Common Ground

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Whether you're a dealer in rural Arkansas or an aboveground hot spot like upstate New York, there are certain factors that affect a season's sales. Weather, of course, is chief among them, and that's not something even the nation's most powerful retailers can control. There are some areas one can control, however, such as advertising, pool displays and selling the styles and sizes that people want.

AQUA spoke with several megadealers in the North, all of whom suffered through a tough season in 2004, just like you did. They told us some of their secrets to success β€” ones you'd be wise to emulate.

John Rozanski, partner, Crystal Pools, Elizabethtown, Pa.

How many locations do you have?

Rozanski: We have two locations: one in Elizabethtown, Pa., and another in Mechanicsburg, which is about 25 miles away.

How was business in 2004?

Rozanski: It was off for us about 25 percent, which really bothered me because that was a first for us. But my reps tell me the whole Northeast was off 25 to 30 percent, so we were right in line with that. It was one of the wettest summers on record. In western Pennsylvania we had three days of 90-degree temps. We're used to having 30 to 40 of them.

Did you go into 2005 with pent-up demand after a down year in 2004?

Rozanski: There was no pent-up demand. In 41 years of business, we've learned that people remember the previous year's weather, and they'll wait for the hot weather to break before coming in. So this year didn't start getting busy until late May, whereas it normally takes off in mid- to late April.

Early in the season we had two snow days where we lost attendance at a home show we were at. Then we got a cool spring. We went from 52 to 92 [degrees] in a matter of a week. Then it broke loose in June. I advertised heavily through April and May to try to jumpstart things and got few if any sales from that advertising. June 1 rolls around, and I didn't spend any money on ads, and we had a record month. When it gets hot and kids bug mom and dad, that really generates business.

What's selling well this year?

Rozanski: The neutral and natural earth tones are very popular. Beige, light gray, almond β€” soft and subtle colors with a little darker accents on the frames.

For liners, the majority, if not all of them, have borders, giving the ceramictile look. People are coming in and insisting on a beaded liner so they can get those tile borders. Still the blue liner is the most popular. We have six different blue liner patterns to choose from.

What about shapes?

Rozanski: The round is more popular because of the price point. The average round installed will come in approximately $2,000 less than the average oval. But the oval is very popular with families that want to play volleyball, swim laps or for those with narrow yards. We do 70 percent round and 30 percent oval. Nearly all sales are of the 52-inch height now.

What are people buying to go along with their pools?

Rozanski: A solar cover is not expensive, and it's very popular for people who want to start early and extend the season. Forty percent have underwater lighting. Another is walk-in steps rather than an A-frame style ladder. It helps to get in and they can sit on those steps, too. For aftermarket sales it's an automatic pool cleaner. They've had it open all season and cleaned it themselves and then they want someone to do it for them.

Are mass merchants affecting aboveground business?

Rozanski: Mass merchants have definitely taken a bite out of the pie. The piece has become larger over the last two to three years. We've had three new big boxes move in and they're doing a tremendous amount of newspaper and TV ads with lowball pricing. Other mass merchants have been your Wal-Mart and Kmart, with the $229 blow-up pools. Due to the price point they'll buy one of those, but hopefully we'll get them when they want to graduate up to a more permanent pool.

What types of advertising work best for you?

Rozanski: We do a Web site. People like that because they don't have to leave home to do the research, so they can learn about the pools and products that way instead of having to drive around and burn up gas. Also newspapers. We have numerous papers in the area and they vary in cost. The more expensive ones do a better job for us. Yellow Pages would be another one. We list the brands and logos of the pools in our Yellow Pages ads, not to mention the AQUA Hall of Fame. We use that on every business card, every contract, every ad. We talk about that with every potential sale.

How many pools do you display?

Rozanski: Between the two stores we show 10, all outside in a landscaped environment that looks just like it would in your backyard. And we show them with and without decking, optional fencing, walk-in stairs, all the different accessories and liner patterns. So the pool park is a very valuable selling tool for us.

How is the image of the aboveground pool changing?

Rozanski: We just took delivery of a Sharkline and the price is $16,000 and change. There are still some eyesores out there, but the good ones have contemporary liners, and are made of PVC or resin instead of painted metal. Water features, LED and fiber optic, walk-in stairs, they've come a long way. We're doing more pools in the middle- to upper-class home that ever before. People can have just as much fun in an aboveground for just a fraction of the price.

Sandy Grubert, Harrow's Stores, Melville, N.Y.

