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An automatic pool cleaner is an automatic pool cleaner, right. Right. Except when it's a loss leader that seals the deal on an above-ground package and also cleans the pool. Or when it's an appealing colorful critter that also happens to clean the pool. Or when it's a sleek, color-coordinated accessory to a high-end project that — you guessed it — also keeps the pool crystal clean. It all depends on the pool and the dealer and the selling environment. Something that is a giveaway in Kentucky might be a firm-price upsell in Florida, so dealers need to know it all: They need to know their products, they need to know their customers and they need to know what the competition is doing.

So the book on selling APCs just isn't written yet, but we invite you to read on for some hypotheses that you may want to study.

Sweeten The Deal

In some markets, it's almost a given that the pool cleaner will be part of the package with an above-ground pool.

"Most of our automatic pool cleaners are sold when the pool is sold. We have a standard package and a deluxe package," says Raymond Scholz owner of Hallmark Spa & Pool in Fayetteville, N.C. Scholz estimates that about half his customers buy the cleaner while the other half choose to do the cleaning themselves. But packaging is important in this market. It's likely that whatever the customer is going to buy will all be part of the same transaction. "The fact is that 90 percent of them are financed, so they buy it all at one time. Some of them will come back at a later date and purchase a cleaner, but it's not the majority."

At Aqualand, general manager Jerry Mefford almost always includes an automatic pool cleaner as a sweetener in the above-ground packages the company sells in the Bowling Green, Ky., area. "With above ground, I pretty much bring in the pool cleaner to entice customers," he says. "In our area, automatic pool cleaners are very competitive as a part of the package with an above-ground pool."

Manufacturers know this too. Dan Smelter, product manager at Sta Rite says, "With above ground cleaners, price is much more competitive. The consumers drive the market." And many of those consumers are well aware of the weekly sale at their local Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

In some areas, cleaners are almost more useful as an incentive than as inventory. "The above ground cleaner market is getting to be where dealers can't make money on them anymore," says Mefford.

At the other end of the spectrum — the high-end, in-ground market — cleaners can also be the ribbon that ties up an attractive package. Richard Holstein, president of robotic automatic pool cleaner manufacturer SmartPool, suggests that builders can offer the robotic cleaner as an extra. "A lot of these guys sell infloor cleaning systems and add that onto the price," he says. "It's a nice add-on. However, a robotic cleaner costs much less than that, and it provides a nice middle ground if someone doesn't want to go for a big infloor system, but they still want top-of-the-line."

Teach Your Customers Well

While some customers will be limited by what they can afford and others will rule out everything but the very top of the line, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, customers will face a lot of confusion. So education is a vital part of the sales process.

"It's getting to the point where everyone is inventing a new cleaner to offer to the market," says Mefford. "I think customers get confused. When you consider the Internet and the catalogs selling into our market, I don't think the consumer can get educated enough to know the difference between one and the other."

I don't think the consumer can get educated enough to know the difference between one and the other.

Mefford stresses the need to educate the consumer, but he also prefers to avoid confusing his clients by keeping things simple and offering just a few lines that he — and his service people — know thoroughly. "A lot of guys have stayed with one model because they know their inventory is strong on two things: They know their service guys can repair them in the proper way, and they can do it without having to order a lot of parts," he says.

Scholz finds that his customers, too, tend to be loyal to the brand with which they have become familiar, so long as it's served them well. "They pretty much stay with what they've had," he says of customers who replace units that are beyond repair. "They'll often come in and buy the same model, or the improved version made by the same manufacturer."

But he feels that good dealers have the opportunity to advise their customers. "If the dealer has taken good care of the customer over time, they will most likely come back and buy the unit that the dealer suggests," he says. "The loyalty is to the dealer more than to a brand name."

Habits are hard to break. Pool cleaners, with their relatively few moving parts and generally good reliability record often fall into the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" category, so introducing new products into the category is a challenging task for manufacturers and for dealers.

For example, robotic cleaners are new to folks who've had their pool for a long time. So dealers must introduce the product as an upgrade or a new technology. "Traditionally the robots have been sort of a second purchase. For example, people would get a free cleaner with their pool and it works okay — usually it's a waterpowered cleaner — but a couple of years go by, and they look to upgrade," says Holstein.

Super Service

Because the market has been so .ooded, manufacturers, for the most part, have responded quickly with customer service systems that relieve the dealers of memorizing every schematic for every new automatic pool cleaner. "Our whole business has come down to being able to service it and take care of it and have the answers," says Mefford.

Nearly every manufacturer has a consumer support system in place. "These manufacturers are smart," said Mefford. "With just about any cleaner out there, the homeowner is not going to first call the dealer with a problem. They have support tech lines that the homeowner calls directly."

And that also means providing information during the decision-making process. "We deal directly with the pool owners to answer any questions they might have before the sale, during the sale and after the sale," says Smartpool's Holstein. "And we put our toll-free number on our products and on the instructions." Holstein's company has devoted a lot of energy to making customers confident that they've chosen the right product and also that they're happy with their purchases.

"Generally we can get any problems straightened out, but if there's a problem, we're not afraid to spend money to keep a customer happy," he says. "We've invested a lot of money in customer service people and software and hardware and phone systems. So we can do a professional job of handling people. We've also relieved the retail trade the burden of being caught in the middle."

Other companies may place more emphasis on educating dealers rather than going directly to the customer. "We have a good presence with our dealers and we really work with them and make sure they understand our products and what works best in each application," says Smelter. "Then the dealer can take that to the consumer."

Know Your Enemy

But wait, there's more. It's not good enough to be able to provide your clients with every detail about the units you're selling. You also have to know what the competition is doing and what they're selling. Sometimes the competition comes from other pool and spa dealers, other times it comes from the low prices set by big, penny-sensitive, self-service warehouse stores.

"The culture has been defined by Costco and Wal-Mart, mass merchants who accept returns, no questions asked, for extended periods of time," says Holstein. Because Smartpool sees that as the competitive arena, they've developed their customer service to address it.

"Customers see an automatic cleaner for $300, and ours is $500," says Mefford. "We as professionals in the business know which one is better and we're willing to pay the extra $200 ourselves [rather than sell an inferior unit to a customer.]"

Sometimes a consumer's own parsimony is his worst enemy, and dealers just have to save their customers from themselves. "When it comes to pool cleaners, one thing you want to think about is quality," says Smelter.

"From a pool professional's standpoint, you don't want the customer to just come in, grab something, and then leave. You don't want them to come back in two months and say, 'This thing doesn't work.' It's worth the time and effort to take a look at the cleaners that are out there. Review all the benefits and features that each one has, and then decide which one matches up with the customers' needs."

With so many variables — region, price point, the competition's practices, sales volume, consumer expectation — there's no textbook on selling automatic pool cleaners. It's more like a reference book, and dealers need to pick and choose sales techniques, pricing and promotions that work best in their given market with their given product mix.

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