Big Help

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People like to shop in bright, uncluttered and attractively merchandised stores. Acknowledging this, Brendan Reilly, owner of the Pool & Spa House, gave his three locations in the greater Portland, Ore., area a new look when he added BioGuard Store Within A Store (SWAS) shelving and signage in 2004. "It gives your store a very professional retail look," he says. "In my mind, it lets us start to compete with really top-notch retailers. When I come into our stores that have been decked out and done with their shelving, it's like walking into a Starbucks store — everything is a certain way. It has a certain look to it, it's very consistent, it's very upscale."

Before integrating the SWAS shelving, Reilly was concerned about the upfront cost. "We really struggled with it. Financially, it didn't make sense for us to do, but finally I decided to do it for two reasons: No. 1, customers walking in the door just expect a nicer-looking store because they're getting that when they go to the mall and other places they shop. That's what they expect, so you have to provide that.

"Also, our staff wanted to see that our stores were becoming more professional, that we were growing, and that we were moving into being a more upscale retailer. And when we finally put all the shelving and signage in the stores, it made a huge difference in staff morale. It was incredible, just amazing. Our staff felt better about themselves and their jobs, so productivity was higher, and there was a better atmosphere in the stores, which resulted in more sales. I really didn't think we were going to recoup our investment, but in the end we did."

BioGuard's Store Within A Store is just one of many support programs that it and other chemical suppliers offer their dealers. Arch Chemicals, for instance, also provides its dealers with an array of temporary and permanent product displays for its chemicals, says director of sales Buck Hall, who believes it's important to keep retail stores inviting. "Look at your major retailers: Why do they change those up periodically, move things around and upgrade. If it works today, why not just keep it that way. That's not what they do. Merchandising is a live thing. You upgrade and update and change things around all the time."

To help its dealers establish and maintain attractive stores and generate additional revenue at the same time, BioGuard introduced its Backyard Essentials line a few years ago. Reilly has taken advantage of this, as well. "We do lots and lots of candles, and carry backyard art and fountains," he says. "Those products are not a huge chunk of our income stream, but it's a nice addition. Plus, it makes the stores look more complete. There's more for the customer to look at when they're in the store, so it keeps them in the store longer, which is nice. And again, for the employees, it gives them a little diversity — there's some fun stuff to sell."

Scott Newton, director of marketing at BioGuard, says the company introduced the Backyard Essentials line because he realizes "there's a changing environment in retail across America, and you need to be a destination location. You need to be more than just pool chemistry to survive long-term.

"And we have found that our dealers who have embraced other things, whether it's our Backyard Essentials program or a spa line or bird feeders or whatever it is, they have expanded their base of where their revenue comes from, and they have also spread out the seasonality of their business. It just makes for a better, healthier business. We're trying to make sure that our dealer network is a better network for the consumer, and that they're better businesses long-term by having more avenues for revenue."

At Your Fingertips

In this increasingly digital age, Webbased support and the convenience it offers are becoming more important. For example, on its Web site, Advantis Technologies has material safety data sheets for all its products, as well as "planograms" for dealers looking for some direction in setting up their showrooms. "We also have online water analysis for consumers, and a lot of retailers refer to this as well," says Mike Moore, vice president of marketing for Advantis.

In October 2006, BioGuard launched its Dealer Village, an online forum where BioGuard dealers can connect with one another and participate in educational courses. "What we're trying to do with Dealer Village is give dealers a means by which they can collaborate and help one another," says Newton. As smaller, independent retailers, pool and spa dealers generally don't have the resources that large corporations have to draw on, notes Newton, but a tool like Dealer Village can help them stay competitive.

Some of the most popular features of BioGuard's Dealer Village so far have been the education modules, the "webinars," the discussion boards and the human resources software.

According to Carl Dunn, assistant programs manager at BioLab and the "mayor" of Dealer Village, "I probably have about a dozen recorded webinars in there right now, and we're adding them all the time. And our plan by the end of first quarter is to build roughly a dozen or more training sessions that are going to be designed strictly for a dealer that is hiring seasonal or new help. We want to have plenty of training loaded in the system, and we want to build a suggested curriculum for new hires. So what dealers can do is, instead of attaching Joe to John to follow him around all day, have new hires learn some of the basics at a computer. It's all online, and it's there for them 24/7. And once the new hires go through the training, they're more comfortable helping customers, and the dealer manager can feel fairly confident that they know enough to be out on the floor."