What are the various price points you offfer?

Grubert: We sell at price points anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 and more. I've sold $15,000 pools this year.

How many pools did you sell in 2004?

Grubert: I'd rather not get into specifics, but we had a very cold winter and spring this year, whereas last year weather was good until April and then it cooled off. We start selling in January, and we got off to a good start and it dropped dead on May 1.

This year was just the opposite. It was very quiet early, and June was the best we'd ever had.

What colors and styles are selling well this year?

Grubert: Ninety-five percent of what we sell is J-hook liners that are printed on the top and the bottom. We have 10 different patterns that all sell pretty evenly.

For walls, it changes year to year. We don't sell wood grain; it's been many years since that was popular. Right now it's a lot of earth tones.

What sizes and shapes are most popular?

Grubert: We carry pools from 12-foot round to 21-by-41-foot ovals. We do 75 percent ovals, which is very unusual. Industry-wide, I'd say stores sell 75 percent rounds. Given the choice, people here β€” especially women β€” just choose ovals.

What accessories do you sell with the pools. What's purchased with the pool and what gets added on later?

Grubert: We sell about 95 percent with steps instead of ladders. That's for aesthetics and safety. Ladders and steps are comparable in price, and people would rather have the steps.

We sell a full line of solar and winter covers. Solar covers we sell right away with the pool, but for winter covers, sometimes customers will come back in August and September and buy them.

We also sell a lot of heaters and heat pumps for above-ground pools. About 20 percent buy heaters. Fifteen years ago it was probably only 2 percent. Kids don't care if the water is cold, but adults don't like it.

Are mass merchants a concern?

Grubert: For chemicals they are, but we compete with them and give better service to our customers.

What types of marketing do you use?

Grubert: We use print, a lot of TV and a lot of radio. It's 60 percent print then 20-20 for TV and radio. We use print 52 weeks a year. Radio and TV we use basically at peak times of the season and during holidays.

How many pools do you display per store? Is it important to show them outdoors?

Grubert: We have seven stores on Long Island and three in New Jersey. We put up eight to 10 full of water in every store. They're all indoors. Basically that's a real-estate thing because we don't have room outdoors.

You have to try to make it as much like a backyard setting as you can. We'll have one up with decking, furniture, a spa around it, etc.

Lance Pitzer, store manager, Walnut Ridge Pool & Patio, Clarksville, Ind.

How many pools did you sell in 2004?

Pitzer: We sold about 400. The weather was bad last year, and in May and June we didn't get into the 90s, and there wasn't a week we didn't get rain. That was right in the heart of the season for pools. So we fell short of our goals, but it was all due to the rain.

We're on course to meet our numbers this year. Right now we're getting rain and we're seeing a little lull. It doesn't take much to take the customers off track. Today it's about 72, and it's only supposed to get to the mid-80s the rest of the week. People tend to turn their attention elsewhere when the weather's not ideal.

What's are the popular styles this year?

Pitzer: For walls, everything is grays and taupes. They blend in better with the new houses they're constructing. Liners, on the other hand, are getting more colorful. So customers are adding the color in the water rather than on the outside.

This year we're selling what they call a swirl water pattern. It looks like rippling water and it has a little movement to it. We also started offering an aquarium pattern with fish on the wall and rocks and plants on the bottom. We didn't stock that one, but people have been willing to wait for it because it's a unique looking liner. We'll probably order some in standard sizes next year. They're more expensive but that wasn't an issue, people just wanted it.

What about shapes and sizes?

Pitzer: Well, a 24-foot round fits just about anywhere in most backyards. But we've seen a push toward more 28s and 33s, which are second and third in popularity. People here are going away from the oval a little and more toward rounds. Percentage-wise it's 85 percent round for us.

We show ovals on the lot, so it's not like we're shying away from them. But swim-space-wise, rounds are a better deal. You're paying more β€” about $1,200 more β€” for the added structure on the ovals.

What accessories do people typically purchase with the pool and what do they come back for later?

Pitzer: We offer three different packages: The Economy comes with a ladder, the Premier package is everything you need to get you going for the first month, and the Ultimate package includes everything for the first season β€” chemicals, winterizing and a purification system on the pool.

Steps are a big thing people add later. Light packages and alarm systems, too. There's an increasing awareness of safety, and alarms, lights and steps are all safety.

Do you install?

