Of the challenges we as an industry have faced over the last several years, one tops the list: the evolution of consumer buying and shopping habits. Yes, we have changed the way that we shop, buy and replenish purchases, from commodity items we regularly buy to high-end luxuries we're passionate about.

Not only will this continue, it's going to change even faster. Many of the greatest retailers today understand that to win over the consumer, they have to become appealing on an authentic emotional level. We need to do that, too.

The very first thing you need to understand is that the pool and spa business is not just plain old retail; we are competing in the specialty retail market alongside brands like Williams Sonoma, Lululemon, Michael Kors, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, just to name a few.

Don't just think of your business as standard retail — the demographic that spends money in our stores is an affluent demographic that needs a reason to walk through your door. They want an experience and are extremely brand loyal. So what reason are you giving them to come to your store?

You see, when you don't give a customer a reason to visit your store, his or her default action is to jump online. And it's hard to blame them; it's a cheap, easy option when you don't have a better choice.

Luckily, there's an easy way to get people to come to your store time and time again. You need to turn your store into a multi-sensory experience where the customer is immersed in your brand with all five senses.

You as a brick-and-mortar retailer have a huge advantage over online retail: You can appeal to the consumer's senses. Online retailers are doing their best to try and recreate a physical experience with high-tech, 3-D walkthrough stores; virtual reality headsets; and video and viral marketing. But at the end of the day, if the consumer isn't engaged with your store, they'll go online and settle for a cold, transaction sale.

But as we all know, a physical store is so much more than a place to exchange money for goods and services. A store is the physical embodiment of you, your brand and what your company means to the consumer. It is the stuff of why they shop with you and continue to keep coming back. It is the only real opportunity your customers has to engage with all five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) with you and your brand. This is extremely important because effectively engaging multiple senses can maximize profits and create consumer loyalty and brand trust.

Sight

Retailers in our industry are pretty lucky — just about everything you see in a showroom makes good eye candy, from LED lighting and water features to spas, fire pits and outdoor kitchens, just to name a few.

But you can't just stop there. Beyond the attractive products you sell, you can find an endless array of visual cues to enhance the look of your store. Research has found customers prefer open layouts with clear sight lines through the store. In addition, lighting is key — stores that are dark are typically are referred to as dirty, unpleasant and typically make the consumer feel sad or frightened. So crank up the lights and make sure you use warm, rich lighting on higher ticket products, like spas, outdoor kitchens and your tile and stone selection. Warm lighting makes the color look richer and better yet, lends a higher perceived value — your customers will feel the product is worth more than you're charging, and consequently think you offer better value.

In more cash-and-carry areas, you can switch to cool lighting, which gives the area a clean, crisp look. This is a simple, effective way to visually define the space differences and give your sales area a different look and feel. Different lighting arrangements also act as visual boundaries that "frame" a given area. (For an example, take a close look at the produce department of a fine grocery store.)

In addition to lighting, attractive displays will engage customers and get them to shop more often and for longer periods of time. Remember: Signage is a tool designed to help you appeal to the sense of sight, so be sure to use it wisely and don't overdo it.

When crafting your signage, keep color in mind. It's been scientifically proven that people react faster and more abruptly when they see the color red. This explains why most businesses use red sale signs; the color enhances physical reactions, as it's programmed into our psyche as a cue for danger. So use it sparingly for best effect.

And be sure to switch it up every now and then. If signage appears old and worn, it makes your store feel stale, which of course creates a negative experience.

Sound

Music is a topic near and dear to my heart. It can do everything: cure the blues, motivate us to work out and keep us focused when studying — or in my case, write an article.

It's also incredibly nostalgic. Music can take us back to the time we drove a car for the first time, soaked in the sights on vacation or shared the first dance at a wedding. Music has a profound effect on the way we feel, as it helps us create associations.

In addition to memories, we also associate music with brands and certain stores. Grocery stores are masters at auditory stimulation. Did you know they play different genres of music in the morning, afternoon and evenings? They also switch it up on the weekends!

Do you know why? It's because they understand different demographics shop at different times. Those who shop on weekday mornings, for example, are typically older. So they will play popular songs from the '50s, '60s and '70s. Shoppers in the evening tend to be younger singles, so the music turns to recent hits. For families on the weekends, they'll even throw in "Let it Go" from "Frozen" or another Disney movie song for good measure.

In addition to tailoring the radio for the customer group, grocery stores have learned that tempo is also important. Research from the '80s found that slowing down the tempo to 40 to 50 beats per minute increases spending habits in the store by 32.9 percent. Anything slower or faster, and customers spent less.

Starbucks uses soft, gentle music that's unassuming, non-threatening and appealing to just about everyone. It creates a relaxing environment that invites you to stay and hang out. Abercrombie & Fitch, on the other hand, plays it loud to keep parents out, so kids have free rein in the store with their parents' credit cards!

Be very cognizant about the type of music you play. Don't delegate the music choice to an employee with an iPod, or worse, play nothing and have the store so quiet and sterile it becomes uncomfortable and unwelcoming. Hey, even baseball players have walk-on music, right?

Plan the way your store sounds. Stay away from open-air radio — the last thing you want is to have a consumer in your store when your competitor's commercial comes on. Awkward! Contact a streaming service that can help you find the right sound for your business. There are many out there like Pandora for Business, CloudCover and Soundreef, to name a few.

