It's imperative small retailers create a unique experience for their customers — something they can't find anywhere else. Product customization is an excellent way to provide just that. It's a way for small business owners to differentiate themselves from their big-box and online competitors.

For years, aquatic retailers have used this strategy when selling pool and spa water treatment packages — but why not use this same approach with a cleaning system? This level of customization, which caters to the individual needs of a pool owner, can assist in building customer loyalty and ultimately increase profits.

Specifically, this means taking time with customers to understand the unique cleaning needs of their pool or spa, and then applying the retailer's expertise to craft the most efficient and effective system. It starts with the retailer-customer relationship and the initial conversation on pool care and sanitization.

CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS

When homeowners are first introduced to the many steps required to properly maintain a pool, they are sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of work involved. Automatic cleaners are the natural response to this problem; they offer a solution to owners who have limited time to spend working on their pools. Explaining different device options early on in the process establishes the retailer's expertise and helps build customer loyalty.

When creating a customized cleaning system, a retailer must first understand the client's needs. Specifically, it is vital to establish how the pool is used, what kind of debris falls into the water and how involved the owner wants to be in the cleaning regimen/routine. As that retailer-customer relationship develops, it becomes easier to suggest a cleaner to best suit the customer's needs and budget. Taking the time to make the sales experience more personal opens up the possibility for additional sales and services.

When customizing cleaning systems, it helps to provide staff members with a written list of questions to ask the client. They should start with some basic inquiries about the pool's location and environment, as this will help identify the customer's basic needs. Such questions might include:

• What type of debris is making the pool dirty?
• Is the customer dealing with leaves, acorns, pine needles, dust, etc.?
• Is the installation in a windy area?
• Does it have an automatic cover?
• Is the pool enclosed?
• Does it have a booster pump?
• What type of filtration system is installed? How often is it cleaned?
• Is the pool winterized and uncovered during cold months?

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Ultimately, the ideal choice for a particular customer boils down to the needs of the pool, how much work the owner wants to put in and the price of the cleaner.

DISCUSSING CUSTOMIZABLE OPTIONS

With a clearer idea of what the cleaner will be doing, it is easier to suggest a suitable option for a customer's pool. It is preferable to present several options with a range of price points, as this will help further tailor the product to suit the client's needs. Depending on the type of debris noted in the water, retailers might suggest a suction-side, pressure-side or robotic pool cleaner.

Suction cleaners

At a lower price point compared to other automatic cleaners, suction-side devices are among the most commonly installed systems. They are simple to install, user-friendly and often come included in new-build packages as an affordable introduction to automatic pool cleaning.

Adept at catching smaller debris, these models are particularly popular in the Sunbelt region in the Southern U.S. where many pools are screened-in and protected from large falling items like branches or leaves. The debris is collected and then transported to and stored within a skimmer basket, which must be emptied. While an ideal option for hands-on or DIY homeowners, these installations are not for everyone, as many clients are not willing to manually clean out an APC skimmer basket.

Pressure cleaners

Carrying a middle-of-the-road price tag, pressure-side cleaners are a popular option for homeowners who have bigger pools and/or live in areas with large falling debris (e.g. leaves, acorns, twigs, etc.). Most of these devices operate off of a separate booster pump, which gives them more power to move throughout the pool. They also have an adjustable head that further controls how they are able to move through the water. The collected debris is contained in a bag at the cleaner head. This detachment from the filtration system prevents the risk of a clogged skimmer, which sometimes occurs in suction-side installations.

Robotic cleaners

Falling at the higher end of the pricing structure, a robotic pool cleaner is just as it sounds: a low-voltage, electric-powered device that runs through a pool and sucks up debris into a self-enclosed compartment. Unlike suction- and pressure-side cleaners, robotic devices operate independent of the pool system and can run while the pump is completely shut off. Since its conception, many bells and whistles have been added to the basic robotic cleaner, including remotes for controlled steering abilities, multiple clean cycle settings, and hand-carts for transportation and storage.

