Untangling the web:
Consumers love hot tub ratings and chat rooms.
But industry professionals wonder if these sites are as objective as they should be
Pool & Spa News, March 28, 2005 by Rebecca Robledo
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Jeff Baxter, Manager, Poolandspa.com
Last year, Abigail Schreiber and her husband decided to buy a hot tub. "We ski a lot," says the video editor/graphic designer based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "When you come back from a day trip, it's nice to sit in a hot tub."
The couple wanted the pressure to be consistent from jet to jet in their hot tub--even when everything was running simultaneously. It also needed to seat five or six. Schreiber had never bought a hot tub before, and knew virtually nothing about it.
So she did what millions of consumers do every" day when shopping for a big purchase: She went online to learn about brands, features and prices.
Web sites of manufacturers and retailers play a vital role in sales. However, many consumers believe they don't offer enough objective information. Online ratings sites and chat rooms provide third-party opinions, but even those sites have their flaws, industry veterans warn.
"It's confusing for consumers," says Brian Shoer, president of Bedford Pod & Patio in Bedford, N.H. "They have a hard time knowing where to turn. They almost throw their hands up in the air because it's hard to get objective information."
Consumers warm up to hot tubs
Manufacturer and retailer sites are becoming more prevalent, but many consumers believe they only tell part of the story. For example, Michelle Reid, a recent hot tub purchaser from Pueblo, Colo., thinks the Web sites are short on information and long on sales strategy. "Some don't even have pictures, so you don't get an idea of what you're looking at," she says. "If you want to know something, you have to call them."
Reid felt manipulated by sites that seemed purposely sparse so she'd be forced to pay a visit to the store. She clicked right past them. She wanted photos and information about prices and warranties. "The Web site that has the most information will get my business," she says.
For the most part, consumers lack studies from an impartial, nonadvertising source such as Consumer Reports. Instead, they must visit chat rooms, message boards and online ratings pages. "If you just rely on talking to the dealer, they're going to tell you your tub was No. 1," Schreiber says. "I relied more on other people's opinions."
Ratings come in a couple of forms: Web sites either provide rankings or assign a certain number of stars to each brand. On some sites, such as epinions.com, consumers rate the hot tubs. Other pages show side-by-side comparison spreadsheets of equipment, features, dimensions and prices for various brands.
Poolandspa.com provides probably the best known ratings in the industry. It began in 1994, making it the first online retailer and informational Web site, says Daniel Harrison, president of the Las Vegas, NV-based company. The ratings page, which ascribes a certain number of stars to each brand, links to a side-by-side comparison section.
Web surfers flock to this page, says Harrison, who also owns retail stores in Yaphank, N.Y., and Las Vegas. "Every day, it's read more than any other pages that we have by far," he says.
Message boards and chat rooms provide a different outlook. Here, consumers post questions, offer advice and vent about bad experiences. Industry professionals of every stripe can respond to their questions and concerns. Shoppers consult the pages not only to help them choose the right product, but also to learn more about ongoing issues such as maintenance from experienced hot tub owners.
"You get a balanced opinion, hearing from consumers, technicians, dealers, all in an open forum," says Bill McCall, a moderator for the Columbus, Ohio-based site whatsthebest.hottub.com.
The industry bubbles over with concern
Many in the industry doubt the validity of ratings systems. Some sites work like amazon.com, where an average rating based on consumer input is provided. But they may not be based on enough information, says John Mosher, owner/president of Central Iowa Pool & Spa in Des Moines.
"We checked to see how a particular brand was rated [on one site]," Mosher says. "I found that ... their survey included two or three consumer reviews. That's not much Of a consensus."
Some believe ratings sites are advertising vehicles in disguise. "Most of the sites you pay into to rate yourself," says Estrella De la Cruz, bookkeeper at Spa Depot in Las Vegas.
On poolandspa.com, the top-rated manufacturers pay to be on the site, receiving links and inclusion on the comparison spreadsheet for their purchases, according to Harrison. "We don't hide that," he says, adding that funding is needed to maintain the site. A statement on the home page explains that the site runs advertising.
Harrison insists that just because you provide a credit card number doesn't mean you'll get top billing: "There are companies wanting to buy this, and we won't let them." A product only gets this recommendation, he says, if he and his staff are confident about its appeal, based on personal experience with the brand, unit inspections at trade shows and consumer input.
"If we recommended a bad company, we'd
hear about it from the customers," he notes.
Harrison's site is not made for one-stop research. "We warn people that, like anything, they have to get information from different places," he says.
Chat rooms provide their own set of concerns. For example, industry personnel may pose as consumers to push their own brands. Therefore, editing of these sites varies. On whatsthebest-hottub.com, "It's purely just making sure things are semi on topic, and nothing illegal or immoral is posted," says McCall, a moderator on the site's chat room. "What I try to do is screen out the most vicious attacks."
Harrison, whose site also has a chat room, has barred some dealers. "Usually, it's because they use profanity or launch personal attacks on a person at a specific dealership, or a person at a specific spa manufacturer," he says.
Experienced chatters can usually spot a poser, though. "They always seem to have a strong positive or negative opinion about a particular brand and go out of their way to bring it up in subjects that aren't necessarily related," McCall says.
If he suspects that an industry member is pretending to be a consumer, McCall might challenge the participant openly by posting questions. Sometimes they turn out to be frauds; other times, not.
