State of the Industry 2014: Retail, Revving Up!

Cailley Hammel Headshot
photo of a hot tub in a retail location

For pool and spa retailers, the last couple years have been an exercise in optimism. After holding on with white knuckles during a rough recession, retailers are now loosening their grip and finding solid footing. As housing starts blossom and the cash register rings more frequently, the retailer’s mindset is clearly on the upswing — and our survey numbers back that up.

Of our respondents in the annual retail State of the Industry survey, 71 percent feel their business is getting stronger — a 23 percent increase in confidence from the year before. And the number of retailers who say business has gotten weaker has been cut in half since our 2013 survey.

While bitter temperatures put a damper on pool sales in some regions last year, portable spa sales are improving. About 75 percent of our survey takers carry portable spas, 40 percent of whom say sales were stronger in 2013 than the year before.

The issues that affect pool and spa retailers remain the same, including Internet competition, bad weather and the struggle to find qualified people to staff the showroom floor. However, in the struggle with Internet competition in particular, we’re seeing more optimism. Last year, 20 percent said Internet competition threatened the survival of their business, but this year, it’s down to just 10 percent. Slowly but surely, retailers are growing stronger in both sales and business strategy.

Two people who agree are Jamie Braddy and Harry Martyniuk, who you’ll see profiled as our retail voices this year. Braddy, an engaging contributor to the AQUA website, is the co-owner and marketing director at Parrot Bay Pools & Spas in Fayetteville, N.C. And Martyniuk owns Pioneer Family Pools, a Canadian hot tub retailer recently honored as Hot Spring’s dealer of the year. For them, and for other strong retailers, customer satisfaction is a top priority and the best way to assure success, no matter the weather outside or how the economy weathers. Check out their interviews for more helpful advice.

This issue prints just as the 2014 pool season just begins to gear up. From the looks of it, pool and spa retailers are oiled up, revved up and ready to go.

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

How’s business?

In great news, a whopping 71 percent of you say your business is getting stronger — a 23 percent increase from last year. And while 14 percent of our 2013 respondents felt their business was getting weaker, only 8 percent said so this year.

2014 SOI Retail chart

What’s in your showroom?

We’ll start by taking a look at what you’re selling. As usual, chemicals, equipment and parts are the items most commonly found in the showroom — many say those categories are the mainstay of their business. What is surprising is a surge in aboveground pools — 55 percent of our respondents carry them, a 17 percent jump from the previous year.

Write-in candidates included dog pools, trampolines, home theater products and even hot sauce.

2014 SOI Retail chart

What’s hot…

Just as trends fall in and out of style, you’re likely to be surprised by something that unexpectedly flies out of your showroom. So we asked you: What product surprised you most with strong sales last year? All responses were written in, and here’s just some of what we saw:

Automatic pool cleaners Billiards (“Pool table sales were up as compared to the last three years.”) Grills Heaters Nothing! (“I’ve been in business too long to be surprised by much of anything.”) Robotic pool cleaners Salt Saunas Spas (higher end, portable, entry-level) Swim spas Variable speed pumps Vinyl liner replacements

…and not so hot.

We also asked you what products disappointed you last year. The most popular answer here was aboveground pools, along with “anything pool related,” as the weather last year impacted pool sales and use among customers. Here’s a quick roundup of responses:

Aboveground pools Automatic Pool Cleaners Chemicals Covers Filters Nothing! (”Nothing was disappointing as we had a great year!”) Toys and games

Online retail

With more and more online retailers taking pieces of the pie from mom-and-pop stores, online retailing is an important subject for pool and spa pros. Compared to last year’s survey, we saw a 6 percent increase among those who retail online.

Your thoughts:

What is your most effective strategy to fight Internet sales competition?

“We do ‘price combating,’ meaning we don’t necessarily match online prices. We sell the value of US and then if we have to, offer half of the price difference as a rebate in the form of a gift card to our store. Works nine out of ten times and we protect our margins by doing it this way.”

“We stay open seven days a week.”

“We really try to remind customers that our service after the sale is unobtainable through online retailers. We have a stellar online reputation exactly because we provide excellent service post-sale. We go the extra mile.”

2014 SOI Retail chart

Spa Sales

Up or down?

Roughly 75 percent of our respondents sell portable spas, and from the looks of it, things are good.

2014 SOI Retail chart


Last year, hot tub retailers told us they were surprised by how well upper-end portable spas sold. This year, we wanted to dig into that a little more. While mid-range models take the cake, it seems high-end models are more popular than entry-level:

2014 SOI Retail chart

WHY do they want a hot tub?

Last year, we asked you what consumer benefit you emphasize the most when selling a hot tub to a customer: 49.3 percent said they focus on the health and wellness benefits and 42.3 percent said personal relaxation and recreation. This year, we asked why your customers say they want a hot tub. While salespeople tend to address health benefits, far more customers are interested in using a hot tub for relaxation. The takeaway: When talking to customers on the showroom floor, a close reading of their interests and needs is crucial.

2014 SOI Retail chart



Looking back at our questions about what is and isn’t popular in your showroom, many of you said interest in aboveground pools waned in 2013. The below data supports it, as well as a couple twists from last year’s survey:

2014 SOI Retail graph

Nearly a third of dealers reported a drop in aboveground sales last year. Thanks, weather.

Testing the Waters

Water testing is a great strategy for retailers — it brings people into your store on a more regular basis and helps foster customer loyalty. So it’s no surprise that the whopping majority of our survey takers provide the service:

Is your water testing service free?

Yes 81.98 percent

No 4.65 percent

Other 13.37 percent

“Free if you use our chemicals. Otherwise, $15. Less than 10 people have to be charged per year over all three locations.”

“No charge if purchasing chemicals the same day.”

Picking Your Brain

What is your biggest concern about business this year?

Internet competition, the weather, consumer confidence, health care and drought conditions were the most frequently cited sources of headaches in our survey. Here are just a few comments:

“Will people stay home and spend money on their backyard? I’m keeping a close eye on the Internet and combatting cheaper prices.”

“Four other dealers have closed their businesses. That means more business for me, but I’m concerned about keeping my regular customers satisfied.”

“The harsh winter and its effects on existing aboveground pools in some cases will drive sales, but many will remove them without replacement.”

Speaking of Internet competition…

We know the Internet is a sore spot for brick-and-mortar retailers. Fortunately, it seems more of you are learning how to cope. Last year, about 20 percent of respondents said the Internet threatened the survival of their business. This year, that number is down to 10 percent.

2014 SOI Retail chart

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Every job has its downsides — even if your job involves laying around in a hammock all day. (Okay, maybe not that one.) Here’s what you said:

“Putting out 100 fires per day that pop-up in a small business environment.”

“All the business comes at once. You don’t get to spread things out over time.”

“Hiring and maintaining good, reliable help.”

“Smiling while you install the part they bought online for less than your cost.”

“Waiting around for the next opportunity to walk in the showroom door!”

“If I prepare properly, nothing.”

“Smiling while you install the part they bought online for less than your cost.”

Besides the money, why do you like this work?

“To be good at this business, you have to like people.”

“This is our way of helping families spend quality time together. Turn off the distractions.”

“It’s rewarding to help customers with their pool problems.”

“I love my customers — they are like family.”

“I love the chase.”

“It is a fun and exciting side of retail.”

“It is a fun business (most of the time). We sell fun stuff.”

“It’s all I’ve ever done — I have over 30 years in the pool business.”

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