Automatic pool cleaners help a pool retailer's bottom line

Scott Webb Headshot

Poolhose 0410One of the bright spots amidst the recent industry struggles has been the sales of automatic pool cleaners (APCs), which continue to show strength. The main reason is obvious - the APC is a labor-saving device that many pool owners can afford. It reduces the amount of time and effort one has to commit to cleaning a pool, and the desire to work less has always been a powerful incentive for consumers.

At the same time, it comes to market at a wide variance of price points, compatible with any pool, from Intex inflatables on up.

From a retailer's perspective, beyond the simple profits APCs provide, there is a deeper motivation to sell them, and that is the understanding that the product improves overall customer experience. Homeowners tend to be more satisfied with their pools if they're clean and don't require arduous effort to keep them that way.

For these reasons and others, APCs have continued to sell despite tighter pool spending in the last year.

"They've held up pretty well in the recession," says Pat O'Keefe, owner, EZ Test Pool Supply, Plaistow, N.H. "Partly because you're selling the ease and convenience of the cleaner - they're reliable, and they allow you to spend more time enjoying your pool and less time cleaning it."

Steve Bishop, owner of Pools & Spas A Go-Go, Berkley, Mich., saw a drop in sales last year, but points to other factors besides the economy.

"We were selling more and more up to this past year. But I think it was not so much the recession as the fact that we just had horrendous weather last year. It may have been the worst summer we've ever had in the Detroit area. I know that one month was the coldest on record. That hurt more than the recession."

At the same time, he says, for the less expensive units he carries, sales stayed the same or even increased a little bit.

"Our high-end unit, which is about $1,400 retail, did not sell very well. But then we brought in a less expensive unit that sells for about $799 and that sold really well.

"That one sold well probably because of the price point, but I think our sales on the whole were down for us because foot traffic was down due to the weather.

"I believe a lot of these people are buying APCs for the first time, and I think the magic number is $1,000. Under $1,000, they feel they can afford it better. When you're even at $1,099 you run into some trouble, because you've broken that $1,000 barrier."

The Silent Salesman

Price point is clearly important in moving APCs, as is the competence of the sales staff. But no matter how well trained the staff, the words of a salesperson cannot come close to the impact of a visual demonstration. Customers are naturally suspicious of a seller's claims, but they give immediate credence to the evidence of their own eyes.

"That's the only way to sell this product," says O'Keefe. "Well, I'll put it this way: It'll sell on its own, but it sells tremendously when you take the extra step and show it working.

"We have about five of them sitting there at the counter, and the customer says 'What's that?' and we say, 'Do you have a second to take a look at this product in action? Because you really do need to see it working.'

"We take them over to the fish tank, where we have one available for demo, and we drop some sand in, and they watch it vacuum that sand up, and they say, 'That's incredible.'"

In The Package

In addition to selling APCs by demo, O'Keefe packages suction-powered pool cleaners with the sale of his aboveground pools. Their low cost (his retails for $129) makes them viable components in an overall pool deal, unlike the large, fully automatic pool cleaners that would almost double the price of some aboveground packages. He feels it pays off by enhancing the overall quality of their experience with the pool.

"It just makes it easier for them," he says. "They don't have to get out their hoses and everything, just use the little robotic cleaner. These units hook up to the suction side of the circulation system the same way a regular pool vacuum would, but the suction actually drives the unit around the pool."

Both O'Keefe and Bishop also sell battery-operated units, which Bishop says work particularly well for customers with manual vacuums. "It's kind of a pain to get a manual vacuum set up and fill the hose with water," he says, "where with these things they can just pop them on the end of the pole and spot clean the pool.

"We sell one of those small units to the little Intex inflatable pool owners because they don't have a filter powerful enough to vacuum.

"People will come in after they've purchased an Intex pool somewhere else and they'll want to get a vacuum setup and we'll tell them, 'Well, your filter's not large enough to use a vacuum, you need to either buy a real filter system or buy one of these units which will clean it very well."

It's all about making the pool easier, O'Keefe says.

"You're selling ease and convenience. If the pool becomes a project, that's a problem."

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

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