The story of Ron Hinderliter's humble beginnings and steady rise in the backyard retail business is a familiar one: He worked for a pool company in college, did a little service on his own after that, hired a few hands to help out with construction then moved out of his garage and into a small retail location. He built up a loyal customer base for his company and beat the odds by simply keeping Backyard Pool & Patio afloat. It's a nice success story that echoes one we've heard many times.
That story took a dramatic turn several years ago, though, when he and his wife, Kathy, decided to more than quadruple the size of their store and focus heavily on increasing the retail segment of the business. It was a short move to the new building — literally just across the street — but it was also a bold move that came with a big budget of $2.3 million.
"The old store was jammed tight with all the same things we carry today, on a much smaller scale," he says. "Too little space, poor lighting and lack of warehouse with growing demand for our products and services forced us to build the new building. The new store has 12,000 square feet of showroom space and a 9,000-square-foot warehouse."
AQUA caught up with the Hinderliters recently and asked them about their company's transition from its cramped quarters to the award-winning showroom it now occupies in Bloomington, Ill.
AQUA: Give us a little background on Backyard Pool & Patio.
Kathy: Rod started on his own in 1996. He went to college here in Bloomington-Normal and started just doing some service for people out of his garage, and grew into having his own retail store location. He started out being a BioGuard dealer, then got into spas, hired a crew, did some pool installations, and it just kind of grew. Once it got too big for him to run out of his garage he moved to a new location, outgrew that one, then moved to a place across from where we are now.
AQUA: What was the old store like?
Kathy: It was very small. We didn't have a really large showroom or anything, so it just started getting overcrowded. It was only about 8,000 square feet, but that included the warehouse and the offices and things. So the showroom was pretty small. We grew so much into other things over there. We brought in patio furniture, and that you do have to display. Spas were very big for us then, so we had quite a few spas and they took up most of the retail space. There was just enough room left over for the chemicals.
AQUA: What did you set out to accomplish with the design of the new store?
Kathy: We wanted to diversify and build our retail side more so than the construction side by offering the other products that we started carrying — furniture, grills, etc. It was offering more than just a pool — basically everything for your backyard. So that was what we set out to do, and we've done really well with it. Our retail has increased to where we wanted it to — well, you always want it to be even bigger! — but we increased that. We still do about the same amount of pool construction, but for our retail presence, that's increased a lot.
AQUA: Did you get some help with the design?
Rod: The design team of MASCO (the parent company of Hot Spring Spas) worked with my dimensions and I explained what I wanted to do. We did not want to clutter the showroom with spas, patio furniture, grills, toys, pool supplies, gazebos and fireplaces, so we created a raceway encompassing the perimeter yet allowing complete displays and vignettes near the window areas. This allowed us to direct customers to the departments throughout the store.
The Backyard Essentials program through BioGuard allowed us to define each department with pedestal signage.
AQUA: What do customers see when they first walk into the door?
Kathy: There's a point-of-sale system and a meet-and-greet desk, pretty much right when you walk in. So you walk up to the point-of-sale station where people can check out. But also, the door's right there so you can greet people and take them to what they're looking for. Or they can start browsing from there, because you can pretty much see every part of the store from there.
AQUA: Is the showroom organized to flow a certain way?
Rod: Again, the Backyard Essentials program creates an experience and allows us to display backyard ideas by tying all products together. Pool customers must pass through the patio and spa areas to get supplies. Both pool and spa owners pass by tanning beds, patio furniture, toys, games, inflatable floats, wind chimes and scented candles. It does force customers to browse — it's all about extra sales to a very qualified customer.
The display areas show off the products, which creates customer questions and our staff can answer those questions. Three or four spa models are always operational to show exactly how our spas perform, and patio furniture is located near the display models with palm trees, gazebos and towel racks nearby.
Kathy: We wanted [customers] to have to walk through the store more so than just having them take an immediate right, get what they wanted and then move toward the cash register. So we actually moved the chemicals to the back of the store. The customers know where they are, but they walk through a lot of other merchandise to get to them. And they kind of browse, walk around, and maybe see something that they haven't ever seen before. Or a spa that they've been thinking about.
