Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Is the Value of a Massage Service Received?

During the past couple of months, I took an extended leave from blogging to deal with chronic neck pains and insomnia by seeing a chiropractor and a physical therapist. In August, I considered adding a monthly massage into my therapy since I knew I was very close to paying off my credit card and I could afford it. (To those who are thinking I should pay down my student loans rather than get massages, let me rephrase: I could afford to pay for monthly massages without going back into credit card debt. Mmm-kay?)

One weekend in August, I went to a chi-chi resort in La Jolla that charged $130 for a 50 minute massage. The spa facilities were fancy-shmancy and I loved it. The massage on the hand could only be described as... "meh."

In September, while in Chicago, I got a massage at a five-star hotel near Michigan Avenue. (It was the only spa that would take me on a Sunday evening as a walk-in. I swear!) The ritzy spa charged $135 for a 50 minute massage. The facilities were gorgeous but again, the massage itself was, "meh."

In both instances, I tipped the massage therapists $26 and $27 respectively, notwithstanding the mediocre quality of the massages I received.

For my October massage, I was thinking about scheduling a $79 service at my chiropractor's office, but was enticed by a $49 (50 min.) massage special at Massage Envy instead. For those who aren't familiar with Massage Envy, it's a "membership spa" where members pay $59/month (or whatever price the franchisee set) and get one (1) 50-minute massage per month. Members can get additional 50-minute massages in the same month for $39 a pop. Non-members pay $98 per 50-minute massage.

I was initially turned off by the fact that Massage Envy's "spa" didn't have any showering facilities or a steam room. (Uhhh... I really think a business that calls itself a spa should at least have some kind of water related facility, but I digress.) Nevertheless, I gave it a whirl and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the massage I received. It certainly kicked serious butt of the chi-chi resort massages I previously got. I signed up for a 6 month membership.

But when it came time to pay the tip, I froze. Massage Envy's tipping guidelines suggested $14-$20, but I wondered about some of the same things that financial writer, Liz Pulliam Weston, did in this article.

I initially wondered whether a $12 tip (i.e., 20% x the regular member's price of $59) would have sufficed as a decent tip? But why should the mediocre massage therapists at the chi-chi resorts get double for the same service? On the other hand, since I don't enjoy the same luxe facilities at Massage Envy that I get at the tony resorts, doesn't that mean I can tip less?

After what seemed like an eternal internal debate, I left a $17 tip. I justified the tip based upon prices that other non-membership "day spas" (that also lack showering facilities) charge for a 50 minute massage. The prices in San Diego range from $65 to $80, so I think a $14 to $17 tip is quite appropriate for a 50-minute massage. (Liz Pulliam Weston's neighborhood really has $39 massages?)

This begs the question: Can an establishment really set the perceived value of a service delivered? I don't think so. I compare places like Massage Envy to car washes that offer cut rate prices at the expense of their employees. Just as I do at car washes, when I think an employee may be underpaid, I tip based upon the value of the service I think I received, not what I was charged. In other words, I tip beyond the 20% standard. I really can't be angry at Massage Envy's tipping guidelines since it benefits the therapist, not the franchisee.

But now I'm starting to regret - - if I suspect an establishment isn't paying its employees a decent wage, maybe I shouldn't be patronizing the business at all... *Cr&p*


Ms. MoneyChat said...

the massage envy offers $39 massages in my area as well but that's not the point here. it is a catch 22 and i share the internal conflict. this is very akin to those who oppose wal-mart.

The Lost Goat said...

I disagree. No one is forging your massage therapist to work at Massage Envy. S/he chooses to work there. Massage therapy is one of the easiest professions in which to set up as an independent - all you need is a portable table and a cell phone (and, I think in CA, the same license you need for a spa job).

In this economy, I expect that Massage Envy gets more volume of customers than (at least some) ritzy spas. And s/he doesn't have to drum up business like she would as an independent. All the massage therapists I know are paid by the job, so the more bodies, the more money (not even factoring tip). A rational person could easily choose the steady steam of income from Massage Envy, even if his or her good days will not be as lucrative as the good days at a spa.

Finally, all of this is assuming that your massage therapist is paid less at Massage Envy. Do you know this for a fact? Many spas hire massage therapists as independent contractors and charge them a "table fee" for each massage. Pricey spas generally charge a bundle, with the expectation that the therapist will make it up on tips.

I would have no problem continuing to frequent the therapist that you prefer, in the setting that he or she chooses to work in. I'd probably tip he a little higher than the norm, as I do with all service professionals that I plan to visit on a regular basis, since then s/he will always be happy to see me. If $10-$20 is the norm (and I bet it's closer to $10 than $20, most people are remarkably cheap tippers), I'd go with $25. Since you can afford massages, I presume the extra $7 won't change your lifestyle, and will make you memorable (in a good way) to your therapist.

Money Funk said...

I pay $20 tip for a massage. But here is the thing... start doing yoga (The FIT channel has it morning and night) everyday. your back will feel better in no time!

Amy said...

My husband and I go to massage therapists that charge $35.00 for a 56 minute massage! We tip a total of $15. This is their regular price and they are great. They set the price, not me. If they charged $40, I would tip on the $40, and so on.

I tip on the price of the service and I was caught by that when I went to a chi-chi resort -- I think my tip was practically what I pay for a massage!!

Anonymous said...

I go to a massage cooperative, where the workers share the expenses of running the business but keep the rest of their wages. The rate is $75 an hour; it's extra if you want to use the sauna and steam.
And....I don't tip at all. Does that make me a bad person? I don't think it does.
Let's assume that the workers have to put the equivalent of $20 per session into keeping the business afloat. That's still $55 an hour. If someone is making $55 an hour, he or she does not need my money.

moneymatekate said...

There are many ways to run a massage business, and I see some wrong assumptions made in these comments. Anonymous above me is thinking $55/hr is a generous wage, but massage therapy is not a 40-hour-a-week job. Doing that will burn you out in a matter of months. Those folks pay their own insurance, licensing fees, (required) continuing ed, HEALTH INSURANCE premiums, employer's social security, pension, etc. in addition to the obvious overheads. Sadly, most massage jobs don't cover those things either. As for that $39 place, I have to wonder about the staff - both legitimate and illegitimate spas "hire" illegal aliens, meaning they only make the tips you give them - maybe $5/massage from the employer if they're lucky.

I don't know how Massage Envy is able to operate at such a low fee. My guess is that they tend to get recently qualified massage therapists who need resume fodder. Nothing wrong with that, but don't expect to have the same therapist for more than a few months (maybe longer in this crappy economy). I would definitely recommend tipping based on the value of the service to you, not based on the below-market price.

By the way, there are certain styles of massage that work exceptionally well for the neck, but you won't find them at a spa, Massage Envy, or most establishments. They tend to be done by independents and cost a fair bit because of the supply/demand curve. If you find that the massages you're getting have maxed out in their ability to improve your level of chronic pain, let me know and I'll point you in the right direction. It took me 8 months to figure it out myself, happy to share!

Anonymous said...

hmm… I always tip more (20%) if it's somebody I've been seeing for awhile and they do a good job. I also tip 20% when I get my bikini area waxed… cause what a sucky job! (and I'm oh so grateful!) Other spa services usually 15-20 depending on the level of service. If you had a bad experience, I'd say tip the minimum of 15% and find someplace else to go!You might be able to get a massage for just a copay with a doctors note though. If you've been having neck troubles, I'd say inquire!

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