In 2004, Modesto, Calif.-based Aqua Pool & Spa sold 900 suction-side and pressure-side pool cleaners. How'd they do it. "I think understanding the needs of a client determines the right cleaner for them," says Gregg Whitley, co-owner and vice president of the company. "That's the most important thing."

Beyond that, colorful displays featuring automatic pool cleaners, informative reading material for consumers to take home and browse, and educated salespeople also help sell automatic pool cleaners. And, says Whitley, whose company built nearly 1,250 in-ground gunite pools in 2004, "it's pretty common in the whole West Coast market to offer a cleaner in the base price of the pool, and then offer upgraded cleaners." Whitley includes a suction-side cleaner in Aqua Pool & Spa's base pool price, but also informs homeowners of other available cleaners they can purchase as an upgrade. Whitley talks about this, his concerns about selling APCs on the Internet and where he sees automatic pool cleaners rolling in the future.

AQUA: What should retailers focus on when selling automatic pool cleaners?

Whitley: Based on the type of swimming pool design that's created or the type of pool that's existing, there are different types of cleaners that work in certain types of pool designs. You wouldn't want to offer a very slow-moving cleaner in a big, giant 800-square-foot pool. Obviously that would not make sense for anybody. So we would advise a cleaner to be recommended in relationship to the new pool design or the existing pool. It's just like everything — certain cleaners have certain types of limitations. And as a pool-building professional, you have to understand its limitations and make sure you don't recommend a cleaner in a pool that has those certain types of limitations.

How do you display your cleaners for maximum exposure?

Whitley: We have custom-printed literature and we also have pools that are built that we take clients to tour, and then they can see the cleaners operating. In the event that a client ever wanted to see one, then we would go to our inventory, pull one out of the box and then if a client wanted to touch it and feel it, they could, but that's not too common. You want to win their confidence by showing you understand their needs, and if you've created that confidence level, it's much easier to convert them or convince them into the right cleaner for their pool.

Does showing the cleaners in action help you sell them?

Whitley: Everybody likes to see an actual sample of something, but I don't think it's that important. It's more of determining what the client's issues are. Ultimately, most clients don't know [the differences between cleaners] and they're going to take the recommendation of somebody they trust, and that's a big deal. So [with the display] you can point to it, you can use it as a visual guide, but it really comes down to the credibility of the individual who's making the presentation regarding the cleaner, that they know what they're talking about.

Are automatic pool cleaners taking away from your service department at all?

Whitley: No. Most clients can't afford to have a pool service individual at their house four or five times a week. So a robotic cleaner is actually doing the daily cleaning, and a pool service company is doing either a real intense cleaning or they're just providing chemical service. Whereas a commercial pool has a staff that cleans the pool every day. They have somebody that comes out and provides a service and they manually vacuum the pool and they do it every day — you see it when you go to resorts. A homeowner can't afford that, so a robotic cleaner helps them provide the daily maintenance, and the pool service company complements that by doing the big cleaning — cleaning the filters, balancing the chemicals in their pool, that kind of thing.

Do you have any concerns with cleaners being sold on the Internet, and are you selling cleaners on a Web site?

Whitley: No, and I do think there is some concern regarding that. We do not sell anything via the Internet. The problem with selling things over the Internet is that there is no communication about what the client's needs are. And like I said, and I think this is a really important point, not every cleaner works in every pool. You need to have that interaction, either as the pool is being designed or in the explanation of what pool exists, you have to have that discussion so you can make that recommendation.

How do you think this segment will evolve over the next few years?

Whitley: That's a very tough question because it depends on what position you're discussing. If you're discussing it from an existing pool and a client replacing that cleaner, then it won't go away, because there is no solution other than an automotic cleaner, because you can't build a built-in cleaner into that pool. So from an aftermarket standpoint, once a pool is built and a client is either replacing or repairing a cleaner, I don't ever see the pool cleaners going away. In a new-construction view where you have the opportunity to discuss how that pool is being built, yes, I do see the robotic cleaner segment decreasing, with an inground cleaning system [taking its place].

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Whitley: I think this would be consistent with any time a professional in any industry makes a statement about anything — you need to make sure you understand the needs of the client before you make any recommendations, so that you adequately recommend the right solution for that particular client's needs. That's a big deal. There are too many people out there who just try to sell somebody something. That's why I think a purchase of any product via the Internet in a technical application is the wrong thing, because you can't interact with the clients and you can't understand their needs, and that's important.

Phantom Of The Pool

Hayward Pool Products recently introduced a "total" automatic pool cleaner, the first of its kind on the market, the company says. The Hayward Phantom is designed to clean an in-ground pool's bottom, walls, steps, and in addition, rise to the surface of a pool to skim debris.

According to Mark Normyle, director of marketing for Hayward, an independent inventor presented the idea of the Phantom about eight years ago, but in order to introduce the cleaner to the market, Hayward had to overcome a number of challenges. "The biggest was not so much developing the head, but once you start going to that third dimension — where you're on the surface and you dive straight down and then you come back up. With a normal pool hose, you tend to tie a knot in the cleaner, and that wasn't acceptable to consumers," says Normyle. "So after a lot of head scratching and trying many different hoses, our engineers and the inventors developed what is called a rigid hose. There is actually rigid pipe sections connected by small, flexible sections of hose, and what that does is it makes the hose less susceptible to tangling or knotting." Additionally, Hayward's Web site says the Phantom is equipped with a 41 percent wider vacuum nozzle for faster cleaning, a large 6-quart debris bag and a sweep hose that doesn't spray water out of the pool.

The Phantom is driven by water jets that propel it around the bottom and sides of the pool and allow it to skim the surface. In "auto" mode, the Phantom cleans the bottom and sides of the pool for 13 minutes, then automatically rises to skim the surface for seven minutes, continuing the cycle until the pool is clean. The Phantom also features the ability to clean only the sides and bottom of the pool, or only skim the surface, for the entire 20-minute cycle, says Normyle.

If the Phantom hits an obstacle when cleaning, Normyle says the floor of the pool is protected by the cleaner's water jet technology and cam capabilities. If, for instance, homeowners have a small pool with complex geometry, Normyle suggests using a five-prong, 30-second cam. If the Phantom hits an obstacle, after 30 seconds it will automatically spin, rotate and head in a different direction. "If you happen to have a large, rectangular pool without a lot of obstacles, you don't need to spin out as frequently, so you put a two-prong, 75-second cam in it," says Normyle.

Consumer and dealer feedback has been positive since the Phantom's release in November, says Normyle.

The Phantom is available in white with a translucent blue wing on its top, and Normyle says Hayward will be introducing a black Phantom in the future. He also says there is potential for the technology to one day be used in a suction cleaner.

— E.F.