (noisy pumps, poor insulation, higher-maintenance requirements) so spa is more susceptible to problems and a shorter lifespan
- Generally, poor energy efficiency meaning higher monthly use costs
- Selection limited to lower-end spas
- Lack of personal sales help–dealing with computer and automated systems, possibly a human after waiting on hold
- Lack of sales expertise and support–more order taker or reader of canned FAQ questions–can not speak to the local conditions that may affect spa choice
- Delivery to curb or driveway, no installation
- Limited warranty
- No post-purchase service support at the local level
Scenario #2: Big Box Store
You’ve done enough research online to understand basic spa features, but feel more comfortable buying from an actual brick-and-mortar retailer. That way, you get to see and touch your spa before making the purchase decision. And you figure they have a local store, so you should have access to follow-up support if needed.
The first thing that stands out is the minimum selection available at the store. The salesperson tells you they offer more online (see above for a reminder of what that experience is like). You ask enough about the products to learn that their spas are also off-brands or, if you’re lucky, stripped-down versions of better spa brands produced by large manufacturers and white-labeled for big box stores.
This should be your first clue about product quality—cheaper materials, inefficient designs, and poor manufacturing processes all lead to a lower wholesale price and greater retail margin for the big box store, but higher overall costs for you at the end of the day. Other than that, your salesperson doesn’t have much knowledge to share about the hot tub, but he does offer to tell you about the dishwashers, bath products, light bulbs, and dog food they carry.
You decide to go ahead with the purchase thinking it’s just like any other appliance, right? Well, again, your hot tub is dropped curbside so you’re left to move and install it on your own.
Once you get the spa working, you notice an issue with how the exterior cabinet around the spa is affected by the seasons. The salesperson hadn’t warned you about this. So you call the retailer to schedule a service call. The good news, they’re happy to repair or replace the spa, you just have to figure out how to get it back to the store.
What to Expect:
- Actual brick and mortar retailer so you can see product and talk to a real person
- Have to rely on online product, brand, and seller reviews
- Generally poor product quality so more susceptible to problems and has short overall lifespan
- Generally poor energy-efficiency meaning higher monthly use costs
- Selection limited to mostly lower end with few mid-tier–typically off-brands or stripped down versions of brands by larger manufacturers
- May have one or two models on display, but most products are still only available online in order to save on merchandising costs
- Lack of sales expertise and support–more order taker or reader of canned FAQ questions
- Curbside delivery without installation
- Limited warranty
- Limited post-purchase service support that often requires customer be responsible to return product
Scenario #3: Your Local Hot Tub Dealer
You start your search online and narrow the choices to the best hot tub brands and quality hot tub manufacturers you learned about on consumer-submitted Q&A sites like Quora, pro recommendations on forums like What’s the Best Hot Tub, or actual customer reviews on the brand site. You learn that specific pricing may not be available online because prices are determined at the local market level.
That’s okay, you feel better about talking to someone with product expertise and understanding of local climate conditions that might factor into your purchase decision. Before that though, you also visit your local dealer’s website to get an even better feel for what to expect.
You find a large selection of spas on display when you walk into the local dealer’s showroom. A friendly salesperson who takes some time to ask questions about your needs and provides a thorough walk-through of specific product distinctions.
She demonstrates the difference in quality with the established brand(s) they carry, which explains why their spas tend to price out a bit higher than those shown online. Then your salesperson makes some recommendations based on insight she gained from taking the time to get to know about you and your specific priorities.
Good thing you brought your swimsuit along because the dealer has a test spa area set up for customers to try out right there in the store. There are also other interactive experiences that help you learn more about their spas, like a design configurator and even a virtual reality program that let’s you experience a spa in 3 dimensions and 360 degrees. As things wind down, the salesperson hands you a list of local contacts, past customers you can ask firsthand about their purchase experience.
Once you’ve decided on a model, you get added to the pre-delivery consult schedule. This is a visit where a professional comes out to ensure the planned space works for the spa selected and electrical requirements are in place.
Delivery of your spa comes with a ramp, a spa dolly, and three strong men to help with heavy lifting. They also take care of installation during the same visit. So the next thing you know, you’re done watching the setup before finishing the cocktail that’s been in your hand since they arrived.
You ask about how to care for your spa once it’s up and running. Lo and behold, they get you set up with a chemical program that ships regularly to your door and a maintenance program where the dealer’s technicians regularly come out to service the spa. Though you haven’t had a technical issue with your hot tub yet, there’s peace of mind that you’ve already established a relationship with the dealer and the product-trained service team he employs.
What to Expect:
- Reputation is easier to review and determine–local customer references
- Reliable product with high-quality materials, design, and manufacturing processes
- Proven energy-efficiency
- Wide selection–all or most of models displayed on showroom floor
- Sales expertise, local knowledge, can make informed recommendations based on personal interaction, preferences, and priorities
- Showroom experience: step into and sit inside spa, learn how features are differentiated between brands, try unique kinds of design configurators
- Service is available at the local level, often offering maintenance and chemical programs in addition to repair
- Comprehensive warranty coverage
- Includes installation with pre-delivery consultation to ensure space and electrical requirements
Three different options, three very different experiences. Hopefully you have a clearer picture about each one. Because after weighing the pros and cons, you ultimately get to make the call. Will it be convenience, price, service…or all of the above?
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