Spicy Hot Sales

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photo of a pool dealer's hot sauce products
photo of a pool dealer's barbeque product section photo of a pool dealer's barbeque product section

At a glance, Pro Pools of Hagerstown, Md., looks like any other pool store. The shelves are stocked with chemicals, the walls lined with skimmer heads and the counter open for water testing. But venture to the back of the store and you’ll come across a small room packed with an unexpected item: hot sauce.

CharColes, located inside Pro Pools, carries more than 550 hot sauces, 200 barbecue sauces, 30 bloody Mary mixes and “everything in between,” says owner Darin Cole. The store not only satisfies Cole’s passion for hot sauce, but it’s also a thriving revenue stream and a way to underscore Pro Pools as a one-stop shop for everything the backyard can offer.

“We don’t just do the pool,” he says. “We’ll do decks, we do patios, we do kitchens, we do whatever.”

Here, Cole shares how CharColes came to be and how it’s made an impact on the bottom line.

A Spark of Inspiration

You could say Cole is a hot sauce aficionado.

“I’ve always been into hot sauces, personally,” he says. “If anyone goes out of town, they have to bring me a bottle of hot sauce from somewhere.”

Despite the personal interest, bringing hot sauce into Pro Pools was a serendipitous development. After a steep hike in insurance rates led Cole to drop his line of pellet stoves, Pro Pools was left with an empty back room and valuable square footage going unused.

“A couple days after we gutted out the room, one of my employees said, ‘Can we get some more of that really good hot sauce we eat on pizza? We’re out of it in the back.’ I jumped online, got on Amazon, and the classic light bulb went off: Why do I have to mail order hot sauce?” he says.

A few phone calls later, Cole had four hot sauce distributors lined up.

Catching Fire

photo of Pro Pools store
Compared to CharColes, Pro Pools is more brightly lit and heavy on the blue, due in no small part to the water-like floor treatment.

Part of the allure of CharColes is how it differs from Pro Pools in appearance and general ambiance. While the latter is swathed in blue, with flooring painted to look like water, CharColes is outfitted with red string lights and approximately $800 of blacklights to lend a sense of heat and edginess. And in lieu of boring shelving systems, the team repurposed wooden skids into shelves, even going so far as to give the wood a singed appearance with a few licks of a propane torch.

“It’s really rustic looking,” Cole says. “It’s an awesome effect.”

Naturally, the new section has attracted a lot of attention.

photo of Pro Pools store

“It’s located right off of our pool showroom, so when customers walk in, it’s inevitable,” he says. “No one has to wait in line anymore — they all go in there and shop around while they’re waiting for the next place in line.

“I tell everyone, if I get just one person to come in that doesn’t have a pool that came in to buy hot sauce and then they actually end up buying a pool from us, then that whole room’s going to pay for itself immediately.”

And as a matter of fact, that’s actually happened — Cole sold two aboveground pools to a customer who came in for hot sauce.

But the success of CharColes is due to more than the shop’s location or its appearance.

“It’s a feeling,” Cole says. “You feel like you want to buy something. No one ever walks out of there without at least something. And that’s what it really does for us. I don’t think you can just take a corner shelf and throw hot sauce on it and get the same results.”

The Concept Heats Up

In conjunction with hot sauce, Cole decided to take the grilling concept to the next level by carrying Kamado Joe ceramic grills. Offering grills, as well as related equipment and accessories, not only ties CharColes to ProPools as an all-around backyard destination, but it also further sets Pro Pools apart from the competition.

“I always try to find something no one else has,” Coles says. “I’m not going to carry something you can go out to Walmart and buy. It’s got to be a niche.”

And just like pool and spa retail, offering a range of grilling supplies means your customers can turn into regular visitors.

“Just like D.E. or anything else, they’re coming in every two weeks to buy charcoal,” Cole says. “And when they’re buying their charcoal from me, they’re grabbing a bottle of algaecide or something else. It kind of plays back and forth both ways.”

Spreading Influence

To help spread the word about his hot sauce business, Cole runs an ad at the local movie theater for CharColes, and he’s a fixture at area festivals.

“We have signed up for every craft festival, food festival, all these festivals around here every fall,” he says. “We have a booth and a trailer we’re going to be pulling up to them and selling grills and hot sauce.”

The specialty nature of the hot sauces appeals to the niche demographic of festival attendees, and having a grill on display sparks the initial interest that could lead to a potential in-store visit.

“It’s amazing how many people see us at an event and come into the store,” he says.

Making it easier to inspire a visit are the business cards Cole passes out at such events. One side promotes CharColes and the other promotes Pro Pools. Even at events where hot sauce and grilling are the focus, Cole says he still makes it a priority to discuss Pro Pools, his main revenue generator.

To further cement the connection between pools and grilling, Cole tried a special month-long promotion in which anyone who purchased a pool would also get a free Kamado Joe grill.

“What do you do when you get a brand new swimming pool? You have a party,” Cole says. “Everyone you know comes over, family, everybody. They’re going to be sitting out there grilling on a brand new grill like one they’ve never seen before, and I’m sure they’re going to have as many questions about that as they do about the  swimming pool.”

As such, Cole’s plan creates two avenues for referrals: people interested in a pool of their own, and people interested in a grill.

All Fired Up

While the decision to carry hot sauce and bloody Mary mixes may have been a spontaneous one, Cole sees it as well worth the effort.

“It’s that valuable. I can see where it’s going to become a major player in the business,” he says. “Before, it was about 5 percent of the business, but now it’s really starting to take off to the point that if I dedicate some more square footage and maybe some advertising, we’re going to take it up to the next level.”

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

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