Good news: Pool and spa retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada continue to report growth this year from pool and spa sales to accessories and outdoor living products. But the biggest challenge to industry retailers remains protecting their share of the market against competition from big box retailers and online merchandisers.

In the battle for today's pool and spa customer, too many retailers try to take on the behemoths head-to-head in the price arena, the home stadium of Amazon and Walmart, where they are rarely defeated.

The key is to offer what Walmart and the internet can't. And one thing they definitely can't offer is a customized and personalized water test and treatment experience. By creating a service your customers can't get anywhere else, you build customer loyalty and ultimately profits from your chemical sales.

All over North America, retailers are examining their water test business strategies from the ground up — critically appraising the appearance of the station, the expertise of staff, their procedures and their data management systems in order to maximize this clear competitive advantage. Because a customized approach to water treatment can increase chemical sales and lead to repeat visits to the store. Just ask Steve Lopez, owner of Oasis Hot Tub and Sauna in Nashua, N.H.; Lopez has seen good results after making simple changes in the company's water test and treatment system.

"We noticed a lack of consistent growth in our water care business even though our customer base was growing with each sale," he says. "The customized water treatment program we developed gives our customers a reason to return to our store to purchase water treatment products as well as other products and services."

Oasis Hot Tub and Sauna started with a simple "discount bag" loyalty program. "Our program originally began in conjunction with our 'green' initiative of supplying reusable bags to our customers," Lopez explains. The Oasis team decided to take the reusable bag a step further and offered savings on water care products and filters when they brought in their Oasis Spa bag.

Lopez and his team also changed the way they talk about their products. They are now very conscious of using the term "water care products" rather than calling them "chemicals." It is important for retailers to do everything possible to set their product offering apart from competing products in the marketplace — especially those offered by big box retailers and online merchants.

Using the term "water care product" directly reflects the fact that spa hydro-therapy is a part of an overall wellness program for consumers who want to be kind to and take care of their bodies.

They do not want to soak in a bath of chemicals, Lopez says. "We very quickly identified our Simply Soft product as a unique 'water care product' that not only helps to maintain the proper pH balance and prevents scale buildup but also makes your skin feel good when you leave the hot tub."

Local Emphasis

Another retailer using its water care program to maximum effect is Poolmart & Spas in Clarkston, Mich. Poolmart has been in business for 36 years and has become a specialist in the area for water testing, water diagnosis and chemical sales.

"People come to us because of our reputation for providing accurate water diagnosis and water treatment solutions," says owner Jim Bishop. "Our water testing area is really a diagnostic center that offers water treatment solutions and builds customer loyalty.

"This is the part of our business where we really take care of our customers. We diagnose the problem; we don't just provide a band-aid solution," Bishop says. "We pride ourselves on getting to the source of the issue."

Poolmart does a complete analysis with 12 different tests, far more than can be done with a home test kit. Besides testing for pH/alkalinity, chlorine and metals, they also test for water clarity and to get a sense of how well the filter is performing. "Our tests take around 10 minutes to perform," Bishop says. "So our clients sit on the stools at the lab, watch the water changing colors and chat with our experts. It helps us get to know our clients better, and our clients can see that our staff has expert knowledge, and that helps us remain competitive.

"We recently had one customer drive 40 miles to our store to get our help with a problem. She had white flakes in her pool water that no one could figure out. We got to the bottom of it and found it to be a rare problem in our area known as 'white mold.' We diagnosed, provided a treatment plan and the customer is very happy and loyal."

Poolmart & Spas also specializes its approach by selling, whenever possible, locally made products — either products made in the USA or products from the company's home state of Michigan (Poolmart sells ProTeam chemicals, which are manufactured in Michigan). Bishop says this distinguishes Poolmart from online retailers and big box stores.

"It's very important to our customers to buy from local suppliers, and that gives us a huge advantage," Bishop says. "One product that has really made a difference for us is ProTeam Supreme. We recommend it to all our customers because it provides so many benefits and ensures they have a positive experience with their pool and pool water. It helps keeps them happy and loyal to us as a provider of the product."

Specialize, Then Personalize

Personalizing water treatment solutions is another way to ensure the steady profitable sale of pool and spa chemicals. But in order to personalize your service to your customers, you have to get to know them. Oasis Hot Tub & Sauna took the time to develop a comprehensive questionnaire for customers so they could personalize the water care products they sell them — they don't just fix water clarity, water balance and sanitization issues; they feel they provide a greater sense of overall water wellness for their customers. "Our program is unique and tailored to each customer, providing benefits that make our service stand out from the competition," Lopez says.

This personalized approach begins early in the process, as sales staff earnestly discuss spa water treatment as part of the spa purchase. "We always take the time to find out what the customer's previous experience has been with hot tub usage and what they liked or disliked about it. This is the starting point for us to tailor a program specific to their needs that might also include a salt water system, chlorine, bromine or ozone, depending what they are comfortable with," explains Lopez.

Evolve To Greatness

With near-constant advancements in technology, it's crucial to stay on top of new products and continuously improve your water test program, even if it has been successful for a long time. Steve White at Underwater Pool Masters in Massachusettes has four decades of experience in the pool industry. You might think he'd be settled on a water test program, but in the last two years White has embraced advances in water testing provided by LaMotte WaterLink — spin tests that provide rapid water analysis. "The system links into a computer program and provides a complete print out of every test performed, including product recommendations," he says.

The database associated with the test allows Underwater Pool Masters to store test results by customer, note information about the customer's pool and spa and combine it with information on previous products used and other invaluable information about the customer and their backyard.

"We love the fact that we have pre-programmed the system with the chemicals we sell, both private label and other specialty chemicals. The print out recommends these products, which makes it an easy sell. This is especially helpful during our busiest summer days when we are using seasonal help."

Be the Expert

In addition to personalizing and customizing test results and creating a great water test experience for customers, its important for your team stay on top of the latest health research related to hydrotherapy as it relates to skin issues, muscle or cardio-vascular and general health and wellness. This kind of expertise is another important differentiator.

Keep a stash of articles available for your customers to read — put them in your customers' check out bags to read when they get home, or send them emails with links to these articles. A customer coming to your store for a water test is an opportunity to build the message of water wellness, which is essential not only to your business but the pool and spa industry as a whole.

Additional revenue streams usually develop as a result of focusing on and starting an advanced, customized water test program, Lopez says. "It was during this customization process that we developed our 'valet service' in which we up-sell and provide the drain and refilling of the spa for our customers. It's a very profitable service that keeps our customers loyal," he says.

These specialized services including custom water care treatment programs for your customers will make the sales experience more personal, your customer more loyal and your chemical sales more profitable.

 

POOL SCHOOL

Pool Mart runs an annual "Pool School" just before the start of pool opening season, which is a fantastic way to clearly demonstrate to customers where, among their pool supply options, product knowledge and support can be found.

"We always get up to 35 to 40 customers who come in for a two-hour educational seminar explaining all about water chemistry and how to open pool, test the water, diagnose etc.," Bishop says. "We make it fun and include door prizes. It's free of charge and really helps bring loyalty to our store, the expertise of our store staff and to the chemicals we offer."

 

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

Scott Webb is Executive Editor of AQUA Magazine.