How to Break Into Outdoor Living

Cailley Hammel Headshot
An outdoor showroom like David Martine’s extends your store’s footprint while also serving as an eye-catching marketing tool.
An outdoor showroom like David Martine’s extends your store’s footprint while also serving as an eye-catching marketing tool.

When talking about pooL building, David Martine, owner of Treescapes and Big Wave Pools (Andover, Kansas) gets right to the point: "Clients don't want someone who's just going to dig a hole and fill it with water," he says.

"Look at how many pictures are on Pinterest and Houzz of a pool with no patio furniture on it that's just a hole in the ground with water in it. Hardly any. You see the ones that are all dolled up because that's what everyone wants their backyard to feel like."

In suburban Chicago, Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools & Spas, sees the same trend.

"We don't often go in and build a pool and leave. We're building pools with kitchens and fire pits and fireplaces and all of that type of stuff," he says. "We're marketing ourselves as 'your entire backyard,' and targeting people who are wanting that experience as opposed to just putting the pool in."

To see how much outdoor living is booming, just look at the numbers. In May last year, Houzz surveyed 1,600 homeowners — all of whom had completed an outdoor project, were in the middle of a project or were about to start one — about their interests, budget and project priorities. Sixty-seven percent reported outdoor living was the most important aspect of their design. In addition, three out of four homeowners said they were purchasing products to enhance their outdoor living area, the most popular category being outdoor furniture at 55 percent.

It's clear the outdoor living juggernaut is something pool builders and retailers can take advantage of within their own businesses. For more insight, we spoke with Lenz and Martine about their success in the category and how other builders can dive in, too.

Building Momentum, Building Profits

For Dan Lenz, the journey into the outdoor living market began slowly — even accidentally.

"By the late '90s, our projects got a little bit more elaborate. And when we happened to fall into it, we would do outdoor living. And by that I mean we would be doing a pool in the backyard and the homeowner might talk to our crews out there and say, 'You know, I've been thinking it'd be nice to have a grill area or a pergola or a gazebo — do you guys know anyone that does that?' And we'd say, 'Yeah, we can do that. We can do anything.'"

All Seasons continued on that path until 2008, when the housing bubble burst and pool sales dried up.

"We decided that we needed to target outdoor living instead of just letting it happen occasionally," he says. "With the downturn in housing and all the rest of it, we were concerned about keeping our crews working, so we actively went out after it."

To begin, Lenz and his team added hardscape to their repertoire. And in the same way many companies are APSP certified, All Seasons turned to the Interlocking Concrete Paving Institute to get certified as paver brick installers "so we're knowledgeable in what we're doing; we're not just going out and thinking we know what we're doing."

With a more comprehensive skill-set, All Seasons could now tackle anything their customers desired, an asset that saves time and deepens the relationship between the company and its customers.

"By doing everything ourselves, it really makes us more of a one-stop shop for people to get their yards completed," he says.

Broadening your products and services to include outdoor living will indeed create new revenue streams, but Lenz says a bigger benefit to outdoor living is how it can bolster your current projects.

"We always start with a plan, but we seldom end with exactly what we envisioned. As we go into it, people say, 'Well, this would be better if you did this.' Or, 'We should consider doing something here.' Handling the whole backyard, it's very easy for us to make those changes and to incorporate a lot of different things that otherwise people may not think of — maybe outdoor audio systems or outdoor television seating areas or things that are a little beyond what is just a pool."

Martine offers an example:

"We design our decking according to how you're going to use your space," he says. "The customer says 'Oh, I need a table over here.'

I say, 'Ok, so I already know you've got four kids, so there's six of you. Do you guys all want to dine together?'

'Well yeah, obviously!'

'So we're going to need to design you a patio space that's going to accommodate at least a 7-foot table so it can house six chairs comfortably around it.' So then what happens? All of a sudden you're installing more concrete or more stone paving. Your job increases, and your net profit increases," he says.

All on Display

While prospective pool clients were easily informed about All Seasons' outdoor living options, Lenz wanted to spread the message more widely — so he turned to his outdoor showroom and gave it a makeover.

"We've got a couple of inground pools we built 15 years back, maybe more, on display in front of our store. We built an outdoor kitchen out there, put in a fireplace and did some minor paver brick work so that people coming in and out of our store would see that and say, 'Hey, these are the people I would talk to about those things,'" Lenz says. "In the years since, we've developed our outdoor living space to where we've got an entire area dedicated to showing different paver bricks. Not just a display rack but an outdoor display area out in our yard. We've got a multitude of different materials that people can walk on, see and feel, broken up into different patterns and things like that."

