A step-by-step method to improve spa and pool sales

The challenge of succeeding in today's retail environment seems overwhelming at times. Most of us compete with the big box stores, and it is difficult to find ways to set ourselves apart when they seem to have so many advantages in marketing. They have big disadvantages, too, and using the R.E.T.A.I.L. method of pool store marketing, you can exploit them.

Overall, you must emphasize the small and the personal. Your old-fashioned friendly treatment of your customers is something people yearn for in this impersonal age. There is no substitute for that genuine, concerned conversation with someone who will help them solve a problem as opposed to those terse words with a bored clerk at the big box store.

Your niche is to be attentive toward your customer, just like people used to be. Let's look at the elements of the R.E.T.A.I.L. strategy and discuss some ways you and your employees can become your customers' valued partners.

R is for REACT to your customer's needs and desires. You want to create that atmosphere of old-fashioned friendliness people used to associate with the "Main Street Mom and Pop" store. This is your most effective technique in preserving your niche, along with professional expertise, which we will talk about shortly.

So, let's look at techniques for achieving that fun and friendly feel in your store.

1. Refreshments. Everybody likes free food. Having tasty and complimentary food or drink in your store sets the friendly mood better than anything else you can do. Even if somebody declines, offering a treat just makes a good impression on people. You can serve gourmet coffee and mini-muffins, strawberries and chocolate dip, cookies or other snacks every Saturday in the store, and make it a party. Heck, if you have to work on Saturday, at least make it fun. (I have even kept special things in my fridge for special customers. Wayne always liked wine coolers.)

2. Joking and personal attention respond to a customer's needs. Customers like and buy more from friendly people. Have humorous signs in your stores, cute items and playful displays. How about a skimmer basket with a fake snake in it, for example?

3. Stock colorful, interesting and unique products. Trade shows are perfect places to discover the unexpected to include in your store's mix.

4. Hire cute, energetic help and make sure they are knowledgeable and well trained. If you have young people, see that there is usually adult supervision.

E is for Educate. Education is the key to all areas of your business. You need to educate your employees, you need to educate your customers and you need to educate yourself.

One way you can educate employees is through industry seminars, such as trade show presentations, Genesis 3 training, distributor-sponsored classes, manufacturers' classes, APSP and IPSAA presentations, local community college offerings like QuickBooks or AutoCAD classes, and of course in-store training. You may want to have a look at my pool care book, Cruising Through Pool Care the Wise Way. It's especially helpful in training new employees. The first day new employees work for you, they really aren't able to do too much, so this is a good time to sit them down with my book, have them read it, then use the test questions in the back to see how much they've learned. It's a quick way to jump-start them into the business.

It is also important to educate customers. An educated customer is a happier customer - do not think by keeping them ignorant you get more business. You get worse business and struggling customers. If your customers' pools are functioning well, and you have been the knowledgeable, fair expert who helped them achieve that, they will tell all their friends. Some of them will buy pools and spas from you; they will buy their supplies from you. There are lots of effective ways you can educate your customers:

1. One of them, of course, is with formal pool care schools, which many of us have. You might also try making the school even more appealing with some extras. We have included refreshments, wine tastings with wines provided at a discount from our local liquor store, free child care at a child care center next door to our business - once we even held a swimsuit fashion show put on by the employees of a tanning salon located in our shopping center. This is a good chance to cross market each other's businesses.

2. Some of you who build pools offer on-site training when you start up the pool. This is another place a good pool care book can help you. I suggest, however, giving it to them when you sign the contract, and encouraging them to read it while you build or install the pool or spa. Then when you do the turnover, it saves you tons of time, and they already know a bit about what you are talking about.

If you familiarize the person answering your phone with that book, when customers do call with questions, she or he will be able to speak to them in terms they understand. Your tech expert may be able to simply refer them to the page in the book and let them find their own answers.

3. Give them a video, a pool manual with equipment information.

4. Hold manufacturer "ask the expert" days hosted by your friendly manufacturer's reps. Always have supplies of in-store literature and pool care books to sell.

5. Informally educate the customer in the store by patiently answering their questions.

T is for TELL your story. Now that you have created a great store that relates to your customer and educates them in addition to just selling product, you need to tell your story. Let's focus on effective communication to the community to help continue to build your reputation, community awareness and sales.

People tend to confuse advertising and public relations. They feed each other, both are necessary, but they are two different functions.

Advertising, which you pay for, utilizes a variety of media to carry messages about your business. Public relations concerns the image you build in the community, often with (hopefully) positive publicity. The good news for those of us on a limited budget is that the latter is often more effective in promoting your business and is often free! So let's focus on that first:

1. Enter contests, win awards and then publicize them. Submit your work to industry contests such as the AQUA Choice Awards as well as anything else locally available, and every time you win, write an article, include a picture and send it to all local publications.

Not a writer? Use someone in your organization, or hire an English teacher, journalism teacher or talented student to do the writing for you. You may even have a customer who would trade chemicals for some freelance writing services.

2. Host special events at your store such as a children's "pool design" contest, or an AutoCAD pool design contest for teens.

Just remember to take pictures and submit them with your write-up to the papers.

3. Join and network with local organizations such as the Chamber, the BBB or local charities.

The A and I stand for Amplify and Improve. You want to amplify your limited resources and improve your store constantly. Effective ways you can do this might include:

1. Careful purchasing. Shop various distributors and manufacturers and determine the best products and prices. Take into account which ones also give you, and most importantly your customers, the best service and support.

2. Increase your turnover. One of the keys to making money in retail is to get the products in the door and out the door as quickly as possible. Get frequent deliveries and move the stock out.

3. Shop the shows for interesting and quality items to feature in your store. Always look for new, different and "cool" products that will engage your customers. One technique is to look at the smaller, out-of-the-way booths and new exhibitors at shows. For example, I first saw Aqua Golf at the AQUA Show. I bought it and displayed it in the store, let the customers play with it, even held little Aqua Golf contests and gave gift certificates to shoppers that could get closest to the pin. The first year I brought the product into my store, I made a $3,000 profit just from that one small item. And my store is only 780 square feet! Don't forget to sell the small product as well as the big one. Sometimes they will, in combination, make a huge difference in your profit.

4. Network with your peers. One of the greatest benefits of attending trade shows may be the excellent idea you pick up from someone in a seminar or just chatting with people waiting for the show to open.

L IS FOR Link.

1. Link with other non-competitive businesses for common goals. In our shopping center, we have an active merchants' association; we hold special events together in the center, and we have our own newsletter we mail out to the entire community. It's the most effective form of advertising we do, and an excellent venue for our PR-related articles.

2. Use technology effectively. Computers, cell phones, fax machines, all save your time and increase your productivity, as does the Internet. More and more leads we receive for new pools, for example, are a result of our Web site.

There are some exciting new programs in retailing that involve the idea of linking. Check with distributors and manufacturers to see what programs they offer to help you leverage your resources with distributor- or manufacturer-sponsored retail support programs. Partnerships with your distributors and vendors help your store compete better with the big box stores while still maintaining your independent identity.

Most of all, be flexible and willing to change and adapt as trends demand. Retailing today requires combining the best of the old and the new for acquiring and keeping that sharper competitive edge!

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

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