That part of the design has been very helpful. Granted, some people are longtime customers and they know where everything is and what they want, but it also leads them to go, 'Oh, you know what? I know they have that. I've seen it in there.'
So new items like that you can put near a walkway where the attention is kind of drawn to it. We like to move things around, make small changes. Not to confuse them but just to make it a little different experience than the last 25 times they were in the store.
AQUA: What about the wall colors and lighting?
Kathy: That actually kind of came after we opened the store. It really started out as just all white, then we thought it needed more color. We had one wall that we'd painted a different color initially, but the rest of it was just white, so we decided to just spice it up. We'd brought in a couple of things — a tent for instance — that were brighter. So we added different colors to the wall to just kind of liven things up a little bit and match the new props and fixtures.
It's a steel building, and we just painted the beams different colors. There's a red and kind of a gold tone, just things to kind of accent the floor and the things that we carry. White just wasn't very homey or appealing. The added color makes you want to come in. It's not boring.
We also have stone around the entryway that wasn't there when we first opened the store. We started carrying that, so the entryway stone just shows customers what you can do with that.
Rod: As far as lighting, specific areas have enhanced lighting from above to focus on our merchandising. Customers are all about colors, selection and variety on spas and patio furnishings. Our store has tons of natural lighting near the two frontages. Near the middle of the store there is track lighting to complete the setting.
Kathy: We had the big lights over the top but needed something more to be able to accent the spas. The track lights go around the front counter too, so it gives us a little more ambience in those areas. We added that a couple of years ago. And we added some track lighting in the parts area because it was kind of dark over there.
AQUA: How long did the project take to complete?
Rod: The new building construction took about nine months. We did all the extras in the showroom, from lighting, porcelain tile floors to point-of-sale computer networking. We also have static displays and an awesome outdoor patio area for the monthly cookouts and events that we promote. The outdoor patio area shows off the stamped-concrete patterns, retaining walls, palm trees and outdoor kitchens. It also allows us to demonstrate the Big Green Egg and the other gas grill lines we carry.
AQUA: What's been the biggest difference with the new store?
Rod: The two biggest differences we have starts with the heavily traveled state route where we are located. Thirty thousand vehicles pass by this building daily. All the traffic for new development, restaurants, the regional airport and hotels pass by our building daily.
Secondly, we spent the funds on proper signage for the facility and service trucks. Three years ago we invested in a full-color LED message board, and the huge up-front cost of the LED message board has paid for itself in less than three years. The sign can generate any graphics, imaging, and any theme for all the sales we promote during the year.
Kathy: That's helped a lot. I didn't know that it would be as effective as it is, but it is. Basically, once you buy it, it's yours. It's not like advertising, where once it's over it's gone.
There's also a new kids area. I think we picked that up through a Hot Spring dealer meeting. That makes the parents more comfortable about having their kids there. They spend more time, ask more questions if they're not worried about their kids breaking things and stuff like that (laughs). So we have a little TV with videos and a couple of little tables and coloring books that we got from APSP, and then all of the toys are there. So when the parents come to get them they, of course, want all the toys. The kids who come here with our regular customers just kind of go over there and play. We went out and bought one of those colorful mats to put on the floor. It's worked out really nice.
AQUA: What did customers say when you first opened the new store?
Kathy: They said, 'This is just beautiful!' They loved it. One person who we'd built a pool for came in and bought patio furniture, and then decided they needed a spa. So even a patio furniture customer can then turn into a spa customer. It's all kind of tied together in the new store. It's really worked out well for us.
AQUA: Tell us about the award you won for retail design.
Rod: Helen Bloch at APSP was in the Bloomington-Normal area two years ago and just stopped in. She was amazed by how cool the store was and said we should enter their retail design awards. I didn't do it, but she popped back in six months later. Knowing we had not submitted anything she strongly suggested again that we enter the contest. I did and we won the retail design award this past spring.
AQUA: Any future expansions planned?
Rod: Since we opened, we've outgrown the new building, making it necessary to expand our warehouse to the adjacent lot behind the store. So we'll kick out the warehouse wall and make the showroom 19,000 square feet in the spring of 2009.
Barrett Kilmer, has been on the editorial staff of AQUA magazine since 2000. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and currently lives in Madison, Wisc.