The off-season is normally a time for pool and spa retailers to take a much-needed deep breath. After being slammed with summer business, the phone starts to ring a little less, store traffic slows down, and retailers might even be preparing for some time off.
Not this year.
Coming off a record season — the best in the industry's history — with the effects of the global pandemic still looming, the winterizing months will look a little different this year. We spoke with industry retailers on what they are doing to prepare for the fourth quarter and the new year, and discovered agile new thinking to keep up with fragile new circumstances.
The pool and spa season came and went in a flash — much like this year's inventory. With such high demand, hot tubs were selling faster than manufacturers could replenish stock. "There was a month when we had 3,500 square feet of showroom with nothing on it," says David Isaacs, owner of Isaacs Pools & Spas in Johnson City, Tenn.
Isaacs has had to get innovative to compensate for a lack of inventory, especially because he doesn't see demand slowing down over what would typically be a slower period. "I see our winter season being very busy, and that simply parlays off of having a record year in hot tub sales," says Isaacs. "We are seeing a tremendous amount of traffi c in the store, which is uncommon for this time of year."
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The company has been showing customers digital versions of hot tubs when physical ones are not present. And part of its showroom floor will be replaced with vinyl flooring in the shape of a spa to serve as a "lifesize brochure." "It is also very important that we have a firm idea of what is going to be arriving and when," says Isaacs. "We make a copy of each hot tub prior to its arrival and place it on a slatwall that rolls. The customer is then able to put their name on it."
Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools & Spas in Orland Park, Ill., is also fi nding ways to cope with a lack of inventory — he says the company is just now fi lling some orders that were placed back in May. "We have been telling customers that if they have a used hot tub, we will take it off their hands and even offer them some value for it against the purchase of a new hot tub. They bring in the old tub; we go through it, clean it up and put it on the showroom floor.
"But you would never buy a used car without driving it. The same applies to used hot tubs, especially for first-time buyers, which we are, of course, seeing a lot of. We alleviate this concern by hooking up the hot tub and showing customers it is fully functioning. And this whole process has ultimately helped us with supply and demand."
All Seasons also found itself adding two new lines of hot tubs to its showroom amid the pandemic — one because the manufacturer had stock at the time and the other because of the price point. "Before, we were never interested in bringing in other lines to compete with what we have," explains Lenz. "But mid-COVID, we had enough people coming in the store looking for hot tubs in the $5,000 or lower range that we brought in a line to match that price point, and have since replenished that line several times throughout the pandemic."
LOOKING AT NEXT YEAR
A lack of inventory also places a large need on retailers to plan ahead — even into the 2021 season. "I've never really had to think this far out before," says Isaacs, "but we are thinking about next spring, summer, even fall of next year. Our manufacturers are 30 to 40 weeks out for making spas.
"If you aren't thinking about your manufacturer's lead times, you could easily find yourself sitting in an empty showroom come spring in this particular environment."
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Lenz says he is looking at new orders that have an expected lead time of 45 weeks, which means planning for next year's busy season is crucial — but it's also a bit of a guessing game. "We are stocking far more hot tubs than we have before just so we can be sure to have some on hand," says Lenz. "But I'm also concerned about accumulating overstock, because if something happens to the economy or something changes in consumer confidence, we could end up sitting on too much."
MAKING PERMANENT CHANGES
Amid the pandemic, retailers had to re-examine their store layouts and fi nd ways to create social distancing and better fl ow to make both their staff and customers comfortable. Now, nearly nine months into social distancing, customers are more accustomed to COVID protocol. So much so that Lenz, over the winter season, plans to take down some of the social distance measures All Seasons put in place at the height of the pandemic.
"When the pandemic hit, we were getting ready to celebrate our complete showroom remodel," says Lenz. "And the tape, pathways and social distancing protocol was distracting customers from all the work and money we placed into that.
"People now have a better understanding of what this virus is and how to do things differently, so in the next month or so, we are going to pull back on some of the measures we put in place last spring."
As for Isaacs, the pandemic forced his company to take on new methods that he believes will benefit the company far after this is all over. His team is working to make permanent adjustments to help guide people through the store more efficiently.
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"We've learned that organizing our customers in a line and keeping them separated is actually good for us beyond COVID," says Isaacs. "We are able to get people through the line quickly and better help them one at a time. We have ordered crowd control barriers and plan to continue to use and explore a nice workflow through the winter period."
He expects that customers will continue to demand curbside pickup and water care now that they've had a taste of its convenience, as well as an immersive e-commerce experience.
REFLECTION AND CELEBRATION
This year's retail season was, in a lot of ways, A Tale of Two Cities. "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times," says Isaacs.
The pool and spa industry was on the right side of this pandemic, which is not lost on Isaacs as he and his team refl ect on the busy year. "We're burning the books up here. You can't compare it to anything that came before," he says. "But we're trying to keep everything in perspective and remember that we have been very blessed. When you see people that you hold dear and great places you love shut their doors, it's a very bittersweet victory."
As business continues to boom, Isaacs plans to give every employee a "COVID bonus," as he calls it, to thank them for a record season. "This is purely to say thank you to them for continuing to come in, continuing to work through the pandemic. It means the world to me," he says.
Isaacs Pools & Spas will have an official celebration — a company-wide, end-of-the-year trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn. — and then it's back to business as usual.
"We still have one quarter to go," Isaacs says, "but I do believe, based on the average amount of spas we've sold every month this year, that we will end up 50 units past our best year ever. I'm certainly enjoying the ride."