Stepping Up

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You may have heard the sales expression, "it's such a great product that it sells itself." You may have heard it from someone who wasn't very good at sales.

Manufacturers have to be creative — and good at it — when making spa steps and surrounds that will entice consumers to spend more of their hard-earned money on the total luxury environment. Similarly, their innovation and expertise can make the sale of those accessories just as enticing to dealers, thereby maximizing a real profit opportunity for both sectors.

For years, manufacturers' help for dealers in terms of selling these accessories has largely been limited to traditional practices including incentives, modest discounts and advertising brochures — not to mention all-important support in the event of problems with an order. And many dealers are satisfied with this.

But based on our conversations with a number of manufacturers and dealers, there's some unrealized potential in this area. Whether due to logistical or financial issues, the fact that accessories are still a relatively small part of the spa market, or a reluctance to change the way that things have always been done, there's room for improvement. And there are signs that it's happening.

Breaking New Ground

One company unveiled a new way to merchandise its spa accessories at the November 2004 AQUA Show. Spokane, Wa.-based Leisure Concepts' new line of color packaging, POP displays and accompanying signage represents a manufacturer's effort to make its product as attractive as possible to consumers.

"Consumers sometimes don't even know these accessories are for sale," says Debbie Olson, Leisure Concepts' sales and marketing director. "Dealers make a good profit on accessories, and we need to take advantage of that and support the dealers in a huge way."

The new plan includes four merchandising display units for the company's products and a POP island tower that houses the Durasteps and other company products. "We packaged products in new colored packaging, so all the Durasteps come in single packaging that is four-colored and allows dealers to merchandise them," she says. "And you can now stack the steps on a showroom floor in any number of directions, disassembled, so they're easily carried out."

The new merchandising also includes an individual POP sign for each product. "When someone walks into a showroom," Olson says, "there'll be a four-color POP sign for the consumer to show that it's for sale, along with the benefits and the cost."

It's too early to gauge results, but Olson says the bold move has been well received by Leisure Concepts dealers. "I've had numbers of dealers compliment us on how well it will display as opposed to the past," she says. "We're confident that if they display the items, they will sell."

So is Rob Morrin, general manager at Litehouse Pools, Spas 'N More in Toledo, Ohio. "A lot of times it's not enough to just put the product out there," he says. "You need a creative, attractive box that identifies the product and tells the consumer what the product is for and everything it can do."

According to Morrin, the merchandising plan is fortified with a strong manufacturer-dealer relationship. "They keep it simple," he says. "They make it easy to order, and they're responsive if problems come up."

The Leisure Concepts plan represents a "wonderful, incremental opportunity," says Brian Quint, president of Aqua Quip in Seattle — this despite the fact that the brands Aqua Quip carries aren't particularly heavy in steps and surrounds. "Before, a display would either have steps or not have them," Quint says. "Now, there are attempts by a manufacturer to help provide a display for a dealer that says, 'Hey, look at me!'"

Fitting On All Levels

Essentials, a distributor of spa accessories based in Monrovia, Calif., recently rolled out a new merchandising program for its All Seasons and Woodland product lines that is also designed to build the product's identity in the mind of the consumer. With the new merchandising setup, customers choose the items they want from a wall display, then Essentials drop ships the product. Dealers also have the option of stocking the inventory.

For a modest investment, the program lets dealers display a full range of options without juggling inventory. Each wall display is a set of 8-footwide-by-6-foot-high panels. The All Seasons display includes four sets of steps, gridwork and signage; the Woodland display includes three step modules, all of the Woodland accessory products and signage.

Of course, merchandising programs require careful consideration to ensure they work with the retailer's overall merchandising scheme and fit with branding messages and visual communications.

Olson says Leisure Concepts' new program was designed to fit with the company's overall marketing philosophy. "We just changed all of our packaging to colored packaging," she says. "It matches our company colors, which are yellow and blue to represent sun and water. So anytime anyone sees packaging that's blue and yellow with a daisy, they know it's us.

"This is an important continuation of our identification with dealers and customers. Nike keeps the swoosh for a reason. McDonald's doesn't change the arches. I have graphic designers all the time who want to change our logo, and I tell them no.

