Selling winter pool covers

Oor 410 Aq 0710Winter pool covers aren't usually the main topic of conversation in July with the summer season in full swing, but for those who make and sell them, it's never a bad time to discuss that essential off-season pool lid. AQUA spoke with a few experts in the category to get a better understanding of how winter covers are being marketed, what dealers are looking for and any manufacturing advancements.

What are successful dealers doing to sell winter covers?

T.J. Moreland, business development manager, Merlin Industries: The more successful guys are promoting through mailers earlier on in the season to try to take advantage of times when they might be slow on the service side, a July or August sale so they can try to put those covers on when the service techs don't have a lot of work. That way it doesn't bog them down when they are trying to do their pool closings.

Also, they are giving customers incentives. We offer a sales program where if they combine a liner and cover sale together in a bundle, we give a discount on the cover. A lot of dealers will throw in installation if customers purchase by a certain date or they might throw in a pool closing with a safety cover purchase. Bundling some of their services and offering those at free or reduced rates will help make the cover sale more palatable.

Kevin Shea, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Vyn-All: There are a couple of different approaches. A lot of the new pools are sold with a cover system as opposed to a safety cover that is installed after it's all said and done. That usually gets folded in and some guys will use that as a mechanism to collect their final payment.

I know one particular dealer who seems to find that his bad debt in the fall has all but gone away since he went to that approach. Essentially, what he's doing is selling the need and putting the responsibility on the prospective pool owner: "I won't sell you a pool unless it includes a safety cover." That's just one of the most responsible positions you can put yourself in when you own a swimming pool. He comes along at the end of the year to install it and if there's any money due, he's got a bit of leverage there.

I like his approach because he's educating the customer right up front. We do have customers who say they don't want to go down that road because it can cast a little bit of a negative connotation over the pool, but you can say that about cars, about a lot of things in our lives. He's promoting safety, he's educating them, yet he's finding a benefit from it, and it's helping him clean up his receivables at the end of the year. It's kind of a winning combination.

Frank Patel, vice president, The Cover Company: I don't think there will be a problem selling this year because of the winter damage that occurred. Most people are coming back to have them fixed and some of them are beyond fixing, which means they need new ones. A lot of our dealers are also selling safety as a factor.

Is the market favoring new installs or replacements?

LeeAnn Donaton-Pesta, president and CEO, LOOP-LOC, Ltd.: Since pool sales were off last season, a lot of the successful dealers were focusing their marketing on swimming pool products such as liners, safety covers, salt systems and heat pumps. In terms of winter pool covers, many dealers focused on and advertised to their existing consumers to try and capture the replacement market - covers that have been in the marketplace for many years and are in need of replacement.

Moreland: I think a lot of this year has shown us it's a lot of remakes, so it's people replacing existing safety covers, and maybe that's due to new technology on the market, or maybe it's just time, or it might have been damaged. We had a pretty harsh winter, so remakes this year have been pretty phenomenal. I would say more of the sales are for people upgrading from a water bag cover going to the safety and security of the safe cover.

What new product advancements have come out?

Donaton-Pesta: LOOP-LOC introduced the Ultra-Loc II this year, and it's a patented 100-percent polypropylene solid material that offers unmatched strength and durability, but is still lightweight. We believe that nothing bounces back better. It's also eco-friendly because the material is 100-percent recyclable.

Moreland: We came out with a product called SmartMesh about six years ago because we wanted to come up with a hybrid that had all the pros of mesh and solid covers and none of the cons. We've seen a huge increase in our sales of our SmartMesh product. In fact, it's our best seller. It's taken away from both standard mesh sales, as well as solid sales.

Shea: There have been some new fabrics that have been introduced into the market, different types of weaves that have much better sun-blocking capabilities. Our original first-generation mesh safety cover had a UV-blocking percentage anywhere from 91 to 94 percent. Today, there are new weaves that range from 98 to 99 percent sun blocking. We also introduced a lightweight solid that is about 41 percent lighter than before. So it offers the convenience of 100-percent sun blocking, but it's a lot easier for the installers to handle and get on and off the pool, and it's stronger.

Which covers tend to be more popular, solid or mesh?

Shea: When you migrate up the Eastern Seaboard we've found that the majority of the covers down in the Carolinas and the southern half of the country tend to gravitate to solid covers because they are more concerned about blocking UV because it's more intense there for a longer period of time. As we get further north, you have snow, and you find that the convenience of a mesh cover tends to be a more commonly used solution.

Moreland: Solid was less popular in the south and little bit more popular in the northeast, but now we've seen that our SmartMesh product takes over sales in all markets. A lot of gunite builders with white plaster pools wanted a solid cover on there so there would be no staining. When they try a SmartMesh, they'll tend to switch over because it's a lot easier to maintain. It's a better look, easier for the homeowner and easier on their techs from a getting-on-and-off standpoint.

Patel: Our product seems to be gaining more and more ground. The Super Dense Mesh wasn't selling well before, but now people are asking for it more and more as they realize the pool opens up clean. But I would say the bulk of the order is still conventional green mesh.

How has technology evolved with winter covers?

Moreland: We're amazed with how many dealers don't take advantage of our measuring software. But technology seems tough to get dealers to embrace. I think some people think it's going to take more time doing something like that or they don't want to purchase or put the technology in the hands of guys in the field. Some guys just aren't technical guys while others embrace it.

E-mail, texting and things like that have certainly become a part of our everyday business, and we're looking for ways to incorporate that and make it easier for the dealer. Our technology advancements have come from trying to make it easier to do business. We talk about our measuring technology at our open house, take it on road to shows and to distributor open houses. It's not until it gets in someone's hands that they really see the advantage of it. I think it just comes down to the person and whether they embrace technology or not.

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

Safety Sells

Many manufacturers agree that safety is the No. 1 benefit of the winter pool cover, but they say some dealers don't want to push that sale tactic for fear of scaring the customer away.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," says Kevin Shea, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Vyn-All, "because the more you emphasize safety - which you should - a prospective buyer could perceive that as maybe a liability they don't necessarily need in their backyard. That's the fine line that retailers are faced with."

Rod Willard, general manager of Teddy Bear Pools in Chicopee, Mass., finds that many of his customers are already willing to invest in a winter pool cover because of its safety benefits.

"It seems every customer we are doing a pool for prefers not to have a standard water- bag cover. They want the safety cover," he says. "One of the main reasons is the safety factor. Any time the clients' kids go into the backyard with a safety cover on there, they're definitely safe, as opposed to a winter cover with bags. I don't think telling them that is a fear factor or fear tactic of any kind. It's stating the truth."

-J.D.

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