Breaking Into Billiards

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Spa and pool retailers have long been selling ancillary merchandise that complements the selling season of their core products. In winter, when customers are thinking about anything but swimming, many stores have found success selling hearth products, saunas, grills, tanning beds and, in ever-increasing numbers, billiard tables and accessories. In fact, some manufacturers privately say that spa and pool dealers are so well equipped for billiard sales and setups β€” and are taking to it so well β€” that billiards-only dealers had better watch their backs.

But billiards remains somewhat of a mystery to many spa and pool dealers. They know all about hydraulics, chemical programs, filtration and .ow rates, but slate, rails and fabric-fitting are a different story. Fear of the unknown is common, of course, but in the case of billiards, it's unfounded, according to Jim Graven, president and owner of C.C. Steepleton in Louisville, Ky., a company that sells spas in addition to manufacturing and selling billiards equipment.

"If you have good, skilled mechanics and employees, you're all set to sell and install pool tables," he says. "The only extra things you might need are some spray glue and a staple gun. Everybody's got drills and compact wrenches and all the other stuff."

AQUA spoke with Graven and other billiard manufacturers and dealers about the opportunities that billiards offers the spa and pool industry. To a person they agreed with Graven's assessment of spa and pool dealers' strong aptitude for the category.

Sales And Setup

One of the best things spa and pool dealerships have going for them is their experience selling high-ticket items that cater to people's increasing tendency to spend money on home and backyard recreation. That's why billiards manufacturers see huge potential in them.

"The pool and spa dealers are a fast-growing segment of the billiards market," says John Hetzel, senior marketing manager for Escalade Sports, an Evansville, Ind., maker of three lines of billiard tables. "They present a great opportunity for growth in that they have excellent merchandising skills β€” and they know how to cross-merchandise. There's always a fear of starting something new, but they have to remember they're already selling and installing spas, and that's not easy."

The point is that billiards equipment is a lot less complex and therefore easier to learn about and explain to potential customers, making it a relatively easy transition for a spa and pool sales rep.

"If Joe can sell a hot tub, he can certainly sell a pool table," says Graven. "Hot tubs are a lot more technical. But to sell billiards you need about a third the knowledge. If you know a little about wood and get a little factory training on selling slate-top tables, it's a piece of cake."

To get dealers started, Graven's company, like most billiards manufacturers, offers dealers help on both the selling and installation of its tables.

"The first thing is you've got to get in with the right manufacturer. They have to work with you and help train you," he says. "You can call anybody and order 15 pool tables, but you need to find one that'll send a rep out to get you going. There are companies that'll put a rep on you in 15 minutes, and that's what you've got to get.

"We've got a new dealer in Detroit that we're setting up right now. We're sending in guys to drill the sales team on one end of the store and mechanics to help with setup on the other end. We expect to do big, big business, even the first year."

Tampa, Fla.-based Craftmaster Manufacturing also sends a representative to new accounts to help get them going. They'll typically stay for two or three days β€” or more if needed. "We'll stay until they're comfortable," says Richard Bizzaro, president. "Billiards can be spooky at first and a lot of dealers think it's going to be difficult. So we concentrate on telling them what sells best, setting them up with point-of-purchase materials, bombarding them with catalogs, and teaching them to install them."

The installation is by far the trickiest part, manufacturers say, so that's where the majority of the factory help is concentrated.

"I installed pool tables myself for 10 years, and I did pools and spas on the side," Bizzaro says. "Essentially, if you can set up a pool, spa or sauna, you can certainly set up a pool table in that much time, if not less. And it just gets easier and easier."

Debbie Pillard is an office manager at All Seasons Pool, Patio & Spa in Bountiful, Utah, a retailer that's been in billiards for about 16 years. She estimates that she's set up about 30 of the AMF tables the store sells herself, and attests to the fact that it's a skill that can be easily mastered by the average pool and spa employee.

"Having well-trained techs is crucial. We have people that have been here for years, and they help train the new people," she says. "AMF also has a video they send out for training. So after watching that β€” many times β€” and getting the training from the people who've been doing it for a while, they're ready to install."

While the manufacturers and dealers AQUA spoke with said billiardtable setup was a skill that can be mastered by anyone with some mechanical aptitude and attention to detail, nobody said it was easy.

"Most guys that work on spas are mechanically inclined, so assembly isn't going to be a problem," says Roger Blank, west region sales manager for Tucson, Ariz.-based manufacturer Connelly Billiards. "But putting the cloth on the rails and covering the slate is a little tricky. It's not something that can be self-taught.

"The real issue is that it has to be done properly, because that's the lasting impression of your company that people are going to have."

