BACKRUB SHOPS FILLING A KNEAD

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The Great American Backrub wants to spread some relief around the U.S.

Six months after opening its first outlet in Manhattan offering quickie massages for $7.95 each, the Great American Backrub has been so successful it's now plotting national franchising.

"We're catching the mood of America by providing relief from the No. 1 problem of 1990s-life stress," said Steven Thompson, exec VP-franchising.

Stressed-out customers are forming lines at lunch hour and after work at the company's two outlets, where they receive 81/2 minutes of "chair massage" from professionals who concentrate on necks, shoulders and backs.

Great American Backrub hopes to touch a nerve with Americans tired of the high-pressure '80s routine of work, diet, fitness and self-discipline.

It's not alone; retailers like the Sharper Image have expanded inventories of high-end massage products, and Panasonic Co. reports sales of the electronic $1,200 Shiatsu Massage Lounger chair grew 20% last year. Panasonic is stepping up advertising with a 2-minute direct response TV commercial airing in local markets, via Marshall Jaccoma Mitchell, New York.

But Great American Backrub wants to make getting a massage accessible to all. A third outlet is slated to open in New York, and plans are being made to franchise the concept nationally this spring.

The company is the brainchild of entrepreneur Bill Zanker, 39, who founded the Learning Annex education and self-improvement chain in the 1980s. A backrub aficionado himself, company President Mr. Zanker opened the first Great American Backrub on Manhattan's Upper East Side in October to heavy publicity, and business boomed immediately.

Advertising has consisted of signs in stores and printed material available free in newspaper-style dispensers. Also, massages take place in the storefront's windows, making weary passers-by perk up and take notice.

"Bill realized this was part of a much bigger thing-that people who don't have the time or the money for an all-out massage could really benefit from a lower-cost version of the same thing. It's an affordable luxury, which is what people want; it's what they're after," Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Thompson, 33, was senior VP-franchising for SuperCuts, the San Francisco-based quickie haircut chain, when he left, along with former SuperCuts Chief Operations Officer Terry Murray, 42, to help launch the new company. Mr. Murray is Great American Backrub's ceo.

With the help of those two, who helped SuperCuts grow into a 900-store operation, Mr. Zanker, clearly hopes to mirror that success by offering low-cost, high-volume services in a category where they average $50 an hour and usually can be bought only in 60-minute increments.

They hope to open the first Great American Backrub franchised outlets this spring.

Plans are also in the works to offer Great American Backrub's low-cost services inside General Nutrition Corp.'s GNC Centers in shopping malls, Mr. Thompson said.

The company has not yet decided whether to name an ad agency.

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