The dream of spending hot summer days lounging on a raft in a cool, pristine swimming pool beckons nearly everyone. Until recently, however, many average-income families had to put this dream on hold because they couldn't afford to install a swimming pool in their own backyard.

In the late 1980s, affordable portable pools began to be manufactured in the United States, providing an oasis for pool-thirsty homeowners and an option for many pool and spa retailers who don't want to lose a sale to somebody who wants the instant gratification these pools provide.

"Portable pools are very easy to put together, very user friendly," says Eddie Secard, vice president of Splash-A-Round Pools, West Covina, Calif. "It has opened the door to a lot of dealers who are looking at this product as something they should carry, because it can be purchased across the counter, loaded into somebody's SUV or pickup truck, taken home and assembled by the homeowner that same day."

AQUA spoke to several manufacturers and retailers who discussed the growing popularity and advantages of these pools, why and how retailers should showcase portable pools in their own stores, and the benefits of using these pools for promotional events.

Popular Pools

Secard says he has watched portable pools become more popular throughout the last decade. "Here on the West Coast the portable pool is a very popular pool. This pool has greatly surpassed the steel-walled pool sales — last year we closed with seven soft-sided pools sold to every one steel-walled pool.

"I would say in the next 10 years there will be less and less requests for steel-walled pools and I think you'll find the soft-sided pool will dominate."

Originally, says Dick Raffaelli, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Midway, Ga.based Zodiac American Pools, portable pools were targeted toward military families, families who were renting a property and families who had a second home, because homeowners could easily install the portable pool during the warm months and store it during the winter months.

Now, he says, the buying population has expanded. "These products are going to young and middle-aged families, and senior citizens are buying them."

Shad Kidder, retail operations manager for Splash-A-Round Pools, believes the rise in popularity is because of the simplicity of the pools, which homeowners can buy, install (without any tools) and fill with water in the same day.

"Because of the easy setup, it provides the consumer with instant gratification," Raffaelli agrees. "Typically what happens at the retail level when the season gets busy is the installers get busy and their date-book fills quickly. Consequently, these folks are tied up and they've got other installations staged out maybe 10 days." With a portable pool, he says, consumers don't have to wait to enjoy their new purchase. "What does that mean for the retailer. He doesn't have to lose a customer because they can't have a pool set up quickly."

And with this quick retail sale comes the same options and add-ons that are available for steel-walled above-ground pools.

"Soft-sided pools offer just about any option that a steel-walled pool would offer," Secard says. "So it creates options for the consumer and it creates options for the retailer to add on to the sale."

Raffaelli concurs: "These consumers, guess what. They have kids like most other families that buy pools and these kids use pool toys. The parents need to sanitize the water that's in the pool just the same as any other above-ground or in-ground pool, so you're getting chemical sales, you're getting water toy and accessory sales, you're going to get solar cover and reel business, you're going to have winter cover business. There is a myriad of other products that can be sold to these consumers."

Not only can portable pool sales add to a store's bottom line, but some retailers also say they have had homeowners upgrade to a larger pool, and in rare cases, to an in-ground pool.

Peter Garner, store manager for Splash Pools, Spas and More in North Little Rock, Ark., says nobody has ever complained that the pool they upgraded to is too large. "I understand for price reasons they always want to go ahead and get in for what they can get in, least expensive as possible. But most of the time, since there is not that much of a price difference, I try to nudge them up to the slightly larger size I think they might need, especially if they're coming in with smaller kids, so that two years later when the kids have grown up the parents aren't thinking, 'Wow, I wish I had gotten a bigger pool.'"

So portable pools are not only attractive to a previously untapped demographic, but they can also provide add-on sales as well as upgrade sales for a retailer. Question is, how can a retailer showcase the portable pool in a way that will catch homeowners' eyes.

An Outdoor Haven

"I think the best way that a retailer can showcase this particular product is to use it to tell a story or to create a lifestyle," says Howie Patton, vice president of design services for Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based Atmospheric Services, a brand consulting firm.

When creating outdoor rooms, Patton recommends setting different themes and showcasing the range of accessories available to the homeowner in the retail store, such as fountains, waterfalls, furniture, grills, umbrellas and enclosures.

"A great way to do that with aboveground pools is to use fencing to create a backdrop for each individual pool," he says.

Patton says this fencing technique is most effective when the fence stands 4 to 6 feet tall and is "just high enough that it creates curiosity about what is around the next bend."