Smell

I still remember the smell of my grandma's kitchen, or how salty the air was on my first trip to the beach. These are memories that are deeply ingrained in me, and we all have them. And why are these memories so strong?

Of the five senses, scent is the most powerfully linked to memory. Studies have shown that people can recall a scent with 65 percent accuracy after one year. Compare that to our visual memory, which we lose by 50 percent after only a couple of months. What we smell plays an important role in how we associate experiences and places.

Retailers understand this too, which is why they use scents to tap into the emotional part of our brain — it encourages us to form a deeper bond with their store and stay loyal. And it works.

There is also a direct link to how long we spend in a store that is scented versus one that is not. A pleasing scent can drive us to stay longer, while a bad scent can have the consumer fleeing for the door. Nike for one understands this, and finds the scent in their stores increases sales by 10 to 15 percent. Gyms like Lifetime Fitness want you to have a better experience while you work out, so they scent their workout areas. And if you've gone to Vegas for a trade show, you know casinos love to use unique scents.

In all these cases, the goal is the same: to make the consumer comfortable, and also help them form positive associations with the brand so they'll come back.

Pool and spa stores have a common scent, too: chlorine. However, unlike the examples I listed above, chlorine is scent that creates a negative customer experience.

I know what you're thinking. "People come into my store and like the way it smells!"

Those people may be in the minority. In many of my seminars, I relate how some pool stores smell similar to the cleaning aisle in the grocery store. How many people do you see hanging out, shopping and browsing down that aisle? You don't. That is the least-browsed aisle in a grocery store; the smell compels consumers to grab and go. So are they doing that in your store?

For pool and spa stores, smell is especially imperative. Try turning to companies that specialize in creating scents for retail environments, like Scentair, which offers free scent samples and advice in choosing the signature scent for your store. Personally, when working with pool retailers, I suggest Tropical Breeze, Asian Garden or Velocity.

Taste

Our sense of taste is probably the most overlooked sense in specialty retail and the biggest afterthought when we design or implement a retail strategy. How, what, why do you need this? Let's start with a few examples:

Beauty brand Aveda serves a special herbal tea to all of their customers that is delightful. Williams Sonoma will serve you a cup of freshly brewed coffee or make you a latte so you stay, browse and feel welcome. Car dealerships from Ford to Lexus are installing coffee cafes in the dealerships.

And it's not just retail giants who do this — my local florist serves iced tea in the summer with fresh, edible flowers in it, which is welcoming and delicious.

I call these "peace offerings." Offering unique coffees, hot tea, sweet tea and sodas helps break the consumer/retailer barrier and allows us to deal with each other on a more humane, friendly level. Serve these items in a mug or open-top disposable cup, which inclines customers to stay, relax, shop and talk.

Research indicates that for every minute a consumer is in your store your sales increase by 1 percent, and serving beverages is a great way to get the consumer to stick around. And trust me, you will get to know the customer on a whole new level. You almost become friends, and we are loyal to our friends.

Place your refreshment station in an open area and make it welcoming for customers to serve themselves. Place signage in the area like "free for our friends" or simply "help yourself." You can start off small with a Keurig machine and bottles of water and sodas, or use a local beverage service company that will keep this area stocked and ready at all times.

Touch

The single largest advantage you as a specialty retailer have over online merchants: Your customers have the chance to touch and experience your products — and then leave with the product in hand. That's something even Amazon struggles with.

Research indicates that when consumers buy a premium product, they want to touch and experience it before purchase. Look at Apple and their stores: You are free to walk in and play with everything in the store. Literally everything. They understand that if a consumer experiences and engages with a product on their own, they're 10 times more likely to buy the product. And other retailers are following suit, taking their products out from behind the glass or out of stockrooms and letting the consumer have full rein with it.

Many times, I'll walk into a retail store and see a salesperson talking about a spa and not letting the consumer push the buttons or turn the valves. Or they're showing off the latest and greatest automation equipment, but not putting the iPad in the consumer's hands. Stop this immediately! It's like going to the car dealer and having the salesperson drive the car instead of you. Let the consumer experience it and they are more likely to buy it.

Our sense of touch is very powerful — when we touch something, we quickly take ownership of it. Think of a child who starts playing with a toy; there's no way he's letting someone else have it or play with it. That is deeply ingrained into us as consumers and product users.

Just remember: Anything you can take out of a box or out from behind the counter, merchandise it and display it in a manner that gets the consumer to touch and experience it. Even a "try me before you buy me" program on automatic pool cleaners is a wonderful idea. Any time you can get the consumer to touch and experience they are more likely to buy!

So when tweaking and putting your specialty pool store together, remember all five of your senses. Walk into your store tomorrow and experience it with all five of your senses like a consumer would, note what's lacking, and then begin to shift your store to become a more sensory environment. Your customers will thank you, your employees will thank you and your bottom line will thank you.

Ted Lawrence, POOLCORP Corporate Retail Category Manager, has been in the specialty swimming pool industry for more than 24 years and is known as a leading authority on omnichannel retail. With his experience and proven methods, Lawrence coaches hundreds of small independent as well as large multi-store chains on how to skyrocket revenues, increase consumer loyalty, plan for the future and reach the next level. He is an award-winning international presenter at dozens of industry events globally.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail editors@aquamagazine.com.

Ted Lawrence is AQUA Contributor of AQUA Magazine.