Retail in a Time of COVID

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Customer movement through the store now requires clear guidance.Customer movement through the store now requires clear guidance.

It happened so fast. In early March it was pretty much business as usual, but in the space of three months pool and spa retail was transformed. Many stores across the country were forced to close temporarily; others remained open, but regardless of their particular situation, retailers agree that the pandemic forced them to re-think their layout, customer policies and communications.

Kathi Belcourt, manager at AquaTech Pools in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was one of the retailers that completely closed their brick and mortar store once the stay-at-home recommendations went into place. "We shut down our store immediately, by choice, for the safety of our employees as well as our customers," explains Belcourt. AquaTech finally came around to the fact that they would be re-opening the store for the summer, but the question then became how to do so in a way that assured everyone would be safe yet comfortable.

Belcourt explains that she took the opportunity to really examine her store layout during its closure to find ways to create social distancing while still making it easy and comfortable to sell to her customers. "Fortunately I had already ordered some really sexy new chemical display racks from Natural Chemistry — they are bright and colorful and exactly 4 feet long — making them ideal to create natural social distancing!" Belcourt decided to position these racks at the entrance of the store and placed social distancing 'dots' on either end of the rack and 6 feet apart. "By placing the dots on either end of the rack, we can comfortably speak to one another with the rack in between us and it keeps things from feeling awkward," says Belcourt.

Similarly, Dan Lenz, manager at All Seasons Pools & Spas in Orland Park, Ill., also had to quickly decide how to reconfigure his store to make it easy to keep customers socially distant yet move them through the store efficiently. "We used to have our chemicals at the back of the store — much like grocery stores keep milk at the back of the store," says Lenz. "However, now we are using chemical buckets and signage throughout the store that help ensure social distancing." Lenz says that the chlorine buckets are especially helpful in creating aisles for the flow of customers in and out of the store.

All Seasons re-opened its retail showroom in mid-May, but Lenz acknowledges that the new 'renovations' aren't perfect and says new configurations are happening daily as needs arise. "Luckily we have a large, covered outdoor area that acts as an extension of our indoor retail store, so we have focused largely on trying to serve and sell to our customers in this outdoor area when possible." Lenz explains that they now have dots on the floor both inside and outside the store as well as signage to help ensure social distance safety and flow. "Customers wait outside on the designated dots, and we then bring each customer into the store with a personal shopper that walks them in, gets them what they need and then walks them out so we can control the number of people in the store at all times."

Unlike Aqua-Tech and All Seasons, Clements Pool Service & Supplies in Mt. Dora, Fla., did not need to close their store this spring because of the pandemic. "We have been wide open these past few months, so we are really adjusting our show floor spacing to find ways to keep employees and customers at safe social distances as we go along," says Misty Clements, owner of Clements Pool. Fortunately for Clements, their retail store underwent a major renovation two years ago at which time they took down walls and expanded their sales floor. "During our renovation we did a lot of decluttering and opening up of space so customers don't feel claustrophobic, which has been very beneficial as we implement social-distancing protocols throughout our company," she explains.

The social distance marker on this showroom floor keeps customers 6 feet away from staff.The social distance marker on this showroom floor keeps customers 6 feet away from staff.



As all retailers know, water testing is one of the most valuable services in the store, so adjustments to keep the station productive can be crucial amid social-distance strictures. Jamie Novak, brand manager for Natural Chemistry and retail store expert with over 15 years of industry experience, knows this well. "The placement and efficiency of the water-testing station and operation is central to the renovation of any retail store during this pandemic," she says. "Crowding around the water-station counter is no longer an option."

Clements says the new line-spacing procedures can actually help sell by giving customers more time and space to view well-positioned displays. "Customers line up and wait for the water-testing station, so we have placed markers every 6 feet to keep people spaced appropriately and to keep the line appealing and intentional. We added a new rack that promotes our new phosphate-removing products — which have become particularly important for our customers, as this region of Florida was plagued by chronic phosphate issues in 2019. These products have turned into a very successful solution this year, so we positioned the rack by the 12-foot floor marker in the water-testing line and keep the racks stocked with product, making the sale of the product even more successful."


As Belcourt examined her retail renovation, she opted to move the water-testing drop off and pick up to an area outside of her retail store. "This is something that is working so well that we will keep this renovation into the future," explains Belcourt. Aqua-Tech has found the new system especially helpful by providing a place where people can drop off their water samples, label them and leave them to be analyzed without having to worry about getting too close or having to wait in line. "We are finding that some people feel more comfortable not waiting in line for their water test results, and it opens up more space in our retail store after moving this drop off and pick up service to a place outside of the store." Aqua-Tech's water drop off center even offers new test jars for customers to take as they leave the 'drop zone.' "We then test the water samples and send out an email with the results including links to the products they should purchase to balance their water — which they can then order directly from our online store for delivery or pick up."

