September 14, 2011

Why I Sold My Soul to Massage Envy. ~ Tara DeAngelis

Photo: toastforbrekkie

With over 900 locations nationwide, Massage Envy has been called the Wal-Mart of the massage industry. Soon there will be at least one in every city of every state. It seems that they are trying to monopolize the profession by putting every private practice out of business. We are living in a time where most of us are making less and less while those at the top of these corporations and franchises are making more and more. How ethical of us is it to give money to an establishment like this? 

It was one year after the housing bubble burst in 2007. Every fourth house in my California suburban neighborhood had a brown lawn, a “Foreclosed” sign in the window, and a plastic blue lock-box over the doorknob.

Photo: Cartographer

I couldn’t help but feel like an over-privileged, spoiled-brat because while everyone was feeling the burn of the recession—I was driving to the day-spa because I was feeling like a massage.

Since I had lost my cell-phone, I decided to do a walk-in at my favorite place with the cheapest prices and best therapists in my opinion: Bodycare.

On my way there, I noticed that a large purple “Massage Envy” sign had been erected in a new strip mall. I was intrigued: “What a catchy name for a business.”  So my tires screeched and I veered into that parking lot.

Upon entering, I immediately felt like I was walking into a hotel lobby. The sleek, black, elongated counter-top reflected the gleam of seven pendant lights hanging in a row above. There were purple couches, beige walls and a trickling stone fountain to the left.

“How much are your massages” I asked the young man at the front desk.

He went on to explain that the first massage was a discounted price of $45 (the special introductory rate) for an hour. After the first massage you could decide if you wanted to sign up for a one-year contract.

Photo: Frank3.0

A one-year contract? This was a foreign idea to me. The thought gave me a queasy belly.

The one year contract would let me have one massage a month for $59.00 month, and any additional massages per month would only be $39 each.

“What if I just want to buy one massage after my introductory massage” I asked.

“It would be $79 per hour after that” he said.

That was the most expensive massage I had ever heard of! It seemed like a scam. I wanted nothing to do with it. The average rate in the United States for a one-hour massage was $60—only one dollar more than the monthly dues for Massage Envy. I thanked the young man for the information, walked out, and headed down to my regular rubbery and wondered what was really going on behind the scenes at Massage Envy. This is what I discovered:

There are five main factors that are contributing to the success of the franchises:

1. Convenience: They are everywhere.

2. Cost: It is slightly cheaper.

3. National Brand: Each location is nearly identical, except for square footage. People know who they are and what to expect.

4. The One-Year Contract: You will sign up for it because they are right—Being on a consistent (at least once a month) rub down schedule will be more effective in maintaining your health than waiting until you are stiff as road kill with rigamortis.

5. The average hourly rate: of a LMT at Massage Envy:  $15.49 per hour. It has been reported that the average tip is about eight dollars. Some say, “This is slave labor.”

At the time, I was making the same hourly wage as an assistant manager in a corporate retail store. I worked hard, I worked a lot—but I didn’t consider it slave labor. It must be taken into account that Massage Envy employees are employed as independent contractors (when I was an independent contractor, I owed much more in taxes at the end of the year and didn’t get anything back), and they only get ten minutes of down-time between clients. It is said that therapists have flexibility in choosing how many hours they want to work. Because the employees are only making $15 per massage (plus tip), many are forced to work many more hours than what is healthy for the body just to make enough money to survive.

About a year later a few more “Massage Envy” signs had popped up. There were now three within a thirty mile radius. I was on my way to Bodycare. When I pulled to open the door I noticed the lights were off. The door was locked. The inside was gutted. I was shocked! A little scrap of paper was taped to outside of the door: We thank you for your business, but Bodycare has decided to close its doors. I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated because I was so attached to this place. Now where was I supposed to go? Every other place (that hadn’t shut down) was booked. If I couldn’t get a massage that night, I was going to die.

I thought about Massage Envy—they were probably the reason all my favorite mom-and-pop massage places were going out of business! But I really, really wanted/needed a massage. I had been forced to shop at Wal-Mart, now I felt as if I had no choice but to go to Massage Envy.

So I drove over, walked in and booked my forty-five dollar introductory massage. I didn’t feel good about it. The massage was okay. I didn’t feel like the therapist’s heart was into it. I was going to leave without signing the contract—but I was pre-menstrual, vulnerable and feeling like I “owed it to myself” to get at least one massage a month—so I signed the contract.

Photo: lintmachine

The next day I was pissed. I had sold-out.

I called Massage Envy and told them I was moving to Boulder  so I would have to cancel my contract in a few months.  At the time, I didn’t realize there were 900 locations in nearly every city and that I would need to give proof that I was living at least 25 miles away from a Massage Envy to cancel my contract. Darn, I was just going to have to get a massage every month.

Massage Envy gets a bad rapping online. But I have met many people who say they enjoy working there despite the lower wages. They enjoy the steady employment and benefits. Even though the first massage I had there was mediocre, two of the best massages I have ever had in my life were from therapists at the Boulder, Colorado location.

Would you sell your soul to Massage Envy?


Tara DeAngelis used to teach yoga. She has learned, and continues to learn from wonderful teachers but doesn’t feel like name-dropping. For now, she is focusing on other things like trying not to make plans and throwing paint on canvas. While she is not editing your submissions for elephant journal, you might find her writing in a Boulder cafe or working or exercising or satiating herself in silly shenanigans. You might even see her leading a skipping parade. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and/or the Examiner.

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