photo of a small pool business and their big box competitor
Walmart image via Shutterstock.com | Ken Wolter

Jeff Kirsch shoots it straight.

“The other pool store in town is not our competitor. Our competitor is Walmart,” he says matter-of-factly.

It’s a David and Goliath struggle many in the pool and spa industry can relate to. As more customers flock to the Internet or nearby chains for convenience and low prices, the classic mom-and-pop store is feeling the squeeze. But Kirsch and his wife Denae, who own Kirsplash Pools in Lake City, Fla., are fighting back. When moving to a new storefront in 2012, they deliberately picked a location close to the big box giant. Like, really close.

“Our driveways literally line up across the street,” Kirsch says.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, as the saying goes.

With the power of location and marketing, Kirsplash has grown into a force to be reckoned with and expects to see about $1 million in revenue this year. Here’s how they did it.

Head to Head

Kirsplash’s strategy in just a few words: Go for the jugular.

“Believe it or not, we advertise against Walmart,” Kirsch says. “And we’re very successful. We’re lower priced and we, of course, have the experience.”

Yet customers don’t have to take his word on it — the proof is in the advertising.

“We use the local shopper paper. We put in an ad and we actually show a list of Walmart’s prices and our competitive products and show how we’re lower. At the bottom of that ad is an explanation of how our chemicals are different and stronger than theirs, even though they may be cheaper,” Kirsch says.

This information is included in the ad, mailed on postcards and available at the front desk, periodically updated for accuracy. Kirsplash has to pick its spots where it will compete on price — “We can’t be competitive against them on all things,” Kirsch says. “When they get into the large quantities, we can’t do that. But on small quantities, we will generally be better. On most of the maintenance tools, your leaf nets, poles and stuff, we can beat them, and do so with a better quality product. So that’s how we do it.”

An Expensive Education

It’s not price alone that sways customers away from Walmart. It’s also the education they receive from Kirsplash on why Walmart’s products are different.

“Their shock is liquid chlorine, which is old and has been sitting on the shelf for a long time,” Kirsch says. “And it’s very expensive, like $4 a gallon, versus our liquid chlorine which is fresh. Twice a week we get a delivery from a manufacturer, and that chlorine sells for $2.24 a gallon. That’s a big savings.”

Kirsplash store sign

But sometimes, customers learn a tough lesson, especially when it comes to the potential consequences of using big box products.

“When we test somebody’s water and we see the effects of Walmart’s chemicals, we immediately pull a bag of it out and ask, ‘Are you using this shock?’ And they’ll say yes. And we say, ‘There’s only one solution for you. This shock is ruining your water chemistry and you need to drain some water.’ And they just look as us like we’re kidding,” Kirsch says. “We say, ‘The cyanuric acid is over the limit and your pool is no longer sanitary according to Florida code.’”

That might sound off-putting, but Kirsch says his customers relish the honesty.

“If you say it with a smile and sound like you’re helping them, they can tell you care and that you’re concerned about them,” he says.

This is the knowledge that Walmart can’t provide; it’s the dealer’s most potent weapon in the battle for pool customers. Luckily for the Kirshes, the Walmart across the street doesn’t even try.

“When employees at Walmart are asked a question about pool stuff, they say, ‘Just go across the street to Kirsplash, they know all about it,’” Kirsch says. “A lot of the people who work there are our customers.”

Kirsplash is a shining example of how the little guy can still make it — but they don’t have to be the only ones.

“Don’t be afraid of the giant,” Kirsch says. “Work under them.”

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

Cailley Hammel is Managing Editor of AQUA Magazine.