Secard also suggests showcasing more than one pool at a time if possible. "There have been studies with results indicating the more pools you display, the more pools you are going to sell." He says most of the retail stores his company supplies display six to 10 filled pools in outdoor pool parks.

"One word? Wet," says Raffaelli. "You cannot beat a pool with water in it. Putting up an empty pool. I don't recommend that for metal-walled pools. But for a fabric, portable pool, you really need the water to make the structure rigid."

To generate serious sales, dress up the pools on display.

"Keep attractive landscaping," Patton says. "I would use plants anywhere and everywhere that I possibly could. I think it tends to soften the hard edges of design."

Secard concurs: "Of course landscaping around the pools should always be done when possible to create more of a backyard setting." He says many of his retailers' outdoor showrooms allow homeowners to follow a concrete path around the different pools available. The pools are oftentimes surrounded with colored, crushed rock. "It looks very pretty, it's very easy to maintain and it adds some color around the pool," he says.

Kidder says the retail stores he helps design for Splash-A-Round Pools are often decorated with plants and flowers to help customers visualize what they can do in their own backyard. However, some stores are not able to use real landscaping because the pools are placed on concrete. In this case, he says, "We simply put them on display with fountains on them, getting water sprayed everywhere. Create some excitement."

Although Patton recommends using artificial plants as well in this scenario, he does agree what will attract consumers most is the sound of water. "Waterfalls are something that, as far as accessories go, are big sellers and can really showcase a pool."

Secard couldn't agree more. "One of your best selling features is to put water into motion. It is a very big eye-catcher and it's something that I think really attracts the buyer," he says.

Mimic The Outdoors

Not every retailer has the space it takes to display multiple pools outside, however. If this is the case, Garner suggests displaying at least one portable pool indoors. "So many times the customer is not comfortable with going outside because of the weather. Inside is a really good place to give a standardized walk around. We do almost all of our demonstrations on the inside, and then we move outside."

As with outdoor showrooms, Patton recommends using landscaping around indoor pools as well to "try to recreate the outdoors." He says natural lighting is the best way to do this, if it's at all possible. "They could actually use skylights or solar tubes directly over the pool displays and that would allow them to do more live plantings inside, and to landscape those areas as well." If a retail store can't afford to maintain live landscaping, Patton suggests using artificial plants to create the same environment.

In any indoor setting, another important topic to consider is traffic flow, according to Patton. "Place your most important products up front," he says. Portable pools are no longer products a retailer should tuck into the back corner of the store where it will be the last display shoppers will see, if they ever even make it that far, he says. Chemicals, however, are a different story. "If you have a pool, you have to have chemicals. We know we're going to make those sales, so that is one particular product that you don't want to locate up front, because those people are coming into the store anyway." Patton says by moving chemicals further back, a consumer will be forced to travel through the store. "You're going to increase their awareness of the other products and potential new accessories. Anything you can do to expose that to potential customers is going to be beneficial," he says.

Most importantly, every showroom should create a fun and relaxing atmosphere for consumers.

Music is one way a retailer can keep consumers browsing around the store. "There are some great opportunities to maybe even play some Hawaiian music if that happens to be the particular theme," Patton says.

"Probably the most important thing we try to do here at the store is present a fun atmosphere," says Garner. "We like to have radios in the background, flags flying, banners flapping, all that kind of stuff. Because you get here and you're wanting to feed off excitement, especially with the kids here and toys in the pool, squirt guns for them to play with and make a mess with. All that kind of stuff, just so it looks like, 'Hey, this is fun, this is a neat thing to do.'"

Promote, Promote

Even if retailers make changes to their retail spaces, it doesn't mean consumers are going to flock to the stores in droves. Word-of-mouth is recommendations do encourage some customers to stop in. However, far too few industry professionals are taking the time to promote their products through any form other than advertising.

Patton suggests leasing a showroom to parents for afternoon parties or hiring an instructor and lifeguard to provide free swimming lessons for children. "It's going to get parents dropping their kids off, and anything we can do to get these people to come in and view the products is going to be beneficial.

"Any opportunity like that would allow you to display your wares to a consumer who maybe hadn't considered it before," he says. "A lot of people think about a swimming pool — cost, maintenance, construction — and they think they can't afford that. And all of a sudden they see they can."

However, Kidder says he rarely uses his pools for promotions or charity events. He says he worries about liability, payment and the condition of the pool when it's returned.

Although these are all legitimate concerns, Garner says he's still seeing profits from when he displayed his pool at a professional dog-jumping contest a year ago. "It was a lot of fun, a good photo opportunity and a lot of people asked what kind of pool was out there." