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David Strategy #8: The Saltwater Pool Problem

The David Strategy is a blog series that explains who pool and spa retailers can reinvent their business to become a "High Fidelity business," which is key to successfully battling our industry's version of Goliath — big box stores and online retailers. Today’s post is the last part of the series; thanks for reading! Pasts posts can be seen here.

Welcome back to our discussion on how to build a high definition pool and hot tub business. In today's post, the last of the series, we will explore the critical role leadership plays in both reinventing and strengthening your business and implementing the David Strategy.

To amplify leadership’s critical role we will examine a key area where our industry is failing: winning and keeping hot tub and saltwater pool consumers. No area of the professional pool and hot tub industry is missing the mark so significantly in providing solutions as in these two categories.

Before I get into it, think back to your saltwater pool and hot tub customers. What is your customer retention rate?

I have yet to meet a leader who, after doing this, wasn’t horrified by what they learned in terms of missed opportunities, and at the same time was committed to taking action to embrace fresh, more relevant paradigms and strategies to capture and optimize these massive business opportunities.

We'll start with saltwater pools. The saltwater pool market is unique from traditional pools in many ways. First, it is a MASSIVE component of the swimming pool market (a minimum of one in five swimming pools in your market are saltwater pools). It is growing at an exponential rate and it is unique in that it is the first major market that has not been fostered or driven by professional dealers; it has been driven by consumers and word of mouth. That, in and of itself, is remarkable.

Ten years ago a potential new pool prospect would contact you and seek out your advice about a type of pool. Today, consumers call your business and ask two very revealing questions: “Do you build saltwater pools?” And, much more significantly, they ask: “Do you like saltwater pools?” Take a moment and ponder why they ask the second question. They ask precisely because a high percentage of professional pool businesses do not make potential and existing saltwater pool consumers feel any degree of PureWow in their choice of wanting to have and optimize a saltwater pool — in other words, they don't feel special.

I realize there is a plethora of misinformation about saltwater pools that permeate your customer base. But you should also understand that if you and your team do not make this category of customers feel welcome and treat them as a unique “tribe” of pool owners, you are making a major mistake in your business strategy. Think about the last time a new customer entered your store. To get the ball rolling, you or your staff ask, “What type of pool do you have?” It is normal for traditional pool owners to answer concrete, fibreglass, or vinyl, inground or aboveground.  Every saltwater pool consumer will answer quite differently: with a sparkle in their eyes they, they will proudly say, “We have a salt water pool — and we love it!” This speaks volumes.

And this is precisely where your leadership, along with a massive opportunity, shines or falls off a cliff.

I've recently attended eight major industry trade shows and led discussions about the David Strategy. At each I have, when the subject of saltwater pools comes up, asked attenddes, “Do you like saltwater pools?” The response has been as horrifying as it is telling. Seven out of ten business owners make clear they dislike saltwater pools. Speed of the boss, speed of the staff. Have you ever wondered why such a large and segment of our market patronizes Wal-Mart, big box, or anywhere instead of the professional pool industry? Do not just think that is true: just walk through these stores in the spring and summer and note just how many skids of pool salt are on their showroom floors.

I believe we can find the answer by peeling back the onion a bit and doing a little navel gazing and pondering.

First, if you don’t already realize it, saltwater pool owners have a connection to their experience that can only be paralleled to the connection iPhone customers have to the passion for Apple products. It is precisely the same. It is not entirely logical: Why would consumers with other choices pay 40 percent more versus equivalent phones from Samsung? iPhone fans know iPhones are rarely technologically superior, so something else is afoot. As I pointed out in a previous post, always start with the “Why." Steve Jobs understood his tribe of raving fans were addicted to a remarkable experience that transcends just having a functional phone.  It is the cache. It is the experience. It is design and packaging. Above all, it is about “respect for their choices.” And that is where the rubber meets the road with the massive saltwater pool market, and your opportunity lies to turn a sub-optimal profit and business opportunity into a Purple Cow for your business.

Let me provide one more example to amplify the issue, and a place for you to start and to leverage your leadership with your team and your customers. So, back to our iPhone example. Let us just say you are an iPhone raving fan and the upcoming iPhone 7S is newly released. You have read about it, heard about it, and can’t wait to get one – heck, you are even willing to line up for hours to get your hands on one. You head down to your local phone store, and, to your utter dismay, the staff make it clear that your choice and passion for an iPhone is a poor decision. They point out all the things you got wrong and totally disrespect your love for your iPhone and all things Apple. How excited would you be to return to that store and subject yourself to the same treatment?

Well, this is exactly the first impression many saltwater pool customers have in stores across the country. Sadly, it does start with “speed of the boss, speed of the staff” leadership. If the staff believe you have doubts or dislike saltwater pools, it cannot help but come through both in customer exchanges and in how welcoming your store is to saltwater pool owners.


To be fair, this issue is highly affected by the misconceptions saltwater pool owners have about the product. However, this is where one of our industry's greatest strengths becomes a weakness — we love to educate customers. The problem is, no matter how gentle you or your staff are about “educating” saltwater pool customers, it's going to become a negative shopping experience for them.

Quite often, it goes like this: Right after a customer tells us about their choice to purchase a saltwater pool, we gently take them under our arm and “educate them." We say they are misinformed and should consider switching to a traditional pool solution.

Who among us, whether it’s our choice of an iPhone, or a saltwater pool that we absolutely love, would want to go back to a business that provides an unremarkable experience? And that, folks, is precisely why saltwater pool consumers avoid going to professional pool and hot tub dealers. It is not about how cheap they are. Think about it: They paid more for their saltwater pool and they love it. Does that sound like the profile of a consumer unwilling to get the best technology for their family’s saltwater pool experience? I do not believe so.

The other critical aspect to winning the saltwater pool market is ensuring your offering speaks to their need for respect and acknowledges the simple fact that saltwater chemistry is different from traditional pool chemistry in many ways. As technology advances, more effective solutions are developed to meet unmet needs like saltwater pool care. It is widespread knowledge that using dry acid in salt water pools is a big no no, that using uninhibited salt cell cleaners dramatically shortens the life of salt cells and that scaling, staining and corrosion in saltwater pools can be very effectively managed with new sciences. Leadership is exploring and championing these better solutions before competitors do, winning your clients away from them. Spreading the message that you're a company that likes and respects saltwater pools sets the tone for future success.

Offering weak product solutions simply does not result in remarkable experiences for saltwater pool consumers. Many of them are technologies that are more than 20 years old and were never designed to survive and perform in the unique, challenging environment of a saltwater pool. To the same end, offering traditional pool care ideas — like a weekly pool care program to saltwater pool owners — simply misses the mark on exceeding their expectations. They don’t wish to, or rarely do, buy into a weekly pool care system.

If your business includes the hot tub category, apply the same thinking to that department. When we sell a hot tub, we speak to the benefits of a hot tub: relaxation, health, conversation, therapy for sore muscles, simplicity. Then we take customers to our hot tub chemical department, where they often see old-fashioned, repackaged pool care products for hot tubs, which makes little sense to them. Two caps of this, one cap of that, three caps of this, and every four months the system is so ineffective the customer will have to “purge” and see just how poor our system is…what are we thinking? Technology and understanding of hot tub consumer needs has moved on, as should what you select, stock and promote. Do so and you will be amazed at a second unrealized opportunity for your business.

So to close this out: leadership touches all aspects of the David Strategy, setting the tone for staff, ensuring you are selecting and marketing the best of technologies and solutions, making each group of customers few special, loved and respected.

Thanks so much for reading this blog series on the David Strategy. I hope it helps elevate the conversation, gives you actionable ideas on how to take our industry back and strategies to take to reinvent our businesses and stop the insanity of playing by Goliath’s rules.

Dennis Gray is the founder, along with one of the most experienced teams of innovative industry professionals of Backyard Brands Inc., and former President of Biolab Inc.’s. International Group of companies. Backyard Brands is focused on one mission: to develop differentiated and remarkable backyard water wellness products sold exclusively through Backyard Leisure Professionals who have a passion for reinventing their businesses to compete more successfully in this new age.

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