Service Marketing: Bliss Spa Case Study Essay

In today’s global service economy, the successful marketing of a firm’s services has never been more critical in determining company longevity. This is especially true of salon and spa services. In the UK alone, consumers spend upwards of £5.2 billion on beauty and grooming services with steady industry growth rates despite the difficult global economic climate (Mintel, 2009). It is therefore critical to differentiate oneself via service leadership and premium service quality in order to attract and retain spa clientele.

This report will examine the case of Bliss Spa, an international spa brand comprised of over 20 locations worldwide ranging from Hong Kong and Singapore to London and New York. In regards to the aspect of service, this report will critically evaluate nail services, specifically a spa pedicure, at Bliss 49, W Hotel Lexington Avenue, New York location (Bliss, 2013).

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1.1 Company Background

Bliss had a modest beginning; its Canadian founder Marcia Kilgore, a long time sufferer of acne, began giving facials to friends in her New York City apartment after taking skincare courses. Within a short time she opened her first formal spa location in downtown New York and was soon acquired by LVMH
and later, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. As a Starwood company Bliss opened several stand-alone locations as well as outposts within the W Hotel brand. In addition to new locations, the acquisition meant offering in-room Bliss branded products within all W hotels, as well as select Sheraton and aloft brand locations (Reuters, 2004).

The Bliss brand positioning makes a departure from the traditional spa atmosphere and Bliss is credited with being the first of its kind. It replaces customary dim lighting and slow mood music with bright colorful spaces and catchy pop tunes. Retreating from the ‘expected’, it is a breath of fresh air and perhaps a response to findings that consumers find spas boring and lack appeal (Mintel, 2009).

Bliss Spa, W Hollywood Four Seasons Spa, San Francisco

Bliss continues to grow with new services and partnerships, additions to its namesake product line, and new locations opening across the US and Middle East (Bliss, 2013).

2. Literature Review

In determining the service models with which to assess the Bliss service experience, there was a large scope to choose from. However two frameworks, SERVQUAL and Servicescape were selected largely due to the nature of spa industry service dimensions.

2.1 SERVQUAL

SERVQUAL was selected based on its predominant popularity in service marketing due to its thoroughness, analysis of both consumer’s service expectations and perceptions, and ability to quantify service quality via this dual approach. SERVQUAL’s foundation lies in the customer’s evaluation of service quality and is “conceptualized as a gap between what the customer expects by way of SQ from a class of service providers (all spas), and their evaluations of the performance of a particular service provider” (Buttle, 2006).

Parasuraman et al, identified ten components of SQ: (1) reliability, (2) responsiveness, (3) competence, (4) access, (5) courtesy, (6) communication, (7) credibility, (8) security, (9) understanding/knowing the customer, (10) tangibles which are summarized into five dimensions seen in the following table (1985).

Source: Buttle 2006

SERVQUAL, while widely praised, does present some limitations. In Buttle’s 2006 work, the following arguments are presented. Firstly, there is little evidence that consumers evaluate SQ based on the perception – expectation gap. Other theories suggest that consumers may form expectations post-service as opposed to pre-service. They may also aspire to be viewed socially as having high expectations therefore flawing the measurement. Furthermore SERVQUAL does not focus on the outcome of service but rather the delivery process and its dimensions are not universal.

Lovelock and Wirtz go on to state that SERVQUAL is more of a measurement of Gronroos’s technical quality (2007). Therefore, in assessing the total service experience, other dimensions, perhaps related to service outcome, relationship management, and customer lifetime value must be more strongly considered.

2.2 Servicescape

The servicescape model was selected based on the importance of the exchange environment in the spa industry as well Bliss’s unique servicescape in comparison with other spas as mentioned above.

