Looking Ahead

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As the swimming season winds down in most parts of the country, you might not be thinking yet about how to market above-ground pools in 2005. Then again, perhaps you started preparing next year's marketing plan six months ago or more. Whether you're just starting to think about it or considering modifications based on this season's results, the following collection of sample 2005 above-ground pool marketing plans should offer at least a few tips for you.

SAMPLE PLAN 1 : The Early Bird Special

GOAL: Close at least 75 percent of above-ground pool sales before winter ends.

TOOLS: on-hold messages β€’ home shows β€’ winter events 

Keys To Success: The end of winter varies greatly, but even in temperate climates, above-ground pools are used most when school's out for the summer. But that's not the best time to buy one, so many dealers promote aboveground pool sales in January and February.

From a marketing perspective, one reason to push early sales is to neutralize weather as a factor. If you wait until people want to swim to begin marketing aboveground pools, the season will be over by the time their new pool is up and running.

At Colley's Pools & Spas in Hamburg, N.Y., Kathy Dennehy likes to have nearly all of the season's above-ground pool installations contracted before the snow melts. So starting in January, Colley's on-hold messages suggest beating the above-ground pool rush. The message content may include creative packages or limited-time discounts that encourage pre-season purchases.

Throughout the winter months, Colley's also uses its on-hold messages and other forms of advertising to promote the home shows in which it participates. In fact, homeshow time, which in Colley's area is early February, is when the company is most aggressive with its newspaper advertising.

Winter home shows are a great way to line up early above-ground pool sales. You can also host events in your store. Have an open house, or a Christmas-in-July-in-reverse event. That is, when the weather outside is frightful, remind people how delightful having their own backyard pool would be in July.

SAMPLE PLAN 2 : Slow But Steady Wins

GOAL: Increase unit sales by at least 3 percent.

TOOLS: media mix β€’ convert splasher-pool customers β€’ display pools Keys to Success: Every year, Pools Plus in Elizabethtown, Ky., strives to increase unit sales by at least 3 percent. In some years it exceeds the mark, but Sarah Lanz, director of marketing and advertising, doesn't recall a time when it fell short. The success formula begins in March with newspaper advertising, showing pools and selling fun. The ads run weekly in two newspapers, one covering the market around each Pools Plus store.

As the swimming season gets closer, Lanz adds cable television spots to the mix. "In our area, we get good coverage and it's not very expensive," Lanz explains. She uses an ad produced by Doughboy, with a Pools Plus tag on the end.

Once summer hits, Pools Plus runs radio ads and sponsors the weather forecast during the morning drive time.

Throughout this media mix, Lanz uses different content based on the weather. "When it's still cold out, we promise that it will get hot, and when it does, they'll want a pool," she explains.

Another way to gradually increase unit sales is to target owners of smaller, inflatable pools. Patrick Walsh, president of The Above Ground Pool Company in San Antonio, Texas, recently began offering a trade-in deal on splasher pools. If someone brings in a pool that came from a box, Walsh's company will reduce the full retail price of a high-quality pool by the amount paid for the splasher pool.

"I don't really want that pool as a trade-in," Walsh explains, "but people feel like they get something back for what they spent at Target or Wal-Mart." The target audience for this kind of promotion is families who already know how much they like having a backyard pool, but wish they had invested a little more in a filtration system that would actually keep the water clean, taller walls that would hold more water, and other features that better above-ground pools offer.

If you're game to try a splasherpool trade-in, the time to advertise it is about one-third of the way into the swimming season. "You can't do this early because people haven't made the mistake of buying the little pool yet," Walsh says. "Let them have the splasher for a month or so. That's when they'll start wishing for something better."

Once customers are drawn to your store by consistent advertising or special promotions, show them all their options β€” or as many as you can. If possible, create an outdoor pool park with as many different operating pools as will fit without looking crowded. Dress them up with decking, and landscape if possible. If you show pools only seasonally and don't want to create permanent landscape fixtures for them, at least surround them with potted plants that suggest to shoppers what the installed pool can look like.

If you don't have the real estate for showing all of your available pool sizes, shapes and patterns (both wall and liner), then create an attractive photo gallery. Spring for poster-size photos, particularly if you have striking images of pools you have installed. Manufacturer-supplied images are also helpful, but projects you've completed can be more effective if they're photographed and presented well.

SAMPLE PLAN 3: Actions Speak Louder Than Ads

GOAL: Establish a strong enough reputation that traditional advertising becomes unnecessary.

TOOLS: outstanding customer service β€’ image consistency β€’ an "ideavirus" β€’ giveaways

Keys To Success: It may seem ridiculous to replace a liner free of charge, but Ken Stockley, president of Pool & Patio Center in Coventry, R.I., would rather write off $10,000 in repair work than spend $200,000 on advertising.

"It's less expensive to replace half a dozen liners than to produce and run one good ad," he reasons. "We've reduced our advertising budget because our customers are doing our advertising for us."

For example, Stockley's company once moved a pool about 1 foot and reinstalled it. "It wasn't perfectly perpendicular with the back of the house," he says. The owners decided after the pool was in to build a wood deck. If the pool hadn't been repositioned, the deck would have been out of line. "It wasn't entirely our fault, but we accepted the responsibility and moved the pool at our expense," Stockley says. "Why. You can't buy the advertising that that person gave us."

As evidence of how successful Pool & Patio's shift away from traditional advertising has been, Stockley reports a sales increase of 23 percent in 2003 over 2002. "Last year was miserable for most of the industry, and we were up 23 percent with not one product-selling ad."

Pool & Patio Center does run a few ads, but they sell the company, not any one product. And they don't run nearly as many as they used to.

This kind of strategy relies on maintaining a consistent image. "Pick your niche and stick with it," advises Walsh, who also favors image building over extensive product advertising. In Walsh's case, The Above Ground Pool Company's reputation centers on better-quality pools. But earlier this year, Walsh ran an ad for a 15-foot round pool at a low price. "I never put prices in my ads before, but I was scared because things were slow. I regretted it immediately," he says. The tactic didn't draw people who were in the market for the high-end pools Walsh typically sells. "I veered off our vision and I was sorry."

So how do you create and maintain a consistent image? Marketing consultant Jackie Huba suggests spreading an "ideavirus" about your company. An ideavirus is a description of your company that is catchy and easy to spread β€” something your customers can easily repeat to their friends. For example, Huba's firm was contracted by a technology services company that described itself like this: "We deliver network and systems management solutions that assist companies in cost-effectively maximizing the performance and availability of their network infrastructures." Catchy. Not exactly. In its place, Huba's firm proposed this ideavirus: "You know how when you are at work, and you are pulling your hair out because of computer problems. Your system is slow; you can't send or receive e-mail, or you have to reboot your computer a lot. Well, we fix those problems for businesses."

In a pool business, an ideavirus should convey the effortlessness of pool purchasing, installation and maintenance. It should also reinforce how easy it is to buy a pool from your company.

If you have to hire a consultant to create your ideavirus, then you might not spend less than you would on traditional ads, although the investment could mean you're able to reduce other advertising spending once the ideavirus spreads.

Other inexpensive alternatives to traditional advertising are giveaways. At Pool & Patio Center, every dad who comes in on Father's Day gets a tape measure with the store's logo on it. On Mother's Day, moms get emery boards or compacts. "These are inexpensive but useful items, things people will keep on hand," Stockley reasons. "And they're much less expensive than newspaper ads."

Also, such giveaways can be interpreted as a token of your company's appreciation for each customer's business. And the more customers feel appreciated, the more they'll tell their friends where the best place to buy an above-ground pool is.

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