Playset Potential

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The pool and spa store that adds playsets to its product line faces competition from high-volume price-cutters like Wal-Mart, and in some places, dedicated playset stores.

But it's no head-to-head smackdown. Playsets compete as part of the retailer's backyard dream team β€” that is, a range of products under one roof which, taken together, represent a comfortable, hassle-free lifestyle.

As Kirk Stewart, manager of Defiance Water Recreation, Defiance, Ohio, puts it, "We're into telling a story, as far as the backyard environment is concerned."

And while the play equipment Defiance sells is not the main character in that story, it has an important supporting role.

Broadening Image

Defiance Water Recreation is trying to cultivate a broader image as a backyard specialist. It wants to draw the type of customer that envisions a lifestyle up to and beyond the water's edge, and is looking for a partner to make it happen.

That's where playsets come in. With products that appeal to children and adults alike, Defiance is able to present a more unified picture of a family backyard. It is one of relaxation and entertainment for adults, and also one that keeps kids where most parents want them β€” in view.

In that sense, high-end playsets help retailers compete for the main prize β€” the quality-driven consumer, capable of multiple purchases over time.

Making Playsets Make Cents

Although there are profits to be had, most pool and spa dealers with playsets are not in cutthroat competition with other playset retailers. Mass merchants sell much-cheaper equipment; and while some tight-budget customers can be talked up to a premium system, there aren't many of them.

Most of them aren't likely to push through the door at Defiance Water Recreation in the first place, Stewart says.  "The customers that are going to Wal-Mart to buy things aren't coming here to buy anything.

"Very seldom do we get a customer that buys an aboveground pool at Wal-Mart, and then comes in here. They may come in for one of those small cartridge filters after Wal-Mart has yanked them off their shelves for the new seasonal merchandise, but that's about it."

That's fine. The guy who picks up a cheap playset at Home Depot and builds it next to his garage is not a marketing focus for Defiance. Not the right type, really.

"We don't get a lot of do-it-yourselfers in here," he says. "Even our above-ground customers are the type of people that want you to install the product and take care of it and work with them. And close it and open it next year."

Local Professionals

More-direct competitors for Stewart's play system customers are the dedicated playset dealers 50 miles away in Toledo. These stores sport quality playsets that compare in price and performance to the ones sold at Defiance.

As with other products, the dealership makes the most of the convenience advantage. "We portray ourselves as the local professionals," says Stewart. "If you have a problem, you don't have to go to Toledo and you don't have to wait for them to call you back or to come out. It's part of the overall image."

While this competition for playset customers is a concern for Stewart, it's not a large one. The competition that matters most to the pool and spa retailer is the one for a specific type of backyard-product consumer β€” the one that is more focused on quality and convenience than price.

If playsets can help him win the battle for this segment of the buying public β€” by drawing customers, filling out the product line and enhancing the retailer's reputation as a backyard specialist β€” they've earned their keep.

Catch Their Eye

In order to get the relationship started, a dealer has to get that choice customer in the door. And playsets, with their stately towers and brightly colored awnings, are a powerful lure. Scott Rolenc, owner of Aqua Palace in Council Bluffs, Iowa, puts them up like a flag. And kids whizzing by in their parents' cars along Interstate 80 near Omaha rally to it.

"I'm trying to draw their eye," he says. "And who has the best eyes in the car?"

Aqua Palace has three acres out front, gaily decorated with four full-size playset displays. Rolenc's scheme works like a good double-play combination: bored backseat child to playset display to store.

Of course, a family drawn by a playset doesn't always buy one. But that often works to the dealer's advantage, too. At Defiance Water Recreation, the easy childcare playsets provided make the store a welcome stop for supplies. (In addition to the large playset display out front, Defiance also has a smaller one inside in the middle of the showroom.)

"When the parents are in to get their water tested, their kids just gravitate to that play system," Stewart says. "They love that thing. The parents have a hard time getting them off it, and that's definitely a bonus, because they're saying, 'OK, what do you have here, how much is this thing, tell me about it.' It helps the parents linger."

Just getting these customers in the door makes good things happen, according to Rolenc. "If I can get another 10 percent in the door coming in to look at playsets," he says, "at least make them walk through a showroom full of spas, perhaps pique their interest in them, that's worth it.

"Even if they realize that, 'hey, the above-ground pools we have are too much,' that's OK," Rolenc says. He's thinking long-term. "I've exposed them to us, and they've left with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the place.

They've seen the products we handle, and we've been noticed."

As the kids who wanted to play on the swing sets become teenagers, and the parents make more money, this same family will remember where they saw the product they now desire and perhaps can now afford.

