Winning Against Online Merchants

Online Tugof War Art 1017 Feat

Ask most swimming pool retailers what their No. 1 business concern is, and the overwhelming majority will answer, “Price competition from the internet!” It’s the cause of deep anxiety, particularly when even your most “loyal” customers who have done business with you for years privately price-shop you against your online competition. And while I don’t mean to underscore the significance of this concern (which I will address shortly), I’m convinced after coast-to-coast retail visits last month in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, multiple locations in California, Phoenix and Tucson, that we’re making it too easy for valued customers to go elsewhere for their pool supply needs.

Now that I’ve elevated your blood pressure, please allow me to explain. As a former pool owner, weekends were my time to tend to the pool — and that meant frequent visits to the pool store. Judging from pool store traffic during my recent weekend visits in Florida, it remains a popular shopping day with pool owners. Yet out of the 19 stores I visited (excluding those with 2 or more locations), 31 percent were closed on Sundays. And nearly 20 percent had reduced hours on Saturdays, closing as early as 1 and 2 p.m.

During weekdays, 42 percent of the stores closed between 5 and 5:30 p.m., making after-work shopping trips virtually impossible. The most convenient shopping hours offered out of all the retailers was Leslie’s, the arch nemesis of so many independent pool retailers. They were open from 9 to 7 p.m. M-W, 8 to 8 p.m. T-F and 9 to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (This may vary by city/region, but these were their specific hours in Arizona.)

While convenience is typically associated with online shopping, pool stores should be enjoying a significant advantage over internet retailers with their excellent on-demand service, including their on-site water testing capabilities, product knowledge and ability to instantly meet chemical and equipment needs. However, how easy are you making it to do business with you when your hours of operation are so limited, particularly during the days and times when customers are most likely to buy?

I can hear your arguments already — I understand you have a life and can’t afford to staff a brick-and-mortar location 24/7. But are you sure your hours of operation are the same hours that customers find most convenient for them? And do you also offer your customers the same online purchasing convenience as the online competition you’re up against?

The good news is that the majority of swimming pool equipment requires professional installation. So, even when pool owners purchase online, they often have to return to the very companies they bypassed on the purchase to install their equipment. Additionally, manufacturers have created “brick-and-mortar” products and programs with extended warranties and other consumer incentives for purchasing through traditional pool professional channels.

RELATED: How to Compete with Online Retailers

The Elephant in the Room

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. With your significantly higher overhead costs, how do you compete against the online pricing offered by companies without brick-and-mortar locations? What’s your strategy?

While attending a PoolCorp retail conference several years ago, there was spirited debate over this very subject. Many pool professionals refuse to install or service equipment purchased online. As they explained it, once their company “touches” the equipment, the pool owner holds THEM responsible for fixing any and all problems. In the consumer’s mind, if the product is defective, it’s a result of the installation, NOT the online retailer from whom they purchased. Of course, no matter how clear you are in instructing the consumer to contact the online reseller if a problem arises AFTER the installation is completed, it goes in one ear and out the other.

So, what would you do in this situation? Without profit dollars from a product sale to offset costs from a follow-up all call, it’s a MONEY LOSER. Anyone want to sign up for that?

While the majority of discussion participants pointlessly argued about the evil empire (internet resellers) and the unscrupulous buyers that are stealing money from their pockets, one lone refreshing voice in the room was willing to talk about the solution he implemented. He offered two proactive solutions, each requiring a contract signature. Rather than avoid the elephant in the room, he hit it HEAD ON.

He described two options and how, because companies are in business to make money, Option A (in which the product was purchased through them along with installation) allowed him to set aside dollars in the event of service follow-up for a manufacturing defect.

Option B covered travel and time for one-time installation or service. Any follow-up for warranty repairs or replacement was between the pool owner and their online seller. Period.

By adding e-commerce capability to your website and pricing similar to online resellers (without service), while still more expensive, you’ll be a whole lot more competitive. And for pool owners that want you to assume full responsibility for the equipment, there’s a simple solution — you add to your pricing the profit dollars that would have been yielded had they purchased from you in the first place. The choice is obvious.

RELATED: Hot Tub Products Launches E-Commerce Service

As I shared at the beginning of this article, we’re making it too easy for our customers to do business with someone else, rather than us. To take back control, try the following:

Ask and answer: How convenient are you to do business with? Do my days and hours of operation reflect when my buyers most wish to purchase their pool supplies and equipment?

Stop grousing about the internet and losing sales to online competitors. It’s here to stay. Provide your valued customers with an e-commerce site of your own, with 24/7 purchasing convenience

Stop avoiding the elephant in the room. Develop a strategy to counteract lower online pricing with buying options that give your customers more reasons to say “yes” to you.

Leon Rawitz is president of Rawitz Marketing Group ( a consulting firm specializing in the pool and spa industry. His consulting and speaking clients have included Pentair, PoolCorp, Arch Chemical, A & A Manufacturing, Aquatech, Ft. Wayne Pools, Pinch a Penny, NESPA, and many more. 
To contact Leon, go to [email protected] or call (919) 290-2704.

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