Spray tanning used to be the exclusive domain of salons. It all began with airbrush tanning equipment, where as recently as 2010, brands like Iwata were still able to demand upwards of £600 for an airbrush spray tanning kit.

HVLP (high voltage low pressure) tanning really exploded onto the UK market with the cooperation between the American-owned MaxiMist company, and British turbine manufacturer Earlex. An HVLP machine can apply a full-body spray tan in a fraction of the time that it would take to apply with airbrush, and with the development of ever-more sophisticated guns, it wasn’t long before similar results could be obtained with both – including more advanced techniques such as body sculpting to accentuate certain features and muscle groups. For many years, MaxiMist practically held the monopoly on HVLP tanning in the UK.

What happened after this is anyone’s guess. Did Earlex get greedy? Did an exclusivity agreement between the two companies expire? Nobody really knows, but what is known for sure is that around 2010, Earlex began to market what was effectively the exact same machine as the MaxiMist under their own oh-so-catchy name – the Earlex HV5008.

Although the Earlex branding and marketing team never quite emulated the rambunctious style of the Americans, the HV5008 enjoyed surprising success. The machine became renowned for doing exactly what it said on the tin: it was unassuming yet reliable; it did the job, and it did it well. Even when Earlex came to relaunch the product (this time, they came up with the name ‘TS50’ – a marginal improvement but still a few light years behind MaxiMist who were later to come out with the ‘MaxiMist Evolution’), it was so good that nothing actually changed. British spray tan companies simply had to spend hours on the phone to distressed customers, reassuring them that the HV5008 wasn’t really discontinued – simply reborn.

By 2012, however, other companies started to get wise to the successes of MaxiMist and Earlex. First, Australian-owned Tanning Essentials, and then Swiss-owned Wagner, began to establish a foothold in the market. Tanning Essentials had been present for a while and offered glossy, eye-catching tanning machines, but these always sold better in mainland Europe than on Earlex’s home turf. Wagner found their way into the product offerings of the main spray tan companies through attractive pricing, amenable minimum order quantities, and the infectious enthusiasm of their sales director.

It wasn’t just the increased competition and subsequent downward pressure on pricing which was affecting the market, however. A few companies were about to change the face of professional spray tanning forever.

Changing the rules

‘OMG Tanning’ (the brainchild of Health & Beauty Wear Ltd.) entered the scene in 2012 with ‘too good to be true’ pricing on solution and equipment. And it really was. By 2014, the company had built up sufficiently large credit limits with companies such as Earlex and Wagner, such that the directors found it far too tempting an idea to simply avoid settling their accounts. Companies began withdrawing credit and refusing to supply them, and they struggled on for a few more months before finally winding up the brand, leaving hundreds of customers with OMG-branded businesses and no possibility of continued supply. Several months later, the same directors set up a new spray tan brand, ‘DHA Solutions,’ but they have not found it so easy to create a new reputation and the brand has never taken off.

Despite OMG’s exit from the market, the damage had already been done. Companies such as LA Tanning and eBay seller SprayTanPro had cut their pricing to compete with OMG’s off-the-wall deals, and the price battle had well and truly begun. The only problem was that this new drive to offer the cheapest possible tanning products came at the expense of quality. Chinese companies, too, began to sell directly to consumers via eBay. That the equipment was barely fit for purpose no longer seemed to matter; buyers had become accustomed to the idea that a tanning tent should be no more than £30, a kit should be £100, or a bottle of solution £25 – and many were not prepared to pay a penny more.

Even individuals trading from home began to bring in shipments of tanning tents and cheap machines. Cheap tanning equipment literally flooded the internet, often sold on pop-up eBay stores by sellers who wouldn’t even exist the following week for the customer to follow up with when they inevitably found their equipment to be wanting.

The end of Earlex

In 2014, Earlex was acquired by Wagner Spray Tech. Manufacturing was promptly shifted from the UK to China, signalling Wagner’s intention to get down and dirty and compete at the bottom end of the market. There was only one problem: Wagner underestimated just how low quality expectations had sunk, and just how much the spray tan brands were willing to compromise on quality in order to offer the cheapest prices on the net.

LA Tanning were shipping in Chinese-produced machines in their thousands. MyTan London were advertising Wagner systems for home use on television shopping channels. SprayTanPro were shifting Chinese machines with a bottle of their SpaTan brand solution with a fault rate of around 50% out the door at an alarming rate, the returns being of little concern when they were buying in machines at £9 a unit.

Wagner just couldn’t compete. At the start of 2015, they launched the Aura Allure, which was supposed to be the high-end luxury tanning system that they would throw their marketing might behind. The jewel of their tanning crown, they would ensure that price points were held and their new Allure was not devalued. Their enthusiasm was as short-lived as it was naïve, and the promised backing and support of the Aura Allure never quite materialised. The machine made its way onto a handful of websites (more discerning brands such as Fresh Indulgence and Suntana initially took it up with some eagerness), but unfortunately, Wagner’s old temptress – the purchase order! – ensured that the Allure also found its way straight onto the websites of the companies who would simply slash its pricing and, in one fell swoop, take away its single point of difference – and its main attraction for the more responsible tanning brands. These brands withdrew their marketing efforts as quickly as they had begun them, and the Allure now resides in relative obscurity.

By 2016, the market had been ravaged by greed. Downward pressure on pricing put tanning equipment into the hands of so many people, that tanning brands had failed to protect the interests of their own customers and thus ensure the longevity of the market. The evolution of companies willing to import substandard equipment at tiny profit margins also put pressure, and continues to put pressure, on equipment manufacturers to make pricing a more pertinent quality than performance. Even MaxiMist, who once held the monopoly on a reputation for quality and reliability, became drawn into the price battle. Once a favoured supplier of the smaller tanning companies, MaxiMist began to bite the hand that fed them, selling equipment to their subdistributors before devaluing it on eBay and Amazon. Whatever sales boost this may initially have given was short-lived (and short-sighted), as MaxiMist quickly eroded the one thing that set it apart from the rest of the pack. Its reputation among end-users, and trust among suppliers, was irrevocably damaged. The MaxiMist brand now struggles to differentiate itself in the UK, and trundles along as an all-too-obvious sticker on a mainstream Wagner W610 or W670 tanning system.

Only one manufacturer has thus far refrained from stepping into this ring, and LiftYourWay has chosen Tanning Essentials as its main tanning partner for this very reason. We need the equipment that we offer to be made to last: reliable, durable, and with long-term access to parts and service. In our arena, where peformance is everything, the fight to save a few pounds at the expense of quality is not one that we or our discerning clients wish to participate in.

The future

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Whilst it may seem tempting to pick that £69 tanning machine, you might just be taking your first bite into a poison apple.