Selling APCs in an Online World

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The APC display at SwimFun Pool & Patio in Olathe, Kan., located right next to the water test station. All the retailers in this story agreed that prominent display is a key to maximizing sales of automatic pool cleaners.The APC display at SwimFun Pool & Patio in Olathe, Kan., located right next to the water test station. All the retailers in this story agreed that prominent display is a key to maximizing sales of automatic pool cleaners.In the midst of a global pandemic, business at Patio Pleasures Pools & Spas' two locations in the Madison, Wis., area remains brisk this summer.

"We could sell 10 pools a day, if we had them," says Rene Huston, president of Patio Pleasures. "Many people are not traveling, or they've canceled their vacation plans and want to do whatever they can to add some level of excitement to their backyards. I don't know that we could have ever planned for this, because we didn't expect it. But it kind of makes sense in hindsight."

That's why it should come as no surprise that sales of automatic pool cleaners — even the higher-end robotic models — are up at Patio Pleasures, too. Consumers flush with cash they might have spent elsewhere this summer recognize the long-term cost-savings and increased enjoyment of pool ownership that APCs provide. (A burgeoning general interest in artificial intelligence these days doesn't hurt, either.)

Since their introduction in the late 1950s, APCs have become a fixture in the North American poolscape, because of their efficiency and their personality. They move around the pool, seemingly of their own volition, tidying up and dramatically reducing the need for manual sweeping and vacuuming.

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"We tell customers a pool cleaner is like a Roomba for your pool," says Jeannie Pearcy, owner of SwimFun Pool & Patio in Olathe, Kan.

In recent years, as with retail products in so many industries, internet competition cut deeply into APC sales at brick-and-mortar dealerships. Responding to retailer concerns, many APC manufacturers began developing "trade-only" product lines that would be available exclusively through physical pool and spa stores. These models often include additional features, extra supplies, longer warranties or rebate offers — plus the peace of mind that comes with knowing reliable service will always be available from the dealership and backed by further support from the manufacturer.

In conversation with pool and spa retailers in general, one finds a great many opinions on the efficacy of the trade-only movement, but some retailers report clear benefits.

"The trade-only strategy showed us that the manufacturers are looking out for our best interests," says Jimmy Cooper, store manager for Outback Pools & Spas in Wichita Falls, Texas. "We make money, they make money and customers get to see exactly what a brick-and-mortar store can do. A lot of pool products are easy to buy online, but people can have bad experiences with online purchases. That provides us a way to sort of open their eyes to what we can do."

Thanks in part to the advent of trade-only models — as well as prominent in-store displays, try-beforeyou-buy programs and a good pool economy in general — dealers are reporting solid APC sales this summer.


The convenience of ordering a robotic APC from the comfort of a backyard pool deck and having it delivered two days later might seem like the ultimate in customer service to pool owners who don't know better. But their level of satisfaction can change quickly.

"I truly believe that most people who buy a pool item online are disappointed, either because it failed prematurely or it wasn't the right item to begin with," Huston says. "We see a lot of people coming into our showroom saying, 'Hey, I bought this online and it doesn't work right.' That gives us the opportunity to show them how they could have benefitted from buying from us. Generally speaking, after experiences like that, consumers end up putting their faith and trust in brick-and-mortar retailers."


When internet customers bring their APCs into Outback Pools & Spas seeking service or maintenance assistance, Cooper's hands are tied because his store didn't sell that particular item. "I say, 'We can't touch your cleaner, but we are having a sale on these,' and I point them to our display. I tell them we can service the units we sell and try to channel their frustration into something positive by showing them why it pays to buy local."

Cooper estimates he's been able to convert about half of all online buyers to in-store customers by using that approach.

"We service what we sell, and we don't service what we don't sell," Pearcy adds. "And service is the primary reason people buy from us. You can't make it as a small business in Kansas by pandering to people that buy off the internet. If customers want to buy from us, come to us. If they want to use the internet, go to the internet. But they can't have both."

