By Sue Shekut, Owner, Working Well Massage, Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Wellness Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer
Since the Recession, I’ve seen an uptick in the number of coupon services and “discount” massage and spa service offers. Makes sense. People are more cost conscious and stressed out and want stress relief but are afraid to spend money on themselves beyond basic needs. Some people have no choice but to only pay for basic needs. But for those of us with enough disposable income to pay for health and wellness services, let’s look at what these “discount” services are really costing us.
To start off, one massage company that has really embraced the idea of offering “discounts” has a brilliant marketing strategy. They offer a “low-priced” massage usually about $49-$59 per hour (which is actually a 50-minute massage, not a full hour). This discount massage company pays its massage therapists between $17-$20 an hour with the understanding that YOU the customer will pick up the rest of their wages through the tip/gratuity that is suggested in signs plastered all over treatment rooms. So you pay $59 (in downtown Chicago) and then are “encouraged” to tip the massage therapist $20. In essence, you pay $79, or about $80 an hour, for your 50-minute massage at the discount company.
What’s brilliant about this strategy is that the discount company makes you think you are getting a bargain. But what is really going on is that the owners of the discount company are cost shifting. Instead of the discount company charging $79 for your massage and paying their massage therapists $35-40 per hour-long massage (which is more the going rate for massage therapists employed by chiropractors or self-employed), the discount company pays $18-$20/hour and the client bears the burden of the rest of the massage therapists wages ($20 tip). Brilliant! And the client leaves, thinking he/she got a bargain massage of only $59. But in actually, the client pays $79 for the massage. (And the discount company does not have to take out taxes or pay unemployment or workers comp taxes on the tip if you pay the massage therapists in cash. Which is extra savings for the discount massage company owners!)
Now let’s say you read this and say, “Well, then I WON’T tip the massage therapist. Let the discount company pay their people fairly and not shift the cost to me. ”
Think about it, the massage therapist at a discount company makes half the going rate for massage. Her employer promises her that you will make up the rest of your wages through tips and you, the client, do not tip. How enthusiastic would the massage therapist at the discount company be about giving you, the non-tipping client, your next massage? And if the massage therapist you first had work on you tells other massage therapist you don’t tip, how happy do you think the massage therapists are going to be when you come in for your next massage?
Note: If you go to a high price salon or hotel and pay $100 or more for a massage, you are usually paying more for the ambiance, not for the massage therapists. Massage therapists at high-end spas usually make about $25-30 of that $100 fee and also rely on tips. Not a bargain for the client or for the massage therapist. The landlord of the high-end spa is the winner in this deal because most of the cost goes to high overhead.
How Much Do Massage Therapists Really Earn Per Hour?
Keep in mind that earning $17-40 per hour-long massage is not equivalent to earning $17-40 an hour in a 40-hour a week office job. Most full-time massage therapists can only physically perform 20-25 hours of massage per week without injuring our bodies or sacrificing the quality of our work. The rest if our time is not spent sitting on a divan eating bon bons. We still have to chart, change sheets, do laundry, marketing, scheduling and do all the other business-related chores office workers do. But this work is absorbed in the cost of the hour-long massage. As is the cost of our own self-paid sick days, holidays, vacation time and health insurance. AND, if we are not booked with clients 20-25 hours per week, we earn significantly less. (Think about how it would be if you came into work and your boss said, wow, we can only pay you for half a week’s work this week. That’s not uncommon in the massage field.)
I’m not trying to gain pity for massage therapists. But I am pointing out that you are paying more for the “discount” massage than you think. In any case, I hope you get your massages at whatever location you prefer. Just know what you are paying for it!