In addition, both Lenz and Martine hold events at their outdoor showrooms, which draw new faces to the store and promotes their brand.

"We started having monthly wine tasting events on Friday evening from May through September or October," Lenz says. "We cook on our outdoor kitchens and we've got catered hors d'oeuvres and we just make an evening of it."

All Seasons invites prospective clients as well as existing and prior clients, who often wind up doing the selling themselves.

"Those people who are thrilled with what we've done are walking around eating and drinking and having a good time, and interjecting good ideas for others who are doing their own planning,'" Lenz says. "It's just a fantastic environment to get people excited about doing stuff in their backyard."

Sales Hurdle

At All Seasons, work falls into three categories: new pool construction, existing pool and yard renovation and outdoor living. Currently, Lenz says outdoor living constitutes 20 to 25 percent of his construction work.

"The outdoor living is really an easier sell than a pool," he says. "Pools bring another whole level of concern to people."

While your phone may ring more often about an outdoor living project, there is a caveat:

"The biggest stumbling block I think, and this goes for pools too, is when people come in with an idea without realizing the cost involved in what they're talking about," he says. "When someone comes in thinking they're going to spend $15,000 on a kitchen with a firepit and a reasonable-sized patio, and you find that what they're wanting is going to be twice that, that is probably the biggest hurdle."

To prevent wasted time for both parties, the All Seasons team qualifies each lead as early as possible. Lenz, for example, will use Google Earth's satellite view to take a look at the property, get some rough dimensions and generate a project estimate. That figure is then passed onto the customer. If both sides are on the same page, the sales process moves forward.

It may seem a bit like "cutting to the chase," as Lenz puts it, but doing so keeps your sales team focused on better leads.

"We made that change a couple years ago when the economy started picking up and our salesmen started getting more and busy," Lenz says. "We had to say, 'Ok, we need to use our time more wisely.'"

Thinking Bigger

If you're looking to move into the outdoor living category, Martine suggests starting small and working your way up.

"My building did not open yesterday. I did not get into the outdoor living end of it in one season. This has been a 10-, 12-year constant reinvestment that's grown and grown and grown to what it is today," he says.

And if anything, it might require a shift in perspective:

"There's more out there than just a pool," Martine says. "Your client is going to be buying all the rest of these products, why aren't they buying them from you?"


Tiered Strategy

David Martine has a creative strategy to get his pool customers interested in outdoor furniture — he gives it away for free.

Well, somewhat. Here's how it works:

When closing a deal on a pool build, many builders seal the deal with a slight discount on the project: "If I take $3,000 off, do we have a deal?"

"Well, instead of me trying to close with a discount, I close with added value: 'I can offer you a $2,000 credit on this line of patio furniture,'" Martine says. "It just really opens up the project for a lot more things."

Not only are customers thrilled by the prospect of jazzing up their project with free furniture, they're also likely to spend more on the project because of it. If they select a chaise lounge, for example, they'll need to lay enough concrete so the homeowner can walk around it.

"Now you have the opportunity to make a better profit on the investment," he says.


Small Space Struggles

While expanding into the outdoor living market can yield success, many independent pool and spa storeowners may struggle due to space concerns. However, there are a few ways to circumvent space issues and broaden your product offerings:

Keep your inventory limited. "You don't need to inventory hundreds of products, you just need to have a few and have a relationship with your dealer so you can pick up the phone and it's there by the time your build is done," Martine says. Whether it's special lanterns, fire pits or lounge chairs, keep a few on hand for in-store shoppers, but otherwise order as-needed when incorporating them into a build.

Save your showroom space for popular mainstays. "We see outdoor fire pits being a really, really popular thing," Lenz says.

For Martine, it's all about deep-seated chairs. "I'm talking about your La-Z-Boy that is now made to be used outside. Low seating, big, fat, lush cushions with high-grade fabrics that are made to be outside," he says. Don't focus on including a little of everything and instead select what's going to be the most eye-catching for your area.

Have your products work for you. "We do not use typical conference tables or interior furniture in our line of work," Martine says. "Our presentation tables are on outdoor furniture. That is just an easy way to spark a conversation as they're sitting in the chair, going 'This is kind of comfy!'"

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