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No national chain under the sun

The tanning salon industry, dominated by independent operators, has shades of the old movie rental business. Some entrepreneurs see room for consolidation.

Associated Press
Published March 17, 2006


DALLAS - Harvin Greene still loves looking tan, but with a 3-year-old daughter, she doesn't have much time anymore for sitting in the sun or keeping frequent appointments to use a tanning bed.

So every once in a while, the 31-year-old Atlanta homemaker dashes into a local salon and gets a spray-on tan that lasts about a week.

"It's big, I don't have to wait and I get an immediate tan," Greene said. "Everybody asks, "Did you just get back from vacation?' "

Greene's Atlanta salon represents a new trend in indoor tanning. It is huge, brightly lit inside and is owned by one of several companies that are trying to create major national chains in an industry that doesn't have any.

Americans spend an estimated $5-billion a year on getting and staying tan, but the five biggest chains account for a minuscule 5 percent of the market, according to industry experts. An estimated 25,000 tanning establishments operate in the United States, but that includes health clubs and nail salons with a tanning bed or two in the back.

Unhappy customers say those outfits lock customers into costly long-term contracts, offer outdated equipment, minimal service and not enough beds to meet demand during the peak season, which runs from now into June.

Many of these new tanning tycoons come from the movie-rental business. They see similarities between their industry and video stores before Blockbuster Inc., which offered better selections at reasonable prices.

"The tanning business is dominated by independents, and many of them are single-store owners. They're not in good locations. They still use handmade signs in the windows," says Steven Berkman, a former Blockbuster executive who is vice president of franchising for Palm Beach Tan Inc. "There's an opportunity here for a great retail brand, just like the video industry in the '80s."

Palm Beach Tan has been building stores. including the one in Atlanta that Greene visits, that are bigger than 3,000 square feet and contain 20 or more beds. Headquartered near Dallas, it claims to be the largest chain by sales, about $50-million, because it owns half its 100 stores and makes more revenue than franchise-heavy chains that just get royalty payments from store operators.

Other large chains include Planet Beach Tan in Marrero, La., with 300 stores; Hollywood Tan of Mt. Laurel, N.J., with about 225; and L.A. Tan of Lincolnwood, Ill., with 140.

The average franchise requires an investment of about $250,000, but it's about $350,000 at Planet Beach and closer to $600,000 at Palm Beach.

The chains are aggressively pursuing successful independent operators. Janie Robins of Harrisburg, Pa., and a partner operated several video stores and four independent tanning salons when they opened a Palm Beach Tan last year. She said being a franchisee stretches her advertising budget because the company helps design and test promotions.

The chains also offer equipment that many independent salons lack, including newer, more powerful beds and spray-on tanning booths that don't use ultraviolet radiation. They can do this partly by negotiating discounts with manufacturers of the beds, which cost $6,000 to $30,000 each.

Donald Zale, a former Blockbuster franchisee who runs nine Palm Beach stores in the Washington, D.C., area, said he is breaking with past practices that angered customers of other salons, especially forcing them to sign long-term contracts.

"There were some horror stories about those," he said.

There is a good reason why the new chains are chasing customers of other salons: The tanning industry, for all its size, is essentially flat.

Most salons say foot traffic is down and sales have been flat to up just slightly recently, according to industry publication Looking Fit. Judie Bizzozero, the magazine's editorial director, said customers have been forced to cut back to pay higher gasoline and utility bills.

John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association, a trade group for salons and bed manufacturers, said the business is stable but not growing like it did in the 1990s. He and his members blame the stagnant market on warnings that exposure to UV radiation can lead to skin cancer.

The National Cancer Institute reports that users of tanning equipment are far more likely than nonusers to develop skin cancer, the fastest-growing form of cancer, with 1-million new cases diagnosed last year. The American Medical Association favors banning anyone under 18 from using tanning equipment.

Regulations vary by state. Some ban children younger than 14 from using tanning beds, and a few, including Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, require parental permission for anyone younger than 18.

Clearly, tanning salon customers are willing to take their chances.

"My vanity overrides health concerns," said Lana Morgan, a 45-year-old sales rep from Kings Park, N.Y., who visits a salon three or four times a week. "I'm in sales, and I have to look good."

But the percentage of Americans using tanning beds has flat-lined, and most of the industry's growth comes from selling spray-on tans, said Steve Smith, chief executive of Planet Beach Tan.

Smith's company, which franchises about 300 stores, is adding skin-hydrating machines and facials and recasting itself as "the tanning spa" - it's even trying to trademark the term.

"We had a lot of negative press when it comes to UV tanning equipment," he said. "This approach might be the missing link that takes us into the future."

TANNING REGULATIONS

An example of state regulations on indoor tanning:

WARNING SIGNS: About half the states require signs warning of the health risks associated with ultraviolet radiation exposure.

YOUNG USERS: Twenty-two states have limits on youths using tanning beds. Some, like California, ban users younger than 14. Others, like Florida, allow users younger than 14 if accompanied by a parent. A few, including Arizona, Ohio and Oregon, require anyone younger than 18 to get parental consent that is signed in the salon operator's presence.

EYEWEAR: Twenty-eight states require the use of eyewear to protect tanners from UV damage to the eyes.

ENFORCEMENT: More than half the state have procedures for enforcing rules, including fines that typically range up to $1,000. Arizona allows fines of $3,000 for severe violations. In many states, offenses are treated as misdemeanors. Many give regulators authority to suspend or revoke a salon operator's permit.

Source: American Academy of Dermatology