This category of cleaners has grown in popularity, especially as these devices have experienced a decrease in price in recent years. Some stores, including Winnipeg-based aquatics retailer Aqua-Tech Pool Spa and Bath, have seen such a significant surge in sales they have stopped carrying other types of automatic cleaners.

"We only stock robotic pool cleaners in our store," says store manager Kathi Belcourt. "We find they provide the best performance and ROI, and they're very popular. I would say 75 percent of our customers actually name their robotic cleaners," says Belcourt. "Robotic cleaners become members of the family — the clients love them that much."

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Tom Landi of Landi Pools and Games (Vineland and Millville, N.J.) is also a fan, adding these devices are among the easiest products to sell — and the most profitable. He notes that robotic cleaners can also impress environmentally conscious customers. "Many consumers are looking for 'green' pool products," he says. "My staff members explain that robotic systems keep the filter cleaner, so they won't have the backwash the filter as often, which reduces water and energy consumption as well as their overall costs."

A pool company's service department personnel can be the best salespeople and the primary point of contact for generating the sale. Service pros on a route enjoy the perfect opportunity to demo a robotic cleaner on the customer's own property — a powerful sales tool that harkens back to the days of door-to-door vacuum sales. Russell Koch of Backyard Vacations Pool and Equipment in Medicine Hat, Alberta, says more than 50 percent of his clients who watch him service their pool using an automatic cleaner opt to purchase a unit from him. He says he is happy to sell them the system, as he is able to maintain a relationship with the client for other services. "To prevent them from going to the internet to buy a cleaner, we service any unit we sell," says Koch.

Add-ons

Often sold in conjunction with automatic cleaners, handheld battery-powered devices offer a convenient option for customers interested in cleaning specific areas of their pools — especially in areas where there is a lot of sand or dust in the air that settles in the water.

"We have sold a lot of hand-held vacuums in our store because owners saw our service technicians using one to clean their steps," says Chris Morelli of South Strand Pools in South Carolina. "Stairs always have junk on them and homeowners want to do spot cleaning."

CUSTOMER COMBINATIONS

Offering a customized pool cleaning solution does not end with the sale of a pool cleaner. Retailers should consider complementing the sale of these devices with a specialized offer (e.g. the inclusion of a certain number of repairs), as any differentiation from mass merchant offerings deviates from competing on price alone. And the most powerful incentive any retailer has is customer insecurities about handling aquatic care on their own. Anything that says, "I'll be with you on this," helps bind the customer to the retail store.

In-store repair

In-store service and repair is growing in popularity among specialty retailers. Authorized warranty repair is preferred by many consumers instead of having to send out their cleaner, which interrupts the functionality of their pool. Also, bringing a customer into the store on a regular basis increases the chance of an additional sale, both for spontaneous and big-ticket items.

"Our store is happy to order parts for any cleaners, even those purchased at big-box stores," says Belcourt. "By offering in-store repair of pool cleaners, our shoppers become very loyal customers."

Landi agrees and says in-store repairs are an important aspect of selling a cleaner. "We warranty and repair all cleaners we sell," he says. "Offering in-store repair is a service that distinguishes us from big-box and Internet retailers."

Valet services

Similar to options provided by automobile retailers, the sale of a pool cleaner could easily include providing customers with a loaner device should the installation require service or repair.

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Likewise, valet service can also be that valued service that cements a relationship. This might include going to the customer's yard, removing the malfunctioning unit, and replacing it with a loaner cleaner. This service keeps the pool running without interruption and helps in further building customer loyalty.

"We offer free set-up of all our robotic cleaners," says Belcourt. "We deliver the unit, put it in the pool and get it started — all for no additional charge."

BE THE EXPERT

Differentiation through customization of a pool cleaning system allows specialty retailers to charge a premium and enjoy higher profits.

When working with an existing pool, a retailer should take the time to learn about a client's previous experience and ask what they liked and disliked about it. This is a solid starting point for tailoring a cleaning solution specific to a customer's needs, whether these needs involve an automatic cleaner or water treatment solution to keep their pool water looking beautiful year-round. Taking the time to guide a customer through the available options is another way in which companies can set a store apart as an expert and knowledgeable pool supplier.