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Package pools have come a long way in recent years. As has been widely reported in AQUA and elsewhere, package pools have evolved to the point where they offer most of the same features available in custom concrete pools. And many dealers offering package pools have moved into the total backyard business, offering luxury amenities such as custom hardscape, outdoor kitchens and shade structures.
As the product and distribution continue to evolve, marketing and advertising have been transformed by websites, social media and digital apps. Still, throughout this era of profound change, dealers we contacted for this discussion find that, in some important ways, the message is still very much the same — package pools can provide excitement and customization at an attractive price point.
In almost all respects, the much-vaunted development of package pool systems has been a watershed for dealers, especially those who target projects that reach beyond a basic swimming pool.
Terry Hill, co-owner of Hillside Pools in Fort Wayne, Ind., has been in the package pool business for nearly 25 years. He and his wife, Chris Hill, report that over the last few years especially, the expanded pallet of features has dramatically changed the way they approach prospective clients.
"We first offer customers the price for a plain Jane pool, then I'll give them options for upgrades," Terry Hill explains. "Those options will include vinyl-over-steel steps, deck jets, an automatic pool cover, LED lights and other features. It makes the discussion easy; I present them with the basic pool and then they can decide how they want to customize it."
Hill reports that pools with automatic pool covers are dominating their market. "These days, we're installing 19 out of 20 pools with automatic covers, or it might be closer to 24 out of 25. Just about everybody in our market is opting for a cover."
While safety is a major concern for many of the Hill's clients, part of the demand for APCs is due to an Indiana law that states that pools with safety covers don't have to fenced. "Also," he adds, "covers extend the season by two months, which appeals to many of our customers, as well."
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John Napodano, president of Pettis Pools & Patio, Rochester. N.Y., has been with the company since 1985. He, too, has seen tremendous changes in both the product and the way it's sold, but also points to the basic value system and company culture established by company founders Irma and Larry Pettis, who started the company in 1962.
"We've evolved with the new offerings, which is necessary to be successful, because customers' expectations have changed," he says. "We were never a volume builder, but we've always offered a quality engineered product at a competitive price. Now with all the changes in the market, we've still kept that culture of integrity, customer service and standing behind the product."
Although clients are generally more informed about their options (more on that below), Napadona reports that customer education is still extremely important. "We go through an education process on various aspects of the pool, such as heating. Gas heaters have always been the mainstay, but now there are other options, such as heat pumps, gaining in popularity," he explains.
"Another example," he adds, "is the tanning ledges that have gained a lot of attention. We've found they take up a great deal of space in the shallow end, which is often the most popular part of the pool. So now you're talking about an all-shallow, non-diving pool, but then you sacrifice the fun that kids have diving. So you have to be specific with clients about those types of features and how they might impact the way the pool is used."
While the expanded list of options has had a significant impact on marketing package pools, it's the changes in consumer behavior that have made the biggest difference. Digital communication has driven that evolution, starting with how homeowners find dealers in the first place.
Randy Finco, owner of Great Lakes Pool & Spa Center in Thiensville, Wis., has been in the business since 1979. Having also experienced dramatic changes in the way he markets his products (also supplied by Fox Pools) he points out that simply being able to look up directions to his store has made a big difference. "It's all about instant gratification," he says. "Someone might be driving around town and on a whim start thinking about a swimming pool. Now they can Google local pool companies on their smartphone and find one just down the road. They may have been planning what they want to do in their backyard for some time, but then they want it now because it's at their fingertips. And they can compare everything because they can shop on their device. If you're not in that circle of information, you're going to be left out in the cold."
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According to Napodamo, ready access to detailed product information has created a far more sophisticated class of customer. "Now, when people call us and say they're interested in a pool and they want to get together, they show up with specific ideas about what they want," he explains. "They've seen Pinterest and Houzz and other websites and they know they want a pool with specific features. They're more educated.
"Years ago the process was very different," he adds. "When we'd meet with potential customers, they knew they wanted a pool and not much else. Their reference point was likely their parents' pool or some other pool they used growing up. They knew the pool would have a liner, some decking, steps, lights and a diving board. Now that's morphed into, 'We've seen these pictures on your website and this is what we want.' Now they might know the difference between a cantilevered deck and standard coping, for example. Or, they might like the concept of having a rock waterfall and deck jets or they might want a tanning ledge or some type of elaborate step treatment. I wouldn't say it's become order taking, but they definitely have a much more detailed idea of what they want."
Digital platforms have also provided dealers with more expedient ways to convey the practical information clients need to make an informed purchasing decision.
According to Hill: "We're very detailed in terms of letting them know what to expect out of their yard and the installation process and how long it's going to take. I have a pad with photos on it that shows each stage of the pool," he explains. "We also show those stages on our website. We have a lot of inquiries that come in online and we've had a lot of feedback that they really appreciate knowing what to expect."
While the world of instant information access has offered big advantages, Finco also points out that there is a dark side, especially for brick-and-mortar retail stores. "It's tough because people are shopping for smaller items on Amazon and they can have it delivered the next day. A lot of brick and mortar places are closing up because of that. It's tough to compete. You have to rely on personalized service, such as in-store water testing, where we can go through it with them in person and help simplify the process. You definitely have to find ways to create value customers can't find elsewhere."
For as transformative as the evolving package-pool market has been, experienced dealers report that there are some things that never change and hopefully never will. According to Finco, the enduring core values begin with the basic and sometimes lost art of listening.
"You still have to listen to the customer and ask questions," he says. "How many kids do they have, how old are they and how do they use the pool? Do they like to float or are they interested in diving? You listen and then you can steer them into a particular type of pool. Maybe they're extremely concerned about safety because they have small children; then we'll steer them toward an automatic pool cover. Then there are clients who don't want a rectangle, so an automatic cover won't work. A lot of people are going to shallower pools because they don't want a deep end. Every customer is different and every project is different — that never changes."
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In terms of driving homeowners to act on their plans for a pool, according to Hill, "The No. 1 thing is still word of mouth," he says. "Most of the pools we build come from some kind of personal referral. These days, most of the people who are referred to us go to our website first and then contact us through the website. The next step is we go to their house and talk about the pool they want and what we'll need to do during installation.
"We also do some minimal print media — rarely do we purchase TV or radio," he adds. "But that's all very limited. We're currently sold out through 2018 and most of those customers have come to us through word of mouth."
Hill adds that traditional marketing tools, i.e. vehicle wraps, yard signs and a showroom, also remain part of the marketing formula. Currently, the company displays a miniature, portable package pool that is festooned with photos and marketing messages. As effective as that has been, the Hills expect to make even greater impressions with the new facility they're moving to in June. The new store will have a showroom with space for a pool displaying all of the possible features.
"It'll have a jump rock, waterfall, deck jets, LED lights, vinyl-over-steel steps and a cover," he says. "Seeing those features in photos online is one thing, but that can't replace the experience of seeing what we can offer in person."
Finally, the most enduring value of all, say these dealers, is the fundamental joy that comes from providing the aquatic experience to their customers — a facet of marketing that's impossible to quantify, but yet influences nearly every client discussion.
"People get excited," Finco says. "Sometimes while we're still planning their pool and backyard, they're already planning the first party — who's going to be there and what food they're going to serve. A lot of times they invite us. I like to stop in because it's enjoyable and often they'll introduce me to their friends and neighbors. The next thing you know, you just created leads. You can't beat that for referrals because they're actually swimming in the pool you built.
"That kind of excitement," he says, "never changes."
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