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I Once Owned a Tanning Salon
The infamous indoor tanning bed.
Thinking of Purchasing a Tanning Salon? As an Ex-Owner, Here's My Story.
I am the recent "ex-owner/franchisee” of a well-known tanning salon in the beautiful sunshine State of Florida. I was in the business of tanning bodies a little over six years, six long years. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the tanning industry was booming with state of the art equipment, new and improved tanning lotions and all the accessories needed to make the average 20-minute indoor tan all the more pleasurable. The industry was doing so well, there were tanning salons on just about every other street corner competing for all the same limited clientele.
Tanning salons were becoming a hot new business throughout the world. Europe had been on the forefront for decades. The United States was jumping on that bandwagon and fast. Of course, there were State Statutes and federal laws governing the various areas of tanning and/or equipment. The FTC and FDA rules and regulations had been established for quite some time with the periodic updates due to the ever-changing progression of manufactured equipment and parts. However, most of these weren't exactly enforced on a local level until around 2008-2009 within the operational salon.
Life as a tanning salon owner was good for the most part. It was exciting and had its moments of glamour. The industry was taking off full swing. Multiple magazines were developed and designed exclusively for tanning salons and owners. Tanning was becoming more and more popular and not just for the elite or occasional soon-to-be vacationer, but everyone wanting that overall body tan. It was big business. NFL cheerleaders, news station anchors, anyone in the limelight was getting the fake-bake. Celebrities were saying it loud and proud that they tanned indoors! There was even a reality TV show about a couple of guys who ran the hottest tanning salons in our Nation. It was “popular” to tan.
With all the tanning-hype and potential revenue to earn, I honestly did not pursue the ownership for any of the obvious reasons. I had not noticed any of it . Believe it or not, I was not even an indoor tanner. I had absolutely no desire to tan indoors and certainly wasn't going to go pay for it. As a matter of fact, the first and last time I stepped foot in a tanning salon was during my senior year in high school just prior to my graduation portraits. It was so long ago, that the salon I visited had only two beds in the same room and the bulbs (lamps) were only located on the bottom. The bed was about eight inches off the ground on wooden-leg posts. It had a single turn on/turn off switch. I actually had to set the manual “kitchen” timer myself and for whatever amount of time I wanted (a maximum of 45 minutes, of course). Wow! Things had certainly changed in the indoor tanning world.
Sadly, I was actually talked into purchasing the salon by my business partner. She was the avid tanner. She loved it. She was completely addicted to it and believe it or not, still is. Tanning addictions can occur, by the way.
In 2006, the franchise location I purchased was number fifteen out of forty-eight locations state-wide. The franchise was the largest in the state at that time. It was an exclusive tanning salon and ranked in the Nation’s top ten. Our initial transition was relatively easy. We changed the décor. We gave the place a more elegant look. We refurbished the equipment. We continually maintained new lamps and parts. We brought in more top of the line lotions for tanning and moisturizing, a variety of tanning accessories that were new to the market (multiple eyewear, hair caps, nail protectors, lip balms…). We even had a lovely team of employees that were trained and certified. Our employees were a big deal, because at least 80% of the salons in Jacksonville at that time did not have “certified” employees, which are actually required by law through the County Board of Health.
We marketed the area with coupons and flyers. We got local college students involved in our advertising. We did it all! We increased our clientele tenfold. We offered airbrush (spray-tanning) which increased our revenue by approximately 60%. Our software was specific to our trade. We had state of the art equipment for the timing communication to the twelve tanning beds and booths. It all seemed so perfect. It was a happening and welcoming salon for all who entered. Our clientele were ages 16 through 92.
Then in late 2007, our Nation’s economy really took a dive. The gas prices were becoming increasingly higher, almost daily. The mortgage industry was in big trouble, needless to say. The list of economic calamities just kept increasing. The country went on a budget alert. Nobody was spending, especially on the luxury items of life, i.e. indoor tanning. It was an incredible blow to our revenue. Our clientele dropped nearly 70%. It was devastating. We struggled to keep up with our overhead. We tried additional marketing. That didn't work. We tried discounting our packages and products; gave the customers an "economic-break". That didn't work. Eventually, we had to cut back on staff. We self-promoted our business with an improved website and utilized the electronic email-broadcasts. We offered online gift certificate purchases. We participated in various local events by hosting a table and offering any and all attendees “free” tans. That didn’t work. No matter what we did or tried to do to improve our bottom line, the customers were just not coming in. Unfortunately, those that did were just not spending. Lotion and accessory sales dropped substantially. The airbrush tans went from nearly 200 a month to barely twenty. Again, it was devastating! I couldn’t believe what was happening.