The Right Time

From a retailer's perspective, the early years are the right time in the life cycle of a family to enter into a relationship. That is, upstream of the heavy backyard-buying years.

"I want to drag the first-time home buyer in," Rolenc says. "They've just bought a house, and spas are in the back of their mind, but they're certainly not going to flip for one right now. But you know what. That child who wants that play system is an important starting point. If we can do a good job, now I've developed a customer relationship that can last through his other buying choices."

Joe Privett, president of San Juan Pools & Spas, Bloomington, Ill., sees playset sales feeding his business in the years to come, too.

He's noticed that most of his backyard playset customers do not have a pool or a spa. They have small children. Too small, many of them feel, for a backyard swimming pool. They're worried about safety. But the playground equipment has brought them to the store.

Privett does his best to lay the groundwork for the future by making sure the playset deal goes well. And then when the kids learn to swim, his place is the one their parents know and trust.

The key to this lucrative, long-term relationship with a backyard-conscious customer is keeping in touch, according to Eric Roller, sales manager, Olympia Pools & Spas, Fort Wayne, Ind.

After the sale of a high-end playset has identified a prime customer, Olympia does its best to stay in the front of that customer's mind through a variety of direct-mail pieces. First, he says, "We send them a thank-you letter and ask if we can help with anything else, perhaps with playset add-ons or patio furniture or grills."

After that, "They go straight onto our mailing, newsletter, and e-mail list for our customer base. They're invited to our customer appreciation days or any activity that's going on," Roller adds.

It's impossible to know precisely when that prime customer will be ready to make the next big backyard purchase, but with continued reminders over time from a direct-mail database, Olympia is likely to be the first option.

Muddying The Water

Sales and marketing advantages notwithstanding, the decision to add playsets to the team should be tempered with a realistic view of the costs to a retailer. First, playsets must help complete your picture, not muddy your image. For Privett, that's always the issue when adding a new product line.

"That's something we think about a lot," he says, "the diversity in our products. A retailer has to look at that breadth of items and ask, "Are we really good at selling any of them.'"

Or, put another way, if you add another product line β€” such as playsets β€” will you still be as good at selling your bread-and-butter lines? That is the question confronting a playset-inclined retailer.

Rolenc has given the issue a lot of thought. "Most people don't come into a pool and spa store ready to buy," he says. "They come in to investigate. Right now we deal with skeptics coming through the door, and if we look like a barbecue store or a playset store, am I going to have as much credibility as the guy down the road who does just spas?"

For Rolenc it's something of an open question, but his awareness of the issue helps. "Being a specialty business, we don't want to lose our image with the customer of what we really do. So we keep our advertising separate, and we try not to mix our message."

That's hardest during the summer months, when playsets and pools are selling at the same time. Customers are coming in for both products, and managing the situation can be tricky.

"Playground equipment tends to be popular and sold at the same time as swimming pools and most everything else," says Privett. "That's been our biggest struggle β€” devoting enough time and energy to those products when we're in the heat of our big summer season where most of our dollar volume comes from."

And play system customers take valuable time, says Rolenc. "Any time you're dealing with something that's high end, it's not like Menards or Home Depot. They don't just come in, pick up what they want, lay down the cash and leave."

Rolenc's pools and spas have a better margin than his playsets, so during the busy selling season, when the choice is between a customer looking at a spa and one looking at playsets, the most profitable use of time is the spa customer.

Timewise, notes Dave Tassin, coowner/sales manager, Sabine Pools & Spas, Lafayette, La., playsets work very well during the Christmas season, when parents are thinking about a big surprise for the kids, and "people aren't necessarily thinking about a swimming pool that time of year."

After time management, he adds, perhaps the biggest key to profitability in playsets is careful management of freight and inventory.

"Freight can be pretty expensive. If you buy a big order, it can help your profit. But if you have to freight something in each time someone buys something because you don't have this piece or that piece, that can eat into your profits."

No Added Expense

Of course, that's what it always comes down to in business. For the retailer considering playsets, ultimately, the equation has to balance in the black. After the costs are added up, there has to be enough left over to make it worthwhile.

With a ready-made sales staff and clientele, and ample room for display, the decision was fairly straightforward for Tassin. "We felt we could bring playsets in without too much more investment than inventory," he says.

By widening the store's appeal within its core clientele, it's afforded more opportunities to build a relationship with backyard-conscious customers.

And that's what makes a specialty retailer tick. When faced with the unknown, such as the acquisition of expensive products for the backyard, most people will fall back on the familiar. A good way to establish that all-important relationship is with the purchase of a playset.

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