Huston has long felt the same way and for years stubbornly avoided servicing units purchased online. Now, however, her perspective is beginning to change. In early June, a customer brought in an APC unit purchased online but manufactured by the same company that makes Patio Pleasures' trade-only lines.

"It needed a new motor, and we agreed to help that customer," she says. "It resulted in a really nice service sale. So, it sometimes comes down to how busy we are at a given time, although I still teeter back and forth on this. I want to tell online buyers to go online and find their own support. However, I am trying to be a little bit more openminded in determining whether we can maybe pick up some service revenue on the other side."


One of the major selling points of an automatic pool cleaner is its capability to "fire the pool guy, in a sense," Cooper says. When Outback Pools & Spas reduced some of its pool maintenance offerings in 2019, interest in APCs increased dramatically, he says.

"We do the math with customers, multiplying one hour of cleaning service per week over 52 weeks and then comparing that to the actual price of a cleaner," he says. "That speaks volumes to customers. Professional cleanings add up real quick, so once they actually see the cost difference, they realize a $1,000 or $1,500 cleaner that they can run two or three hours a day for 365 days a year is more affordable than they originally thought."

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In reality, of course, the APC works as a reliable pool care assistant, and a stopgap between comprehensive cleanings.

"We're only there every so often, and a pool usually needs to be cleaned between our visits," Huston says. "Plus, even if you have an automatic pool cleaner, there's always some manual work that still needs to be done by a service crew, like brushing the pool walls. And, depending on the water environment, there's still a need for manual vacuuming. But we're seeing less and less of a need for that if the customer has an automatic pool cleaner."


Because APCs have more visual appeal than many pieces of pool equipment, dealers rely on prominent store displays that often serve as conversation starters with customers. One of the displays at SwimFun showcases three shiny models on a vertical shelving unit, which allows for hands-on selling and buying. Other open units are stacked on boxes. The store displays a total of six different models, Pearcy says, with a healthy inventory for sale on the showroom floor and more in the back.

Outback Pools & Spas stocks an average of 20 to 25 APCs at any given time, ranging from inexpensive suctionside cleaners to high-end versions, according to Cooper. All inventory is on the showroom floor, and some units are pre-assembled and ready to sell to buyers who prefer not having to put anything together.

And at Patio Pleasures, moving the display to a more prominent location has paid off in sales. "Pool cleaners used to be kept back in the corner," says Huston. "Now that they're out in the open, I see the difference in how many we sell. Part of that is because of the display and having the products right there, front and center. They catch people's eye."

Once they catch people's eye, Huston encourages would-be buyers to take a unit home and let it go to work. The try-before-you-buy program at Patio Pleasures allows customers 24-hour access to the store's most expensive unit. "When they return it, we do a quick inspection to make sure they cleaned out the baskets and everything is still intact," Huston says. "And typically it results in them wanting to buy their own."

Pearcy reports similar results from SwimFun's try-before-you-buy program, and those customers who don't purchase a unit right away usually put an APC on their wish list and begin saving for one. SwimFun also sells the previous season's demo models for a discounted price and shorter warranty.

Convincing customers about the benefits of an automatic pool cleaner has gotten easier in recent years, Cooper adds — especially as reliance on the convenience of technology increases. Yet sometimes, buyers don't even realize they need one.

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"One thing we've started doing, which has worked out amazing, is working with people who just moved into a house with a pool and come in to ask us for help cleaning it," Cooper says. "We tell them the best thing they can do is buy an automatic pool cleaner. We can still get them on our service route, but this way when we're not there, they still have an easy way to clean their pool."

Despite a variety of sales strategies, nothing beats word of mouth when it comes to moving APCs out the store's door and into a customer's pool, dealers say. That's why the product will continue to be a strong seller — especially in today's retail environment.

"Pool owners are looking for more convenient ways to keep their pools healthy and happy," Huston concludes. "Life is full of to-do lists, and time is precious. So an automatic pool cleaner is a great option."

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