Many agree that what hurts the consumer also harms retailers. "I think, as a whole, it's not good for the industry that we don't have objective Web sites," Shoer says. "For legitimate [retailers] who honestly try to research and find the best products, it makes our job more difficult because the consumer is looking at us in the same light as the [deceptive] dealers. They don't know who the legitimate dealers are."
Not enough retailers maximize their sites, adds Andrew Harris, vice president of wood tub maker and online retailer Roberts Hot Tubs in Richmond, Calif. "They use it as a glorified brochure," he says.
Many await the day that hot tub brands become everyday knowledge, such as electronics or appliance names. Consumers will then have a better idea where to look, says Dennis Marunde, president of online retailer pools.com and Arvidson Pools & Spas in Crystal Lake, Ill.
"If there's enough brand equity out there, I think consumers will be willing to use the Internet as a research vehicle and just decide on the dealer," Marunde says. "In isolated cases, with isolated brands, I see it now."
Web sites to watch.
Check out these Web sites to see what kind of information is available to consumers about portable spas:
Content: Consumer ratings, specifications, comparison spreadsheet and manufacturer links.
Details: A Web site that spotlights all kinds of consumer products, epinions has a page devoted to portable spas, found in the "home and garden" category. Many of the models don't have ratings. Those that do are often based on one to two consumer reviews. Consumers can create their own spreadsheets, and links take users to manufacturer Web sites. This site carries message boards, but none have formed regarding portable spas. Owner: Retailing and comparison pricing Web site www.shopping.com.
What's the Best Hot Tub
Content: Consumer ratings/reviews and forum, buying guide, and industry links.
Details: The buying guide offers advice on whether or not the user would benefit from a hot tub, how and where to install it, and maintenance and safety. It also introduces users to the various features and offers ranges of operating prices, as well as advice on what kind of warranty to seek. The site averages the ratings provided by consumers, with most models having only one to three reviews.
Owner: What's The Best Inc., in Ewing, NJ., has similar sites for 49 product categories. WTB says it is designed to aim advertiser messages to their target audiences.
Address: www.spasearch.org Content: Recommendations, buyer's guide, owner's guide, chat room, downloadable coupons and industry directory.
Details: Recommendations (found under the "Product Search" heading) are based on the editors' quality standards and consumer comments, according to the site. A user can fill out a form to receive a spa planning guide in the mail. An online newsletter now is available. Manufacturer information is provided via an industry directory, which highlights what it calls the 43 "major players" in a field of 170. It lists manufacturers who deal directly with consumers.
Owner: Big Fish Publications, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company, also produces www.poolsearch.com and a site on travel. In addition, it owns a similar site, www.spahelp.com.
Content: E-commerce, ratings, comparison sheet, buyer's guide, owner's guide and chat room.
Details: To find the most-talked-about page with ratings and links to a chat room, scroll down the home page to the "Spa Information" heading; then click "Spa Buyer's Guide and Manufacturer Links." Look on the page for the "listings and ratings" and "message board and chat room" prompts. The site has a virtual store, but doesn't sell portable spas.
Owner: Poolandspa.com Inc. in Las Vegas, NV
Roberts Hot Tubs
Content: Chat room, reviews, information guides and e-commerce.
Details: Tips pages introduce consumers to things such as pumps, and the care of covers and water. Included is a glossary of terms and a message board, with a special section for consumer reviews. The site sells hot tubs and Japanese ofuro tubs made by the owner, as well as items such as chemicals and covers.
Owner: Roberts Hot Tubs, a maker of wooden hot tubs and Japanese ofuros in Richmond, Calif.--R.R.
Of course, you can't control everything your clients read on the Internet. But you con offer people help in identifying the good from the bad.
"Obviously, there is a lot of information," says Brenda Murr, vice president of Mermaid Pool, Spa & Patio in Anderson, Ind. "It's a matter of trying to help consumers see through the shtick to discern what is valuable to them and what is actually a sales pitch."
The following five tips will help put your
customers on the right track:
1 Meet concerns head on.
When customers come in, ask them where they've been looking and what kind of information they've found on the Internet. This helps you see where they're coming from and also clues you in on what attracts the most attention, lf they've read specific claims that worry them, take them to the nearest computer, bring up the page and go over it with them.
2 Recommend sites you trust.
Because many people come into the process with little to no knowledge, they could use assistance in recognizing the more trustworthy sites. Lead them to the ones you trust.
3 Inform people about chat rooms and ratings pages.
Consumers may not realize that advertising affects the ratings on some Web sites. Provide tips on ways they can weed out suspicious-sounding chat-room participants This includes emphatic endorsements or bad-mouthing of a particular brand or product.
Tell consumers to check for advertisers throughout these Web sites, and look for correlations between successful ratings and advertising.
4 Help shoppers wade through all the information.
The best things about the Internet also can be the worst--namely, all the misleading information. Explain to prospective customers the different horsepower ratings. Encourage them to read the fine print on warranty claims, and to find out who tested and determined the efficiency of particular models. Also, help them understand claims about insulation.
5 Advise consumers to seek multiple opinions.
People can't get a true sense of the hot tub market based on one or even two opinions. But with several at their disposal, they'll have a fuller picture and be better able to spot personal prejudices and false claims. They can also tell when manufacturers have established bad patterns vs. the occasional mistake that even the best make.--R.R.
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