"One thing's for sure: There's more to it than giving dealers a good price."

Alan Robbins agrees. The president of California Design Group/Plastic Lumber Co. in Akron, Ohio, says that, "beyond good products and service — and those are a must — we offer a POP display that holds color chips and catalogs. We have a spa accessory marketing packet, with a CD with digital pictures they can put on their own Web site."

In addition to these integrated marketing materials, Robbins's company also offers quantity and early-buy discounts, but he notes that "we're a premium-quality product, so we sometimes don't hit 100 percent of the marketplace. We're too expensive for some."

Dealers welcome merchandising and any other help from manufacturers, even if they sometimes face logistical constraints. "Our supplier works out of Oregon, and we're in New Jersey," says Eric O'Dell, marketing director of All Seasons Pool and Spa in Cherry Hill, N.J. "Their reps come in once a year and meet with us. They're great with support if a problem comes up. That's all we want."

In a perfect world, O'Dell says, "We'd love to have some people come out and give sales seminars. But we understand the logistical and financial problems with that."

Robbins says that as things stand right now, "We don't even have a field sales force for steps and surrounds. The market is too small." But as the market for accessories grows and affords manufacturers the opportunity to expand their resources in this sector, there may be a window for even more personal support and interaction.

Trading Places

Trade shows provide an excellent opportunity for dealers and manufacturers to brainstorm with one another, or even just check to see if more can be done in the relationship. Even a once-a-year connection at an industry event can prove invaluable. Says Olson: "The No. 1 thing dealers can do to help us help them sell more steps and surrounds is to go to the major shows. We go to three major shows a year. We take a staff of eight.

"These shows are crucial for us — not just to display new products and concepts, but it's the best time to connect with current dealers and talk to new dealers."

Whether finances and resources are plentiful or not, many agree that the situation is one of both sides waiting for something to happen.

The dealer waits for the manufacturer to help out because maybe, in some cases, there's a mind-set that "I'm buying from them; I'm their customer." Or manufacturers wait for dealers to make something happen, unaware that the dealer would like a little more help.

The Dealer's Role

Some manufacturers say they're doing all they can — but that the key to a better bottom line will always be the way the dealer handles business.

"There's not a lot of magic to it," says John Olson (no relation to Leisure Concepts' Debbie Olson), president of A & B Accessories in West Fork, Ark. "First, they have to have a great product to sell that represents good value to the consumer, and that's where we come in.

"But what differentiates the top dealers is quality-orientation, facilities that are neat and clean, sales staffs that are well-trained, dealers that are organized in training and delivery programs."

Still, Olson takes the manufacturer's role very seriously. "If a manufacturer has a chronic series of errors, the dealer loses all interest in selling that product and goes somewhere else," he says. "You can't fool with their trust. "A good manufacturer has to give total support to the dealer. And we do participate in their show season. We'll make a special display for a county fair or other event."

There is no set formula for maximizing the help a manufacturer can provide in selling steps and surrounds, he says. It should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

"Do you incentivize or do something else? We offer a healthy discount off the normal price, an incentive to get them to get what they have off the floor and show some new products . . . But even if we give a tremendous incentive, if you have a dealer who isn't on top of his game in terms of overall quality, the product won't sell."

Olson says there has to be some give and take between manufacturer and dealer in the attempt to maximize sales of steps and surrounds. Often, this involves product and what consumers are asking for.

"We deal primarily in wood," he says, "although we're getting more into plastics. But plastic doesn't always lend itself to customization. Special shapes are hard to produce with plastic.

"Still, the successful dealers know that on an ongoing basis, those with a quality-orientation are the ones who are selling the packages. They're the ones who realize the value of selling the whole backyard. It's all about quality."

Quality of communication and understanding helps, too. As the industry has broadened its horizons to go beyond selling just pools and spas, there are signs it's moving beyond a routine buyer-seller relationship between dealer and manufacturer. There needs to be a continued push for more innovation, a stronger collaboration by manufacturers and dealers, more incentives on both sides, and more communication.

And in a constantly shifting marketplace where no potential for a larger profit margin can be left unrealized, it seems that the steps and surrounds segment is stepping up.

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