Though sales have been sluggish in many retail categories in recent years, one pool accessory has defied the recession and continued to charm customers, providing a crucial revenue stream for dealers across North America — the small but doughty APC.
These mercantile champions come in different forms — suction driven, pressure driven, in-floor and robotic, but regardless of the shape and mechanical design, they offer consumers two things they want badly and are willing to pay for — better hygiene and convenience.
As the economy has shown signs of growth this season, the previously steady consumer interest in APCs has surged apace, says Dan Lenz, service manager, All Seasons Pools & Spas, Orland Park, Ill. "This year we saw a huge increase in sales in automatic pool cleaners," he says. "During our two-day weekend spring sale, which we hold every year, we sold more of these cleaners than in any year before.
"In the past, customers would come in during the sale to pick up their staples for the season and would never pick up something like an automatic pool cleaner — but this year was different. I think the economy and consumer confidence is part of the reason for the increase in sales, but I also think there is a real desire by pool owners to find more-convenient ways to care for their pools."
"Convenience" might as well be one of Harry Potter's incantations. Say it, wave your hands, and you can sell almost anything. Americans are almost desperate for anything that can give them more time and fewer hassles, and they have clearly shown that they like the idea of the APC working away tidying up the pool while they're taking care of other matters.
A secondary driver of APC sales is simple dirtophobia, another recent subcultural movement. A great many people simply don't like dirt, on their hands, in their homes, in their lives. They sanitize immediately after a visit to the mall, they won't touch any surface in a public bathroom and they don't want dirt to linger in their pool, either.
The APC keeps the pool spotless between cleanings — whether that's a homeowner's regimen or a service person's regular stop. Using an APC on the off days means the pool practically never looks dirty.
Marc Gare, owner of Perry Pools & Spas, a building company inNorwalk, Conn., has seen this phenomenon. Perry Pools runs service routes for customers, but Gare says some clients still want to have the extra automatic, robotic cleaner "because they don't want to pay us to come out every day and they want their pool clean, no matter what happens."
Technological advances and years of promotion have also helped sales, adds Lenz. "Automatic and robotic cleaners have come a long way in the last four to five years. In the past the units were never independent of the pool system, but now they are. This makes a big difference to consumers and is one of the main reasons, I think, that automatic pool cleaner sales are up.
"Consumers are also being exposed to a lot of advertising and marketing by the manufacturers on the Internet," he adds, "so consumers come to us after seeing the cleaner online and deciding they want one."
Even with pre-educated customers, APCs are so different in their cost and features, the sales staff must analyze each customer to determine which unit is best, says Pat O'Keefe, co-founder of E-Z Test Pool Supplies with three New England locations — Plaistow and Derry, N.H., and North Reading, Mass.
"When it comes to pool cleaners we offer a good, better and best option for our customers," O'Keefe says. "The 'good' starts at $595, the 'better' at $995 and the 'best' sells for $1,395. So with an older customer who is very particular and doesn't want to see a single speck of dirt, I recommend the high-end cleaner. But with our younger customers, who tend to be a little more forgiving — because they are younger or because they have children — I tell them that the entry-level cleaner will definitely improve their water quality without spending as much on the high-end cleaner.
"All of the cleaners come with a 36-month warranty, which our customers love. We are even an authorized service company for the cleaners, so they just bring them in here when they need to be repaired."
Keep On Scrubbing
A good understanding of the way each type of APC works is critical to the sales process and impresses customers. For instance, certain models provide better protection against algae growth, says Gare. "If our client is concerned about algae and looking for a robotic cleaner, we recommend a cleaner that climbs and brushes the walls and also vacuums. When it comes to algae, it's important to keep those walls brushed because algae gains strength by adhering to the walls. If the algae is brushed off the wall, then its strength is reduced and it can't grow and reproduce.
"We also like a cleaner that works on all types of pools. The cleaner we use works just as well in gunite pools as it does on vinyl-liner pools and it doesn't matter what shape the pool is or what obstacles there are. The fact that it doesn't use the skimmer is another main reason we recommend it, because if the cleaner uses the skimmer, then the skimmer isn't skimming the water."
Above all, when trying to guide the APC selection process, the salesperson must listen carefully and stay focused on the customer's priorities — whether these are convenience, tidiness or issues particular to the pool or its location.
Do not be distracted by odd quirks. Every business has its eccentrics, which O'Keefe can aver:
"Some customers really like to test what a cleaner can do. I had one customer toss celery into his pool and then he stood there watching the cleaner go around and around. He called and told me the cleaner had made three passes and still hadn't picked up the celery . . . You can't make this stuff up . . . "
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Scott Webb has been with AQUA magazine in one capacity or another since April 2001; he now serves as executive editor. Scott has a degree from University of Cincinnati in Aerospace Engineering and lives in Madison, Wisc.