Among the most important, meaningful decisions a spa dealer can make is selecting a spa line to carry in his or her store. As any dealer can attest, it's a choice that has less to do with the product itself and everything to do with your core values as a business. After all, tubs are just the beginning — choosing a supplier marks the beginning of an important business relationship that can adversely or positively impact sales.

It's also a choice you're likely to make more than once. According to the 2017 State of the Industry Hot Tub Report, 60 percent of spa dealers have switched spa lines at some point in their career.

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When, and why, do dealers trade lines? We wanted to find out. We spoke to three dealers about their brand-swapping experience and learned what's important to them in their manufacturer relationship.

Case Study 1: Quality

Mike Small, partner at Seasonal Specialty Stores (Foxboro, Mass.) is a firm believer in looking for greener grasses.

"It's important to look. It's not always easy to change, but it's certainly important to look. If you just keep plowing straight ahead, you never know what the other guys are doing," he says.

For four years, Seasonal Specialty Stores carried what Small describes as a "pretty powerful brand and a phenomenal marketer." But great marketing doesn't mean as much when product quality is a consistent issue.

"Every time a tub was going out, you'd wonder how many times the phone was going to ring," Small says.

In an effort to curb service calls on new models, Small wired his warehouse so staff could wet test each tub before it was delivered.

"We would plop them up on concrete blocks and run them to see if there were leaks and/or other issues with them in the warehouse. Every single tub," he says. "That's a pretty decent commitment of resources to have to throw that kind of electricity out in the warehouse for that purpose."

Unfortunately, a pre-delivery wet test didn't guarantee the new owner wouldn't run into problems. As an extra precaution, Small and his team warned customers that parts may have loosened during shipment and might require a follow-up or two — a cover story to help account for flaws so soon after delivery.

"That was our excuse," he says. "'Don't be surprised if you have to pick up the phone and call us because something's not fully functional when we first drop it off.'"

With frustrated customers and the company's reputation on the line, Small knew he had to make a change — but at the same time, he knew he couldn't rush it, lest he wind up in a similar situation once again. Over the next year and a half, he researched new spa manufacturers and attended a spa-centric trade show to meet them in person. It was at that show where he got an interesting pitch.

"They were telling us…every tub has a tag on it that shows it went through a quality control check process, and that tag is physically on the tub when it's delivered," he says.

To back it up, the manufacturer invited Small to their facility to take a look.

"They suggested we come out. If we picked up the airfare, they'd pay for the hotel and meals. I thought that was a pretty reasonable compromise," he says. "As many tubs as you sell over the course of a year, if you're going to make a major line change like that, it's certainly worth investing some time and money in order to make sure you do it properly."

Small has now carried the brand for 15 years — no warehouse wet tests required.

Case Study 2: The Sales Rep

A sales rep is a spa dealer's lifeline — a connection to the manufacturer itself. If that relationship sours, it can have major ramifications for a dealer, something the team at Nelson's HomeTowne Recreation (Janesville, Wis.) knows firsthand.

When Sales Manager Shock Leitner joined the company about a year ago, it was struggling to get in touch with an unresponsive rep about a warranty issue. By the time things were finally sorted out, the team was ready to seek a new supplier.

"We had a tub that had a damaged outside panel on it, and it took over a year for that to get resolved," Leitner says. "We had a fantastic line; there was nothing wrong with it. We just had a terrible rep."

Because of that experience, Leitner advises fellow dealers to specifically ask suppliers about the prospective sales rep they will be work with.

"I would find out if they have a rep — a local rep that is readily available. And find out how busy that guy is, because you need somebody that's in your corner, pretty much always ready to go," he says. "Some of these companies will go, 'Yeah, your rep is this guy,' but he's also the rep for everybody east of Nevada. That one guy isn't going to be able to handle all of us at once."

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Nelson's new spa rep, for example, manages four states and regularly visits the office every month to six weeks. He'll even bring in lunch for the team and help with special events.

"He was just here last week and I told him we had a big event coming up, and he's like, 'Awesome.' He's going to come in that Friday and Saturday and help us sell tubs," Leitner says. "He said, 'I'll sit on the floor with you and we'll knock a bunch of tubs out of here.' That's going above and beyond — actually coming to my store to sell tubs with me. I'll stick with that guy forever."

Case Study 3: Time for Something New

After carrying the same brand for 20 years, Prestige Pools and Spas (St. Louis, Mo.) is in the middle of a quiet shift, slowly bringing on new brands and moving away from its longtime mainstay.

"They were great in the sense that they're still American made, American owned and an innovator on the swim spa side," says company sales rep Dan Boelhauf. (Editor's note: As of press time, Boelhauf was still with Prestige; he has since moved on to another company.) "However, they had been so heavy on the swim spas that their standard hot tub line hadn't had any real updates as far as models or anything like that in three, four years. And they hadn't done anything differently than they had been doing for 10-plus years."

After years of lacking variety in features, design and price point, Boelhauf sensed Prestige was perhaps slipping into complacency.

"The staleness on their side sort of permeated into our side," he says. "We were feeling we were losing touch with where the rest of the industry was going."

When researching new lines to carry, Boelhauf had several goals: First, any new lines would be gradually moved into the showroom as the original brand was phased out — there wouldn't be a sudden switch, which would protect Prestige if the new line was problematic in any way.

Second, and more importantly, it was imperative that the any new companies Prestige worked with abided by similar values, namely by being family-owned and American made. Given Prestige's success and the stability of the existing line, Boelhauf was comfortable taking as much time as the search required.

"We did everything on our terms, and that was the most important thing," he says. "We didn't feel that we needed to make any changes per se, but we were fortunate enough to be in a good space with the way that we conduct ourselves business-wise that we can just pick our spot."

After conferring with trusted industry contacts, Boelhauf attended the 2015 PSP Expo in search of a new brand. He wound up picking up three lines from two manufacturers — including a rotomold brand to help break into the lower-end budget demo. So far, Boelhauf says it was the right move.
"We immediately saw a boost in sales in our rotomold line, including that $4- to $5,000 mark," he says.

RELATED: Hot Tub Retailers on Going Green

For the Right Reasons

If you're thinking of making a switch yourself, Boelhauf has one piece of advice: think it through.

"If you're doing something because you want to do it and you feel like that's the right thing for your business, don't compromise your values," he says. "If you're a brand and your thing is 'this, this and this,' find somebody out there to do that. And when you do make that change, your customers may not know your new brand, but they'll know you. And they'll know your value and they'll be able to trust you so that that transition period is much, much easier." 


What Matters in the Dealer/Supplier Relationship?

In our 2017 State of the Industry survey, we asked hot tub dealers to explain what's important to them in their relationship with a supplier. Here's what you said:

18% ... Marketing support (national advertising, etc.)

18% ... Product innovation

17% ... Strong company message


Cailley Hammel is Managing Editor of AQUA Magazine.