To be totally honest; it was not just the failing economy that created the loss. There were the many additional expenses that started to funnel our way, the industry’s way. An increase on dues (up by 67%) for the Tanning Certification required by the County Board of Health was certainly not expected. Yet, it only got worse. In 2009, the federal government enacted the absurd 10% Tan Tax to be paid quarterly for all tanning salons. This tax was designed to generate $2.7 billion to help fund the $940 billion health care overhaul. Are you kidding me? A Ten percent tax applied only to the population of people whom tanned indoors, really? Let's see, 70% of Caucasian women ages 16-29 win the count for the longest standing statistics for the indoor tanning population. Therefore, I am not really sure how the government can considered that tax to be fair when it obviously does not apply to the whole nation. My apologies. The tan tax (still in existence today, mind you) is a soap-dish I could harp on for a while, but I won’t. Another new fee provided by the State was for any salon that did not obey the 24-hour law regarding tan time. Those violators would be fined $2,000.00 for up to three (3) incidences. Luckily for me, I was a believer and abider in the 24-hour rule. My funds were tight and I most definitely would not be handing the State any additional funds if I did not have to.
There was one more extreme added cost to my business for which I had no control, unrelated to the tanning industry. Our landlord had increased the rent with applicable taxes, not by which the Lease Agreement preceded as annually, but as an additional increase to cover “renovations” to our building’s exterior and parking lot. However, my personal opinion (to include a few other tenants) is that the increase was more conducive to help recover the loss rent revenue from the six vacant leaseholds of other businesses that had felt the negative impact of the economy. Of course, that would have been against the law and who could prove such a gesture? Again, just my opinion.
Our business eventually succumbed to the demise of failure against all odds. The failure was due to the inevitable increasing taxes, fees, overhead, lack of spending clientele and generally a very tough industry to represent. The negative press for the indoor tanning industry is overwhelming - always has been and probably always will be. Unfortunately, the educated and proven statistics that inform the positives of indoor tanning is highly outweighed by the negative criticism and occasional horror-stories broadcasted nationally by public media. There are many reasons to tan “responsibly” indoors, as well as many scholars and scientists to prove those reasons as beneficial.
So many tanning salons today are multi-faceted with a large variety of other spa features (nails, hair, waxing, sculpting, etc.). The “exclusive” tanning salon does not exist today. Frankly, I am not sure it could. Every new salon will experience the “shiny penny.” The question is how long can you hold onto that initial start-up enthusiasm with the public?
I worked very hard and many long hours trying to survive within the tanning industry. However, I had to decide what was more important to me. Eventually, my family and social life outside the salon became priority once again. Therefore, my business partner and I let it go. I do treasure some of the relationships and friendships I acquired from having the salon. However, I completely and sincerely regret the years I caused such grief for my loved ones. All small business owners must make sacrifices. If you are willing and able, by all means go for it. My only words of advice or words of wisdom would be the following:
Do your homework. Know the industry. More importantly, know the tanning process. Educate yourself and your staff, so you can educate the customers. A well informed and loyal customer is gold. They are your key to continual growth. Keep it fresh. Remember to always keep your customers wanting the latest and greatest in products and equipment. Upscale nationwide franchises are setting the stage and creating a very competitive market. Usually those large chain salons see their customers as just another number walking through the door with dollar-sign eyes. They concentrate mainly on expensive mass marketing and advertising. Therefore, you must create a salon with the drive to have competitive numbers, but remember each customer as a customer. Again, they are the key to your success. The more you please them, the more they’ll tell others. The number one complaint I would hear from customers that left that type of salon to join mine would be the impersonal treatment by the staff. You and your staff should learn the customer’s names and their likes and dislikes in products. This type of “personal” knowledge will only enhance your relationship and revenue. The tanning industry caters to a small population; market “them” not the masses. Look at the statistics and target who is more likely to visit your salon. If you do choose to be a “tanning salon” owner, be prepared financially. It’s an expensive salon to operate. Good luck and as the proverb reads, “you make the bed you lie in.” Literally!
© 2013 dkent