At The Crossroads

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In my line of work, I meet a lot of pool and spa retailers. (As a matter of fact, as of this writing, I've been on the road for seven straight weeks doing just that.) In developing and growing the Pool Retailers Cooperative (read more about that in the sidebar), I wanted to get a better sense of where retailers were struggling and how our organization could help. I learned a lot from everyone I spoke to, but one thing in particular stood out above the rest. No matter where they're from, retailers are frustrated by the Internet.

I don't blame them, either. Over the past decade in particular, the Internet has drastically changed the customer mindset. Consumers want what they want when they want it — and at the lowest price they can get it, too. As one retailer told me recently, it isn't the notion of losing business to the Internet that's so exasperating, "It's the aggravation and challenge of the customers who are constantly on you about Internet pricing," he said. I'm sure many of you can relate.

The Internet hasn't just changed how we shop, but also the way we feel about shopping. Customers nowadays have an expectation that it's your job to cater to them no matter what. They're also more likely to challenge your experience in ways they didn't before. Whether you're new to the industry or a veteran with 50 years and 50,000 water tests under your belt, customers are coming in, getting water tests done and then trying to tell you they know better because "Google said so."

All of this is super frustrating, but now is the time to address it. If we truly want to change the state of our industry, if we want record growth and sales, we need to change the way we approach business. And that means embracing the Internet.

According to the results of this year's SOI Retailers Survey, 75 percent of you don't retail online. When asked why not, AQUA saw a gamut of responses from "we don't have the manpower" to "there's too much competition."

And you know what? You're right. For small businesses everywhere, it's a lot of work to manage in-store sales (not to mention everything that goes with it, from staffing to accounting and marketing) and selling online as well. However, having the option to buy online is the new standard for customers across just about all product categories, and it's time for us to follow suit. Whether a customer wants their pool products sent to their doorstep, delivered by someone at your store or available for pickup on the drive home, it's time pool and spa retailers personalized the purchasing process.

Of course, retailers are also frustrated by people turning to Amazon and other sites to buy everything from chemicals to pumps — not to mention the burn you feel when getting a call about installing the pump they didn't buy from you.

According to AQUA's survey, 56 percent of retailers refuse to service a product purchased online. While that's certainly your prerogative if you'd like, I have to respectfully disagree. It's time to embrace the online purchasing movement and use it to our benefit.

You might think I'm crazy — but think about it from the long view. I'm not as concerned about you losing a sale as I am about you losing a customer. What is a customer that's been with you for 10 years worth to you and your business? How about five years? Quite a lot, if you think about it.

No matter how they wound up in your hands, an encounter with a customer is an opportunity for a long-term relationship. You might go in the backyard to install a pump you didn't sell, but when you do, you can take note of the automatic pool cleaner that needs replacing or the state of their vinyl liner. You might notice some rusty lawn furniture and take the chance to tell him about the new line of backyard décor you have in your showroom.

Pool and spa retailers can't fight the Internet anymore. If you do, you'll lose — it's that simple. But if we have to make it work for us, the question is, "How?" One way is by pooling our resources together. With greater purchasing power, retailers can win better rates. We can market our businesses better. We can create a level of professionalism and legitimacy that can't be ignored. We can promote ourselves as friendly neighborhood businesses not unlike the local pharmacy or burger joint.

The bottom line: Retailers need to welcome change. By trying new strategies and rethinking the way we approach business, we'll see some real results.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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