According to Zeithaml et al. the term servicescape was developed by Bitner in 1992 to describe the physical atmosphere where service transactions are delivered (2009). Bitner classified the servicescape according to three dimensions: (1) ambient conditions, (2) spatial layout and functionality, and (3) signs, symbols, and artifacts (Rosenbaum & Massiah, 2011). It was noted that the customer in whole receives the dimensions of servicescape, and therefore the essence of this model is in how they fit together (Lovelock & Wirtz, 2007). For the purpose of this report, we will limit the application of servicescape to the environmental dimensions, and exclude the moderators, internal responses, and behavior.

Rosenbaum & Massiah present some implications and limitations to servicescape. Namely that, “although managers can easily control a service firm’s physical stimuli, they need to understand how other critical environmental stimuli influence consumer behavior and which stimuli might overweigh a customer’s response to a firm’s physical dimensions” (2011, pg. 471). Therefore while the servicescape may elicit a positive outcome of the service, other factors may cancel this entirely.

3. Personal Service Experience – Bliss Spa Pedicure

Upon arrival to Bliss 49 in New York for a spa pedicure you are greeted warmly by the receptionist in the downstairs lobby, checked in for your appointment, and given a key to the private elevator decorated in the whimsical Bliss cloud motif to whisk you up to the spa. Once reaching the floor, you enter another reception area where you are directed to a waiting area. The space is quite bright and clean with a comfortable and spacious seating area for you to relax before your service. A plethora of magazines, lemon water, and tea are available for all customers in the general waiting area.

After settling in, others were called for their services but nearly fifteen minutes passed after my scheduled appointment until I was approached. This seemed out of the ordinary, as the employee was a bit confused and it appeared as though there had been a miscommunication though it was never verbalized to me how long the wait would be or why it took so long. With no apologies, I was then escorted to the nail salon area, and seated in a luxurious white leather chair with a hot footbath waiting. The pedicure service was enjoyable, however did not meet my expectations for the additional cost based on experiences I had at lower-cost venues.

This is an example of a typical limitation of the SERVQUAL model where my expectation was formed pre-service. Was it that this service was on par with lower cost venues and I was merely paying for additional amenities? Or should the service have exceeded my expectations based on prior experience. Typically the lower cost venues offer less comfortable and clean facilities and equipment, but as far as service process they provide nearly the same if not arguably better than Bliss with a quicker turnaround.

Upon completion of the pedicure service, the employee then asked if I had brought sandals, as the paint was not yet dry. From multiple prior experiences, typically nail salons offer disposable sandals or sandals for purchase as well as a dryer, however I was informed they had neither. I was then instructed to wait 20-30 minutes until the polish dried. During this time I did have the added benefit of being offered a beverage as well as a headset with a personal TV to watch. After the allotted time had passed I put my shoes back on and headed to reception to pay for my service. The transaction went smoothly and I was offered a complimentary nail polish of my choice since they were late in starting the appointment.

I found this gesture to be an excellent service recovery, as it exceeded expectations and I was very happy with the token of appreciation. Since this service I have returned to Bliss for other services but not for the spa pedicure as I did not find the service quality to be worth the value especially in comparison with lower-cost nail services.

3.1 SERVQUAL Analysis

Based on the 22-point SERVQUAL Expected vs. Perceived Service Experience Questionnaire, the Spa Pedicure at Bliss did not meet expectations of a spa pedicure. Table II. summarizes the unweighted and weighted averages of both total and specific dimensions. (Survey can be found in Appendix A.) We can see this gap is derived specifically from the assurance, reliability, and most prominently the responsiveness dimensions.

3.1.1 Tangibles

On the whole, Bliss exceeded expectations in tangibles with refreshingly modern equipment and excellent visual appeal. In contrast to its lower-cost competitors their facilities are superb.

3.1.2 Reliability

Reliaility presents room for improvement. The gap can be attributed to the service not being performed at the specified time, as well as the lack of necessary materials including nail dryers and sandals. Lateness for a service is almost never tolerated in the spa industry and Bliss should aim to meet industry standards in regards to materials. However in regards to willingness to solve problems, Bliss performed well with service recovery by offering an au gratis nail polish after performing the service late.

