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They are some of the most familiar and iconic names in the industry: SCP, Superior Pool Products, Hachik and PoolCorp, to name a few. Some are national in scope while others remain regional. Many that once helped fuel the industry no longer exist and have been long forgotten.
Big or small, familiar or obscure, pool and spa wholesale distributors occupy a crucial niche — whether a retailer, builder or service company, you most likely buy the vast majority of your wares from a distributor.
There are alternatives, such as buying groups, and some products are available directly from manufacturers, especially when sold online. But most often, if a product is used on a pool or a spa, it finds its way there through a distributor. As such, they are powerful companies that are crucial to the daily function of the industry and its long-term prosperity.
So it’s not surprising that when we talked to dealers about relationships with distributors, there was no shortage of strong opinions.
Steve Kenny, owner of SRK Modern Pool Solutions, a Long Island-based builder and service firm focusing largely on commercial facilities, credits the distributors in his area for both helping him get started as well as facilitating his company’s growth, through good times and bad.
“The distributor in effect becomes an extension of your business,” he says. “You turn to them for almost every part and for information. They offer payment terms, usually 30 days, that enable to you carry a balance, meaning they essentially replace a bank.
“When I got started,” he adds, “I had a very difficult time finding reliable information. These were the people that taught me some of the most basic aspects of the industry and how pools and spas operate. Later on, I don’t think I would have made it through 2008 without the help of our distributors. They became a big part of our stability. It’s that relationship that matters because you can talk to them and explain the situation and say, ‘Hey, we’re waiting on this or on that.’”
Steven Ward, president of Ward Pool Services in Gilbert, Ariz., echoes those sentiments.
“When I was a rookie, their knowledge was absolutely my power because they knew what I was trying to do. That was golden,” he says. “After doing it 20 years, it’s definitely the exception nowadays, but they’re still an invaluable resource.”
Bob Foutz, Jr., worked his service route at Purity Pool Service for 31 years in Huntington Beach, Calif., a tenure that led him to the counter of some of the region’s most prominent suppliers. He too believes those connections are among the most important in the course of doing business.
“It’s all about the relationships,” he says. “I would go in once or twice each week, and you get to know the people who work at the counter and count on them to find you the right part or product. Some of those people are in the business for a very long time, and they gain a tremendous amount of knowledge because manufacturers educate them about their products. Over the years they’ve seen it all. It’s not that they’re necessarily selling you one product over another, but it only makes sense to use what they know, and distributors know a lot! If you ask me, those people are worth their weight in gold.”
In the most practical terms, that level of knowledgeable customer service means finding the right part for repairs or construction. While delivery of consumable products, such as chemicals and other service supplies, is also a big part of the relationship, often it’s the extra hustle beyond part supply that makes a great distributor.
“There was a local distributor that used to say they carried ‘everything but the water.’ The truth is, however, not every distributor carries every conceivable product,” Foutz says. “There are those that specialize more in service and others that are more focused on construction materials, so it helps to know where to go in the first place. I’ve found that most of the time if they don’t know what you need or don’t have it in stock, they’ll make the effort to find out. It might be at another branch and you have to pick it up, or they’ll have it delivered. Computers have helped a lot because they can track inventory and know where to find a given product.”
“The big thing that I really appreciate is when I ask for a part and they have it over the counter,” Ward says. “Not having to wait for it is important because we’re fixing things that are broken now, not something that’s going to break next week. When you walk into a distributor’s warehouse and see the thousands of products they carry on the shelves, it makes you a little more sensitive and forgiving when they don’t always have the exact part that you need.”
Because of the sheer volume of products, that search can require patience, even for experienced techs and distributor staff.
“Sometimes you have to go in and just explain it to them,” Foutz says. “I might come in and say, ‘I need the round thing that goes into the square thing.’ The guy or gal goes in the back and brings out the round thing but you might have to tell them, ‘Not that round thing, the other round thing.’ Sometimes you can’t get too far away from having direct over-the-counter interaction.”
Just as nearly every conceivable type of business has been transformed by smartphones and apps, finding the right part is now often facilitated by the ability to take photos and text or email them to distributors.
“When camera phones came out, I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world,” Ward recalls. “Needless to say, I was completely wrong about that. Now, I have literally thousands of pictures on my phone of pool things because I don’t delete them. I tell our technicians to take pictures as well. I can walk into a distributor and show them pictures. That’s a huge help when you’re trying to identify the right part. And I really love the ability to log onto their site, app or whatever they’re using and try to find the right item myself. I can find out if they have it in stock or if another branch has it in stock. That’s extremely valuable.”
Because distributors are so critical on so many different levels to virtually all types of dealers in the industry, it stands to reason that those relationships can sometimes become strained. Some distributors have been accused of raising wholesale prices to a level that is no longer competitive with direct online sales, especially to the DIY market, while some dealers also say the personal service isn’t always what it should be.
“I truly respect what distributors do, but some of the branches could stand to improve on the way they support their customers and the industry,” says Michael Logsdon, president of Land Design, a design and construction firm in Bourne, Texas. “Some need better follow-up and communication. I especially have to keep tabs on the pricing, because companies will raise their prices almost randomly. It’s the nature of the beast, you have to be aware of what you’re being charged and look for those people and companies that respect your business and will work with you, or at least communicate when prices are increasing.”
Logsdon says that increasing prices in particular, as well as changes in key personnel at distribution branches, has in the past prompted him to switch wholesalers and also work with buying collectives as a way to relieve the financial pressure. “I’ve never been a transactional guy, it’s always about relationships,” he says. “So when I run into to someone or a company that’s only about the bottom line and not looking to support my business, unwilling to work with me on price, I’ve been forced to look elsewhere.”
He is quick to point out, however, that he’s also worked with distributors that “treated me like a king; they would work with me on price and demonstrated how much they do respect my business. I can’t say enough about those people and how important those relationships are.”
Not all dealers are so charitable. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Florida service tech complained that distributor pricing has made it nearly impossible to compete with direct online sales.
“Sometimes all we have is a better warranty, because the client sees they can get equipment cheaper online direct and they don’t read the fine print or think about what they’re buying because they think one size fits all,” he says. “And that can lead to all sorts of problems beyond the fact that it makes impossible to compete.
“I have one prospective client that told me he’s mixing and matching his equipment using different manufacturers based entirely on price,” he adds. “That’s a disaster waiting to happen. And it’s not only bad for my business, it hurts the entire industry when you have clients making product selections that you know aren’t going to work correctly. It’s a problem!”
As new products are introduced with advancing technology, especially in the automation and chemical treatment markets, distributors will no doubt continue to play a key role in bringing new products to the market, as well as supporting tried and true products. Manufacturers and independent rep firms continue to focus on training distributors’ staff, knowing that those working the counters can have tremendous influence on techs, builders and retailers who come looking for answers to technical questions.
Some manufacturers stage small-scale training events at distributor facilities where they take their product messages and specific technical information directly to the dealers. And many professionals report that distributor branches serve as a quasi-social hub for interaction among their peers.
“They ask for feedback,” Foutz says. “They might say, ‘After you install this, come back and tell me what you think.’ That might lead to a question for the manufacturer; you become a way for distributors and manufacturers to get feedback. Sometimes we all work together. In that way distributors are not only distributing products, they’re also distributing information. After all, sales is not selling a product, but educating and making people comfortable and confident with a given product.”
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