The ABCs Of Installation

A thorough explanation of the installation process is best left to the professionals, who'll be able to give hands-on demonstrations and let you do some assembly yourself under their watch. But to take a little of the mystery out of it, here's a primer on pool table setup.

The four basic steps are building the body (unless it's a unibody table), leveling the table and slate, installing the cloth and rails, and finally the finishing assembly. Each step requires patience and, of course, many smaller steps, but these are the fundamental concepts.

"It takes three to four hours to install the table, and it's important to take your time," says Vince Rocca, owner of Breaktime Billiards in Granada Hills, Calif., a World of Leisure dealership.

Body Building

Depending on the manufacturer, the table will come with either the cabinet in a single piece ready for the legs to be put on, or boxed in several pieces that need to be put together. One that's already put together is called a unibody, and one that needs assembly is called KD or "knock down."

"Connelly is built with a unibody," Blank says. "The cabinet, which is a large part of the table's support structure, is built in a controlled environment (the factory) instead of the customer's home. There's a time-saving advantage there, too."

How much time a unibody tables saves on installation depends on the installer's experience, but Bizzaro estimates it saves about 45 minutes on average.

KD tables, on the other hand, offer some advantages, too.

"The nice thing about KD is it comes in about five boxes, so every part is foam wrapped and put into a very protective box," says Patrick Conners, director of sales for AMF Billiards & Games, Bland, Mo. "So when you pull it out of the box for the first time, it's typically in the customer's home, and you can be sure it's good as new."

In addition, they take up less warehouse space because the frames come in stackable boxes, and they're easier to get into people's homes.

Unibody tables sometimes need to be disassembled to get them through tight spaces, such as down a set of basement stairs. "But if you have to KD the unibody table, it comes down very quickly," says Bizzaro.

Whichever type of table you're installing, it's important to place it in the spot the customer wants it to go right off the bat, because if you need to move it you'll have to undo a lot of work to remove the slate.

"Once you have the frame in position, place your level at all points around the body," Rocca says. "It's very important that the body and frame of the table be completely level. Take the time to level it carefully so you won't have to disassemble the table later."

Once the table is ready, you place the three pieces of slate in the frame and screw them down a little. Then check again to make sure the surface is level.

"This is where it gets more involved," Blank says. "All three pieces need to be flattened and the seams need to be even. You do that by shimming with hardwood wedges."

Once the slate is flattened, you need to seam it. That usually involves smoothing the space between the joints with bee's wax, although other compounds can be used.

Fun With Fabric

Now it's time to apply the cloth to the table. Perhaps more than anything else besides leveling, this is what the customer is going to be looking for when you're finished.

"With training, doing the cloth is easy, but it's not something you can teach yourself to do," says Blank. "You want to make sure you know where to place the staples and where to place the pockets. You want a very tight bed cloth with no puckers anywhere."

The cloth can be either stapled or glued down, depending on whether the slate is framed with a wood backing.

Working On The Rails

Once you've got a tight cloth β€” a procedure that takes plenty of time and practice β€” you're ready to apply the rail system. Since covering the rails with cloth is pretty tricky, according to manufacturers, many of them do that in the factory. Be sure to carefully inspect the rails, because that's another thing the customer is going to look at very closely, according to Blank.

Next you attach the pockets to the rails and bolt the rails to the table. At this point you shouldn't tighten them all the way, as you'll soon be making small adjustments to get the rail system squared.

Connelly's rail system comes in two parts it calls horseshoes. Each horseshoe consists of one end rail and two side rails which are joined together on the table. Its rails have four bolts each, a design meant to give the rails a tighter fit. Other tables have three bolts to fasten, according to Blank.

"There's some detail work here," Blank says. "When you put the horseshoes together, you can align them by moving the siderails in or out of the playing surface to create a straight line all the way from corner pocket to corner pocket." Once that's done, you can tighten the rails all the way.

Finishing Touches

The final assembly and finishing work varies depending on the manufacturer and the table, but all tables will need a final leveling.

"The table is already flat. What you want is a good level," says Blank. "You're looking for a level run across the table."

This is most often done by finding the highest leg under the table and adjusting the other legs to bring it up to that level using shims. Be sure to check the level on all parts of the table. That's it.

Sound simple? Well, with the proper factory help and a little practice, it can be.

"I think pool and spa dealers have the crews to do it," Escalade's Hetzel says. "The basic fundamentals for installing a spa are there for installing a pool table. You have to level it, you have challenging environments to work in, there are size constraints. So once the dealers get acclimated, it should be rather seamless to them."

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