Clements agrees that the watertesting area needs to have its own space. She says that prior to their retail renovation they had their watertesting station and the checkout counter in the same place. "When we separated the water testing from the checkout counter, we found that the fl ow of people and spacing was much improved, giving them more room to strategically place products to sell. This has been helpful with social distancing as well."

RELATED: Water Testing Made Easier

At All Seasons, the water-testing station is at the back of the store, which has been challenging during this pandemic. Lenz explains that employees — wearing gloves and a mask — currently go out to customer cars parked in their lot to grab water samples, then bring the samples back into the store to be tested. "We have four computers and four spin labs, but we couldn't have them all together and still allow for safe social distancing," says Lenz. As a result, Lenz had to spread out the water-testing stations and put buckets of chlorine at each station to disinfect the water-sample jars, then run the tests, print out the results and get the customers what they need. "It isn't a long-term solution, but it was a short-term renovation that was required."

Retailers now offer curbside pickup. And for customers that call ahead, supplies can be delivered straight to their car.Retailers now offer curbside pickup. And for customers that call ahead, supplies can be delivered straight to their car.



Decluttering and prioritizing where and when products are placed is even more important now that space is truly at a premium. Clements explains that the work they did during their retail renovation two years ago is paying off even more this season. "During our earlier renovation we learned that decluttering makes a huge difference to customers," says Clements. "It makes them feel calmer and more likely to make a purchase. People don't like to feel claustrophobic when they are trying to shop, so spacing products out really helps to keep things calm and has made it easier to put socialdistancing markers throughout the store, just because we had more space available."

Novak agrees that renovating a retail store includes being more deliberate about the placement of products and the constant movement of sale items and timely products. "Decluttering your retail store might make you realize that some products shouldn't get as much space or maybe shouldn't be on the showroom floor during certain times of the year," she says.

RELATED: Sellers: Swim Spas Set To Surge

Lenz explains that when he sat down with his team to figure out how to create more space in the retail store to COVID-renovate, they determined that they would just need to remove some of the products. "We realized, for example, that toys and maintenance equipment are not something we sell a lot of, so we decided to remove it entirely from the retail floor to help open up space in the showroom." Lenz notes that All Seasons also decided to move bigger ticket items to the front and center of the showroom. "So, for example, our fully functioning Pentair equipment pad moved to be adjacent to the primary register."

Lenz feels that his COVID retail renovation is truly a dynamic movement — something that will be changing daily as the season progresses. "It will be very likely that we will be moving products and displays routinely to keep spaces open for social distancing, and in some cases we may find we move some products completely off the showroom floor if they aren't appropriate to the weather or the time of year for the sake of space."

By giving customers a place to drop off water samples, they can practice social distancing and skip the line.By giving customers a place to drop off water samples, they can practice social distancing and skip the line.


To sum it all up, Novak says, "Taking the time to plan your showroom layout, make your retail store attractive and meet social-distancing protocols can help retailers make the most of this summer season."

Although it has been a forced renovation for most, many pool and spa retailers are saying their store renovations will have lasting, positive effects on the efficiency and profitability of their retail operation.

So far, all three of the retailers contacted for this story report higher sales this year over last year. "We feel very, very fortunate that our business is doing so well," says Clements. "Our busy season normally starts in mid-April, but this year we were flooded with calls by early March."

RELATED: SOI Retail Report: Confidence in Numbers

All Seasons is also thriving despite the extra work and chaotic conditions. "Overall our sales are up from last year despite all the extra time and effort we are putting in to get the products to our customers," says Lenz. "Our hot tub sales are through the roof — they are flying out of the store this season."

And Belcourt, too, reports that AquaTech's sales for April and May were the highest the company has seen in its 30- year history despite having closed their physical retail store. "Our COVID retail renovation has been very strategic, and it appears to be working," says Belcourt. "In fact our sales closing rate is higher than in the past, and I think that social distancing and our more open retail layout is helping."

Belcourt explains that, in hindsight, she thinks that people might feel pressured if the store is filled with 30- 40 other customers. "But now that each customer has their personal shopper with them, they are more relaxed and more comfortable making a purchasing decision," she says. "Plus, the customer is now interested in making just one visit, stocking up for the season and maybe visiting our store less — which works for us!"


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