3.1.3 Responsiveness

The responsiveness dimension represents the largest gap in expected and perceived service quality due wholly to service not being performed promptly and no information as to when the service would be performed. While this is hopefully not the norm for their operations, it was disappointing.

3.1.4 Assurance

Also representing room for improvement, this dimension had a gap due to the courteousness of the staff. No apologies were made and the staff had a rushed attitude. Bliss should implement further training to address this.

3.1.5 Empathy

The empathy dimension exceeded expectations largely due to the individual attention received, Bliss’s convenient hours, and the service recovery, taking into account the customer’s interests.

3.2 Servicescape Analysis

Holistically, the Bliss servicescape is an area of excellence. The combined effect of its ambient conditions, layout/functionality, and signs/symbols/artifacts is extremely appealing and has helped to define the brand. The following table describes some of the design elements in relation to the physical dimensions of the spa. We will discuss these further in the following sections.

3.2.1 Ambient Conditions

Overall the lighting, color scheme, music, temperature, and smell of the spa are delightful. The lighting is brighter than most spas but not harsh. The comfortably warm rooms smell of lemon and vanilla and the blue and white cloud theme literally lends itself to a feeling of ‘bliss’. However upbeat pop music keeps the environment energized and fun, reinforcing the playful attributes of the brand.

3.2.2 Spatial Layout and Functionality

The spatial layout is a particular strength of the spa as the treatment areas are spacious and easy to navigate, with modern counters and furniture that align with the ambient conditions. The functionality of the space is also well designed as treatment areas, waiting rooms, and payment counters are separated to allow for privacy.

3.2.3 Signs, Symbols, & Artifacts

The Spa was subtly, but well marked. Signs directed you to and from reception to treatment areas and very explicitly indicated behavioral norms in respect to areas allowed for men and women, cell phone usage, etc.

4. Conclusion & Recommendations

In contrasting the models used, it can be said that while Bliss excels in servicescape design, their perceived service quality needs improvement. The areas of promptness, employee courtesy, and relaying of information are of particular concern.

Assessing service performance, despite the SERVQUAL scores, Bliss would be categorized, as service professionals though should be very wary of sliding into service non-entities. Some of the key attributes which lend to this are strategic positioning to upper-middle class city-goers/travelers, distinctive brand image reinforced by servicescape, and high customer loyalty. Strengths lie in the marketing function and weaknesses across the operations and human resources functions (Lovelock & Wirtz, 2007).

With regards to human resources, more selective recruiting and training could improve staff concerns mentioned above. In regards to operations, the service process particular to nail services could use refining.

5. Bibliography

Bliss Company Website, www.blissworld.co.uk, Accessed 13 March 2013

Buttle, F., (1996) ‘SERVQUAL: review, critique, research agenda’, European Journal of Marketing, 30, 1, pg. 8-32

Bruhn, M., Georgi, D., (2006), Services Marketing: Managing The Service Value Chain, FT Prentice Hall

Lovelock, C., Wirtz, J., (2007), Services Marketing: People, Technology, Strategy, 6th edition, FT Prentice Hall

Mintel, (2009), Salons and Spas – UK, Accessed 14 March 2013

Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V., Berry, L., (1985), ‘A conceptual model of
service quality and its implications for future research’, Journal of Marketing, 49, Autumn, pg. 41-50.

Rosenbaum, M., Massiah, C., (2011), ‘An expanded servicescape perspective’, Journal of Service Management, 22, 4, pg. 471-490

Reuters, (2004), Starwood buys Bliss spa to build W resorts, Accessed 14 March 2013

Zeithaml, V., Bitner, M., and Gremler, D., (2009), Services Marketing: Integrating Customer Focus across the Firm, McGraw-Hill/Irwin, Boston, MA.

6. Appendix

Appendix A.

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