Q&A With John C. Migliaccio

photo of John C. MigliaccioJohn C. Migliaccio,Owner and president,Pool & Spa Place, Cranbury, N.J.

John and Denise Migliaccio are the owners of a successful retail store in Cranbury, a city in the middle of the Garden State not far from Princeton. In addition to retail, the shop builds pools and services both pools and spas.

How did 2010 compare with 2009?

This past year was as good as 2009, but things were a little muddy. What I mean by that is we had a lot of clients that were coming in and saying, "How about if I don't open my pool this year?" I didn't know what to say. I told them it'd end up costing them more money later on, then had them take a took a close look at what it would cost to open. The expense is already done, and not to use it would be like owning an air conditioner and not turning it on, meanwhile you're sweating. If you open it, it's going to cost you $300, and if you don't open it, it's going to cost you more the following year, so I don't see why you wouldn't open it. That was scary.

The biggest problem I see is that people who've been our clients for years are now downsizing. They're selling their homes and moving into condominiums and 55-and-older complexes. They're selling their homes for whatever they can get. I had a guy who tried to sell his house for a year, and he just kept lowering it and lowering it and lowering it, and the person who bought it doesn't want me for service or retail. They're going to try to buy online, and those people are dangerous. When people buy online and they don't know what they're doing, they're always dangerous. They don't understand what can happen when you mix different chlorines together. When we sell them something, we'll go out and put it in their automobile: "Listen, I'm going to put this one on this side and this one over here. Make sure they don't mix!" So professionals are really needed.

But you'll always get the guy who says, "I can buy that cheaper online." OK. But you won't know what to do with it when you get it.

Do you have similar problems with customers using mass merchants?

They might sell something in bulk, but that's about it. They're not going to be testing water. Leslie's came in here, and they do a great job with advertising. But I usually get that customer to come to my store after they've been to a competitor's store and had a bad experience. They'll always end up coming back to the Pool & Spa Place, and they'll never leave.

The intelligent client knows if I'm 10 or 20 percent more, I'm worth it, just for giving that personal touch. It reminds me of a bartender. If he remembers what I drink all the time, he gets a bigger tip. It makes you feel at home, you know? "Hello! How are you, Mr. Migliaccio?" In fact, the guy cleaning the windows here today said, "Hi, Mr. John. How are you?" I looked at him and said, "Fine. And how are you?" and we had a five-minute conversation, and now he's going to clean my windows at home, too. If he hadn't given me that personal attention I don't know that I would have given him the time.

Or my dry cleaners. I've been going there for 30 years. She made me a cake for my birthday! I didn't realize she knew it was my birthday. That really means a lot. Then she says, "John, this is my mother's cake dish. I really need it back." But she made me a crumb cake and I will never forget that. Never! And did I not bring that back, and, like my mother taught me, with something in it? Now, if you ask me what she charges for a shirt? It's immaterial because I know she's not hurting me; I've been going there forever. If you go into a strange place, they won't treat you well and you'll find yourself asking, "How much is this? How much is that?" Because you don't have that trust.

How have chemical sales been?

There are customers that have told me I'm too far away, and that they stopped at another pool store and said, "I didn't believe a word he said, so I wanted to come here and see what you guys said." Then, "I knew that guy didn't know what he was talking about! I'm just going to have to keep coming here. You're worth the trip." And we sell that, because we are worth the trip.

A woman was in yesterday and she was a little bit upset that things weren't going well with her water. We called her to see how she's doing. That's a little personal touch. "Oh, it worked out fine," she said. "Thank you so much for calling!" And what did that cost us? Nothing. It shows that you care, and if you don't care, people know that too.

I had a client come in the other day to get a replacement liner for a pool I built for her 15 years ago. We went through 72 different colors — can you imagine! — and when we were done she kissed me! We went through all of this and picked out the colors and she really enjoyed it, and she felt compelled to give me a kiss! I mean, I was a little bit shocked. I don't go around kissing people. A few people were in the store and I said, "You see? It's not always about money."

Are there any other product lines that have sold particularly well lately?

We have sports memorabilia. The Yankees float, the Yankees ice box, the Yankees benches. The Mets, the Phillies. All that stuff has been very strong the last couple of years. Then people would come in: "Can you get us Red Sox?" And we all just looked at them: Red Sox? We're Yankees people here!" So we had fun with it. When they came in to pick it up we said, "Please get it out of here!"

All your answers come back to customer service.

That's what it's all about. Also, getting our name out in the field so people know where the stuff came from. We put our logo on our filters, on our skimmer plates. As a matter of fact I have them imbedded; you can't take them off.

Another thing I've noticed is that it's important to keep all my trucks consistent and looking good. I had a guy come in here the other day who had moved from Texas — I hired him — and he said he was looking for a good job. "I saw your trucks, and they're always clean and well organized and look good. This is a place I want to work." I thought maybe he'd seen my ad, but nope. It was the polished trucks. That made me feel good. So I told the guys, "Make sure to keep those trucks clean!"

Speaking of hiring, how's the labor pool there?

Good people are hard to come by, I'll tell you that. I was hiring for an office manager. I put an ad on Craigslist and within 24 hours I had 17 resumes. Seven people came in, and they were all mediocre, and probably could have done the job, but not one of them was that shining star that I look for. Then I waited another two weeks, did another ad, and ended up finally finding a good one. So, there are a lot of people looking, but not everybody wants to work. They want to get paid, though. But there were two people out of 30 that came and wanted good jobs and to make careers here, and those are the people I hired.

I had a guy come in and apply for the accounting manager's job. He told me he didn't do his own taxes because one year he made a $500 mistake. And he told me that! I looked at him and said, "Well, this interview is over with." Bizarre.

Do you think there can be a rebound in the hot tub market if the housing market stays flat?

I want to say yes. Right now it's difficult for anyone to get financing. They're telling me I'm too far extended, meaning I own too much. It used to be the other way around. "Hey, John. You've got a lot of collateral. You can have whatever you want." That's gone. So, the key to the situation is to free up some money so that people can get loans instead of using their credit cards. That is the biggest problem — banks are scared to death to do anything and it's killing everybody.

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