Down to Business in the Big Easy

Cailley Hammel Headshot
Ooi 113 Aq Web
Josh Ulfers is the vice president at ClearWater Pool & Spa in Metairie, La.

Retailing — everyone does it differently. While some strategies are better than others, there’s no definitive science to retailing — other than the more money in your pocket, the better. We thought we’d get up close and personal with a retailer who’s doing it right, so we turned to Josh Ulfers, vice president at ClearWater Pool & Spa in Metairie, La.

ClearWater Pool & Spa opened in 1980 as an inground construction and spa retail store. Over time, retail absorbed the construction side of the business, and now ClearWater is a heavy-hitting retailer with three sister stores.

We invited ourselves to the Metairie location to pick Ulfers’ brain about how his business strategy and what he sees on the horizon for the industry.

Lay of the Land

It’s hard not to be impressed when walking in Ulfers’ store. Upon entry, the visitor is greeted by a large, sweeping runway that leads to the checkout and service counters on the back wall of the store — this means customers must walk the length of the store before making a purchase, giving them plenty of opportunities for impulse buys.

While the runway is striking, more noticeable is the volume of what Ulfers offers in his store.

“Retail is our main thing: chemicals, replacement pumps, motors, filters, parts. We stock a lot more parts than most stores around the country do,” Ulfers says.

It only takes one glance inside Clear Water to see this is the case. Chemicals and products are stored on racks that near the ceiling, giving the space a big-box like feel. Endcaps are stocked with attention-grabbing products. Even the more inaccessible spaces, like the wall above an entryway, are used to feature decorative signs for jazzing up the pool and spa area.

Oof 113 Aq Web
A clear runway ensures customers walk the entire length of the store before making a purchase.

“We don’t like empty space on the walls, but we try not to clutter things,” he says.

Geographically, the New Orleans area is limited by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. That and other factors in its development have made New Orleans retail space an especially valuable commodity, and every business owner in the area needs to make every square foot work in his favor.

“You don’t want something empty because you’re paying for that,” he says. While Ulfers prides himself on a retail space with volume, he also prides himself on variety. His staff regularly swaps out the product found on endcaps and high-trafficked areas to keep things interesting.

“Even if something was a good seller before, we’re kind of replacing it this year just to have something different. We’re really just looking for unique products so when that customer comes in who’s here six times a year, he’s going to pick something up once or twice that’s new. And that’s add-on money,” Ulfers says.

While carefully planning inventory, rotating stock and taking advantage of retail space are challenges any retailer faces, Ulfers and ClearWater Pool & Spa faced some unique challenges that tested the strength of the business.

Oog 113 Aq Web
Ulfers and his team take advantage of every square foot of retail space.

Avoiding Disaster

Every business in the New Orleans area has a story to tell about how it coped through natural disaster. ClearWater Pool & Spa is no exception.

Hurricane Katrina left the business largely unscathed — “Just a little bit of water here and there,” Josh says. However, this year’s Hurricane Isaac left the company out of power for days and blew in the doors on the local warehouse, leaving the warehouse flooded.

“Everything luckily stayed dry, for the most part,” Ulfers says.

While the brick-and-mortar building scraped through two hurricanes, ClearWater’s business actually thrived.

“We stayed pretty busy after Katrina,” Ulfers says. “It kind of helped us, actually, because of the damage: We had a lot of replacement business to work on. So we were fortunate. But the problem is, some of the pockets where we were very strong didn’t come back, though.”

In particular, these pockets impacted the aboveground pool sales at ClearWater.

“But overall, we’ve been pretty happy with the way we’ve been able to weather it.”

Given the disasters that changed the economic landscape in the New Orleans area, Ulfers says things are now looking up for his business.

“We’re doing fine. I think we’re starting to get more optimistic about things, though.”

On the Show Floor

For ClearWater Pool & Spa, the aboveground pool reigns king. Ulfers keeps a completely assembled aboveground model right by the front door; while empty, it has an open wall so customers can walk in, get a better feel for the model and check out Ulfers’ selection of ladders and steps. In addition, the potential aboveground customer can step outside and view six of his models, all of which are up and running.

Ooh 113 Aq Web
A charming assortment of Dynasty, Bahama and Nordic hot tubs greet the entering customer.

Ulfers also offers Dynasty, Bahama and Nordic hot tubs, but he describes New Orleans as a “moderate” hot tub market.

“The spa business is a little bit more finicky for us. And especially with the economy, people aren’t necessarily buying new spas as they are buying new pools,” he says. “Spas are more of a personal item.”

However, that doesn’t mean Ulfers gives them significantly less attention. A bay of hot tub models sit to the left of the entryway (see photo on page 68), and in a private room nearby, one of Ulfer’s more advanced models is available for test soaks. Ulfers uses the room to show off the model’s features, like LED lighting and music capabilities.

“A dark room definitely helps. But it’s more to get that feel than to have somebody get in here and try out the tub,” he says.

Teachable Moments

While showing off the latest gadgets is helpful, Ulfers says the key to staying ahead of the competition comes down to one word: education.

“We get a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘Hey, you guys took a lot of time and really educated me on what I’m looking for,’” Ulfers says.

He adds this is especially important in the internet age, when customers do research before they visit your store. Ulfers finds many arrive misinformed.

“With an aboveground, people come in and think they know the basics of it. And then we go through all the different options, materials and we educate them, and they say ‘I didn’t really know what I was looking at before, but now I do and now I can make that educated decision.’ And then a year from now when they need chemicals, they say, ‘We’re going to get the same service when we need it,’ so they come to ClearWater.”

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

Page 1 of 155
Next Page
Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library