Vinyl Market Stretches Across Borders

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In today's global economy, business owners are no longer restricted by city, state or even international borders. Through the use of telephones, fax machines, the Internet and friendly trade agreements, goods can be bought and sold to and from almost anywhere in the world.

Many North American vinyl-liner manufacturers and distributors are seizing these opportunities by expanding their businesses internationally, especially into Europe.

Although it may take some time on the part of manufacturers and distributors to break into these markets, vinylliner pools are becoming more popular in other countries. Not only will this international marketplace affect design choices for vinyl-liner patterns that will be introduced in the future, it could mean a significant increase in production.

AQUA spoke to several vinyl-liner and vinyl-lined pool manufacturers and distributors about selling products in the international market, all of whom agreed the business is a growing and lucrative one.

A Step Behind

"Vinyl-liner pools are a small but growing part of Europe's market," says Mark Delaney, director of market development for Haverhill, Mass.-based Vernon Plastics. "I would say it's somewhere around 20 to 25 percent of the market, but growing."

For many years, European homeowners simply were not aware of vinyl-lined pools.

According to Tim Saxer, director of sales for swimming pool manufacturer Fort Wayne Pools, Fort Wayne, Ind., the rest of the world doesn't have as many liner manufacturers as the United States does.

"If you look in the United States, there are probably 50 different people that fabricate liners. There are really like 20 in all the rest of the world. So their choices are limited," he says.

Todd Mulvaney, president of Clackamas, Ore.-based Plastimayd Corp., says dealers in other countries oftentimes limit the number of patterns they offer a homeowner.

"They'll offer a smaller selection, really one or two different patterns," says Mulvaney. "Once they've established that, they're able to keep their homeowners within those patterns.

"Homeowners aren't as educated in the number of patterns that are available out there, and that's good and bad news. It saves the dealer a bunch of time and energy in the decision-making process, and the homeowner still is satisfied in the end because most patterns look pretty good when they get in the pool. The disadvantage to that is it could look better."

Desire or Marketing?

But is it strategic American marketing or the desire of homeowners abroad that is causing the steady rise of installed vinyl-lined pools and retrofitted patterns in other countries?

Mulvaney, whose company has done business overseas for approximately 12 years, doesn't believe the rise of the vinyl-liner pool or pattern retrofitting has to do with American marketing. He believes it's pure demand for the product.

"Vinyl has a stronger ability to dominate an international market, especially if you're going to be shipping products overseas," he says. "To ship a fiberglass shell on a boat or on a plane is not exactly feasible. So the fact that you can package it up, put it on a couple pallets and ship it over to someplace . . . They unload those pallets, bolt it together and are able to install the full kit, all from our four pallets worth of stuff.

"So if I'm an international buyer, I'm looking for something that I can buy as a package, have it show up on the job and install it. From a dealer standpoint, that's what makes it work for me."

A Detailed Design

Not every pattern and design produced in America is going to be popular in another country, however. Many of the distributors and manufacturers AQUA spoke with had one word for the European market — conservative.

"We find that the European market tends to be more traditionally oriented," says Steve Leavitt, technical design manager for Victory Plastics. "Stuff that we might have had that was popular in the United States 10 or 15 years ago is popular now in the European market.

"The American market is a little more open to brighter colors and .ashier designs. I'd say the American market tends to be a little more cutting edge, which is a little surprising when you think of all the fashion statements coming out of Europe ahead of the American curve — it's opposite with pools. They seem to be a couple steps behind what's fashionable in America."

Saxer, whose company has delivered products to Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, concurs: "Our patterns are perceived as too wild; too unique and colorful.

They tend to want plain, simpler liner designs. Blues and whites primarily."

Christian Audier, an international sales manager living in Paris for Latham, N.Y.-based Imperial Pools, says, "If you go back to the ancient style, people like to have a bath with big and small Roman tile mosaics all around the side of the pool, with the bottom in white or blue.

"That's the one we've been selling quite often — the popular one we've been doing overseas."

Supporting Unsupported

It is important to note that Canadians lean toward a thicker-gauge unsupported film, meaning the vinyl sheet does not have a scrim located in it.

Shea describes a scrim: "Basically, picture a screen-type weave that is laminated between two sheets of vinyl. That weave gives the material durability and strength and also makes the material dimensionally stable.

"In certain climates and environments, the vinyl tends to absorb water and grow, so when you have a scrim in it, it doesn't allow the material to gain size in width or length."

Shea says unsupported liners are what Americans most frequently use in in-ground and above-ground pools.

The European market, on the other hand, leans toward a thicker supported liner. This could be because many Europeans leave the liner on a pool for up to 15 years, whereas Americans often change liners every five to six years. However, that could be changing, Delaney says.

"Supported liners are a very popular pool product in the European market," Delaney says. "Unsupported pool material like they use in the United States is just catching on."

Breaking It Down

Although materials and designs differ somewhat internationally from those found in North America, manufacturers and distributors are optimistic about their involvement overseas.

"I believe that as other countries begin to catch on a little more, I'm sure the designs will begin to go the same way as the United States market," says Dave Morse, director of operations and technology for Victory Plastics. "They'll tend to maybe be a little bolder in their color choices. They're really in the infancy of their design ability, and I think as it catches on you'll see people open up a little more to a broader scope of design ideas and such."

We can't force our American tastes on the Europeans. We can't change their culture, and I have no desire to change their culture," says Charlie Vennard, senior vice president for Imperial Pools. "We're just trying to expose them to more patterns that might catch their eye.

"They have beliefs and desires and tastes that they've grown up with and they aren't necessarily the same as Americans'. And when it comes to vinyl liner choices, the same holds. But because of what we're doing with regards to patterns and four-color and depth and the fact that they're starting to look more realistic, Europeans are starting to come to our side, and the sales are increasing."

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