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The Spa Market as a Distribution Channel

Ada Polla
  • In the spa channel, dedicated skin care professionals and estheticians help brands to create great products and also promote said products to their clients through treatments and recommendations.
  • Training is a significant factor in retailing through the spa channel, as products are often created in conjunction with specific treatment protocols.
  • Spa exclusivity is a decision that skin care brands distributing in spa channels will have to make, with opportunities on both sides.

If, when you were young, you dreamed of becoming a skin care entrepreneur, it is likely that you dreamed of a launch at Barney’s, with an expansion of your distribution at Saks or Neiman Marcus. More recently, perhaps you dreamed of an exclusive launch on QVC or HSN, with a retail expansion to Sephora.

It is less likely that you dreamed of creating a line exclusively for the professional skin care channel, perhaps because, on the face of it, the salon and spa channel lacks glamour. This channel, however, offers significant advantages for beauty and skin care brands, including providing consumers with experiential introductions to products, a healthy bottom line when comparing benefits versus costs, and the ability to transform estheticians into brand ambassadors.

The Spa Industry

Recent research data from the International Spa Association (ISPA) suggests this channel continues to be robust and growing. In 2012, just under 20,000 spas in the U.S. generated upwards of $14 billion in revenues through 167 million visits. Anyway you look at it, the impact and consumer reach of the spa industry cannot be denied.

But what are the success factors when looking at the spa channel for distribution? Advantages and disadvantages? And what can we learn from those who have been successful in this beauty channel?


There are several points in the pro column for distributing a skin care brand via the spa channel, and while this article isn’t exhaustive, it does highlight some of the top pluses for this distribution model.

First, this channel is very relationship-oriented, which encourages loyalty and longevity. There are few spas that look at quarterly sales numbers to inform their decisions regarding skin care lines. While some may describe this as a key challenge for the spa industry, I see the longer-term view that spas take comforting.

Another pro is that estheticians become powerful product brand ambassadors and, indeed, a brand’s sales force.

Spa treatments additionally offer consumers an experiential introduction to new skin care lines. Discovering a new product line in the intimacy of a spa treatment room, in the hands of a qualified skin care professional, is both more powerful and more controlled than discovering a new line through samples or a department store counter demonstration. It offers the chance for questions and the interaction of actually experiencing the products at the same time.

And while training costs are significant in this channel, which I will discuss more further on, the spa channel does not require paying for someone to work at a counter or to provide in-store support. Furthermore, gifts-with-purchase, seasonal gift sets and promotional items, while important, can also be less frequent in the spa channel than in traditional retail.


Like any channel, there also are some drawbacks to distribution via the spa channel. It remains a highly fragmented industry (excluding spas at chains such as Massage Envy and Lifetime Fitness), and this means it takes a significant amount of time and effort to penetrate it.

Another drawback, turnover in the spa industry is high, which lend to high training needs and costs. Furthermore, the training involved goes beyond product knowledge, and typically includes hands-on sessions to ensure estheticians understand a brand’s specific treatment protocols. And, of course, the flip side of the coin of “estheticians as brand ambassadors” is estheticians must be wooed and convinced to try new lines, much as retail consumers must be in store aisles. Without estheticians’ approval and support, no matter the input of the spa owner or manager, a line will be hard-pressed to truly be successful in a spa setting.

Spa Focused

One key to success in the professional skin care and spa market is the ability to offer estheticians products they exclusively use in their treatment rooms to drive results and treatment revenues. These products are known as backbar or professional-only products, and they are typically stronger and more prescriptive than anything that a consumer can use at home, and often available in larger sizes.

These products also enable the development of unique treatment protocols, which is another key to success in this channel. Elemis—a popular British spa and skin care brand available in more than 1,200 spas worldwide, according to its website—focuses on developing products first and foremost for spa treatment protocols, such as facials and body treatments. This enables the brand to garner feedback from skin care professionals before finalizing formulations, and it helps ensure optimal results in the treatment room—even in retail products.

Indeed, Kalologie Spa co-founder and president Tracy Brennan comments, “The Kalologie line was created specifically for the spa channel, using years of hands-on experience in our treatment rooms to create a line that is truly results driven. Focusing on spa distribution allows manufacturers to create a true brand experience by combining professional treatments and retail.”

Also, most spa-focused skin care brands distribute to the spa channel directly. This may be because spa product distributors are few and far between. These spa distributor companies, however, can distribute everything from equipment and furniture to cotton balls to skin care product brands (leading spa industry distributors include Universal Companies, SpaEqui, SalonCentric, JaCo Distributors and Ageless Esthetics). It is important to know that a distribution partnership is like a marriage: it is a long-term relationship that should be entered into after careful consideration and nurtured every day.

Another unique spa channel element, as mentioned previously, is that training is absolutely key. For example, spa-focused brand Dermalogica is sometimes referred to “an education company with great products” instead of being “a product company with great education.” Indeed, Dermalogica’s school model is powerful and highly successful. Dermalogica offers esthetics students the possibility to take classes at its 32 International Dermal Institute (IDI) locations, and the company uses this network of schools to teach skin care and treatment techniques and protocols as well as spread the Dermalogica product gospel—turning every student into a passionate, well-trained brand ambassador.

Exclusivity plays a role in this channel too, as it does in some other retail channels. Exclusivity can be interpreted in two ways. Exclusivity within the professional spa and skin care channel (i.e., distribute in my spa and not the competing spa around the corner) versus exclusivity as compared to competing channels (i.e., distribute in the spa channel only and never in the retail or online channel). While there is no right or wrong answer here, a number of brands have also been able to develop their distribution across a number of channels, simultaneously, without alienating their spa partners.

One powerful example of multi-channel distribution is Murad. At about $100 million in revenues, Murad’s distribution is divided as follows:

  • 95% in the U.S., 5% international
  • Of the 95% U.S. distribution: 40% direct channels (catalog, TV, website); 30% spas and boutiques; and 30% national and retail chains

This data, sourced from WWD, also predates the brand’s launch in Massage Envy Spas, so the percentage represented by spas may have since increased. And indeed, Murad’s partnership with Massage Envy has only strengthened the brand’s overall reach and reputation.

CG Funk, vice president of industry relations for Massage Envy, perhaps sums the key success factors for the professional spa and skin care market most effectively by saying, “When Massage Envy Spa was in the design stage of our skin care services model, we took several months to research various skin care companies and assess not only their products but also other factors of their business. We were looking for a nationally recognized brand that consumers could easily identify with. We wanted to partner with a skin care product company that would offer us an agreed upon exclusive partnership. We assessed the products of each company to ensure they were therapeutically based; in other words, that the products were designed to provide users with healing results both physically and emotionally. And, we rated each company on their national team’s ability to provide each of our locations with support, sales and training on an ongoing and scheduled basis.”

A Channel Built for Skin

So, what do you need to make it in the spa channel? Brand awareness, exclusivity, quality and results-oriented products, ongoing marketing support and training. And really, it can be just as simple as that.

Ada Polla is the co-creator of the Swiss antioxidant skin care line Alchimie Forever, which launched in the U.S. in 2004. Her strategic focus and implementation have yielded double-digit annual revenue growth for the company. She holds an MBA from Georgetown University, majored in art history and political science at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1999. She is also a GCI magazine editorial advisor.

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