On the Dealer Village discussion boards, dealers can share ideas about a wide range of topics. "We came back from Dealer Mart last fall, and the discussion board was one of the things that I thought would take them a while to adopt, but in the first week, they were just humming," says Dunn.

Says Newton, "Whether it's developing an employee manual or sharing ideas about how to decorate stores or throw a Christmas party or motivate employees, they've already started using it as a collaboration portal."

"Being able to bounce information back and forth in real time every single day with other dealers is nice," says Reilly, who appreciates opportunities like the discussion boards because there he can communicate with other dealers who have specific, common interests, and that's also why he likes to attend Dealer Mart. "It's just nice to talk with other dealers about what trends they see, what they're trying, and what's working well or not working."

One part of the Village Reilly has used quite a bit so far is the Talent Seeker human resources software. "It's my shining star of the day," he says. "All of our marketing drives people to our Web site, where there's a link that goes to our page on the Dealer Village Talent Seeker Web site. You click on the position you're interested in, and it gives you an online application to fill out. What it allows us to do is constantly harvest applications for our business. And the online application is such that it's really fast and easy to figure out who you want to concentrate on and who you don't. It's very nice.

"They do also offer some personality profile type screening to see if particular applicants are right for the job, but we haven't used that service yet.

"Just to put all this in perspective," continues Reilly, "We used to put an ad in the newspaper, and from that we may get, if we were lucky, six or eight responses and they would all call in or walk in, so we would have to take time and deal with every single one of them that walked through the door, which took some time. Now, we're advertising wherever we can, which translates to wherever we can for free, so that means signs on all of our trucks, at the employment office, at the local colleges and high schools, on bulletin boards and craigslist. And, as an example, in the month of January, we got unsolicited — meaning no ad in the newspaper — probably 35 applications. It just floored me. It's phenomenal."

Pool Schools

Many chemical suppliers also provide education and training for their dealers — and it's not just basic water chemistry classes anymore. For example, this year at its flagship dealer training, which is held in five spots across the country, Arch Chemicals offered seminars led by two college professors from the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University. "What we're trying to do is make the dealers better businesspeople," says Paul Kurke, training manager at Arch. "So along those lines, we had the professors do seminars on hiring, firing and retaining employees; creating an effective marketing plan; accounting and tax-savvy operations; and strategic planning, since many dealers set goals, like selling 10 more pools in the next year, but don't always know how to plan to get that done.

"In addition, this year we have created the Arch RITE, which stands for Regional Intensive Training Exercise, and this is an eight-and-a-half-hour all-day chemistry, product knowledge course. This is targeted toward the new hires, so we'll be starting with the very basics of water chemistry, proper product application, and we'll actually cover a little marketing, too, like why it's important to have a nice stack out and keep your shelves clean."

These daylong seminars will be held at various locations throughout the country, says Hall, who anticipates Arch will host about 50 of them this year.

In addition to its business and technical training available in the Dealer Village and at Dealer Mart, BioGuard also conducts what it calls Chem Colleges throughout the country. "We have one-day bachelor-degree programs, which cover the basics of water chemistry and getting them up to speed on our chemistry," says Newton. "Then there's a one-day master's program, which gets them more technical information, and a bit more on problem solving. Then we have two-day schools, which encompass both. We'll have five two-day schools this year and about 30 one-day schools."

BioGuard and other suppliers also have regional representatives that often conduct both dealer- and consumer-oriented seminars on water chemistry and other topics. According to Keith Beebe, owner of Dunrite Pools in Bohemia, N.Y., "Every year in May, Arch has their sales rep in the area come into our store and go over the entire chemical line with our staff, so they get to learn a lot about each of the products and how they work and the best way to handle different things. That's something we do every spring and that's a great thing they offer."

Take The Plunge

Many suppliers also have a co-op advertising program, which is particularly helpful when dealers want to get out a direct-mail post card quickly. And, of course, regional reps are a great resource whatever your concern may be. Recognizing that their dealers face significant competition today — from the Internet, from mass merchants — chemical suppliers have created a sizable pool of resources, and now it's up to dealers to dive in.

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