Pitzer: We install about 80 to 90 percent of them. Our lead time is seven to 10 days, which is not going to cause anyone to look elsewhere. By the time they're ready to have it installed, we're there to set it up.

People often talk about the affect mass merchants have on the industry. Do you think they're a big threat to your business?

Pitzer: On the pool side, I don't thing they're a major issue. They sell cashand-carry pools and they sell thousands of them a year. But in two years when that wears out, those are potentially our customers. So buying from the mass merchant puts them in the market, actually.

What types of advertising and marketing do you use?

Pitzer: We've been across the board: TV campaigns, radio with newspaper ads to back it up. That’s always tough deciding where to put your dollars. Newspaper we generally get the most traffic out of, because customers can take it in and say, 'I want this.' With TV, they're like, 'I thought this is what I saw . . .' and it may not really be.

How do people use your Web site?

Pitzer: We'd love to sell off the Web site, but right now that's not where our focus is. But we find more people gathering the information there. We get them coming in and saying, 'Look at the price I found on the Internet,' and usually we can match it. Once in a while someone comes in with a price that looks a little fishy, though.

How many pools do you display?

Pitzer: We're showing 11 different pools, with all but one outside. The one inside is set up as a kids' area with a Sega and other things for them to play with. It lets the kids have fun and the parents are able to get inside and see how big it actually is.

We basically set them up like they'd be in a yard. We have gazebos, patio furniture, and aluminum and wood decks.

It starts with the above-ground pool, and from there we create an outdoor living area. I don't know if 9/11 had anything to do with it, but it seems like people are more comfortable at home now, so they're going to make their homes more like a resort, if you will.

Jan Cerminara, co-owner, Pool & Spa Outlet, Pittsburgh, Pa.

How was the 2004 selling season and how is 2005 so far?

Cerminara: We do between 150 and 175 a year, and in 2004 we were off probably 20 percent. But 2005 has been tremendous. We should be slowing down this time of year but it isn't at all.

What colors are selling best?

Cerminara: We're finding neutral colors – stone, taupe, gray – are big sellers, just like in spas. It's funny how it goes in spurts. It used to be blue, then we went through the wood phase. But now we're really big on neutrals, they don't stick out, and that's what people seem to want.

Also an older 'European look' β€” as opposed to a real contemporary design β€” is big. Even the uprights look like Roman columns right now instead of just plain uprights. It's all more aesthetically pleasing.

With liner patterns, they're demanding prettier ones. Not too long ago it was solid blue or pebble prints. But the possibilities are limitless now. A lot of reds, yellows and purples in the liners mixed in. They're more vibrant and more detailed today.

What about add-ons?

Cerminara: People are not afraid to put $6,000 to $10,000 into an aboveground pool. They want the same options you get with gunite, like robotic cleaners, heat pumps. The trend we've seen is a lot of heat pumps. They're spending $2,000 to $3,000 on a heat pump. I think the above-ground customer is more educated than they used to be, and they understand the value of a heater. And there's no doubt the Internet is resulting in more educated customers who come in knowing what they want.

The more reasonably priced things are solar reels, solar heaters, aboveground slides (they do very well for us), steps. In the last three years we started selling a lot more steps than ladders. It makes more sense for kids, older people, etc. I'm also starting to see a surge in demand for chlorine generators.

What's more popular, rounds or ovals?

Cerminara: This store reaches a rural community, so they can get the 33-foot rounds because they've got the space. The larger ones are doing well around here. At our second location in Pittsburgh they go with the 18- to 24-footers because the yards are smaller.

It's 70 percent rounds. They prefer rounds because they get more capacity and swim area in a round than an oval.

Are mass merchants taking business away from you?

Cerminara: We've set ourselves apart from them by offering more-personalized service and more-knowledgeable employees. Our customers know they're going to spend a little more, but . . . And we always mention the AQUA 100, introduce them to our employees and tell them you're going to get to know us by name and we're going get to know you by name. And we encourage them to bring in water samples even if they're coming in to buy a beach ball. We've had the same install team for years. We only work with them and we sell enough pools that they don't need to work with anyone else. We can't risk using subs for our installs. It's all done through us and we run it very tight and we stay on schedule.

What ad mix do you use?

Cerminara: Direct mail, Yellow Pages. This year we had a real strong presence on cable TV. We don't do any radio. My daughter has a Boston terrier named Lola who likes to swim and we put her in the commercials. The kids come in looking for Lola, and when she's not there they're disappointed. We ran the heck out of those on cable TV.

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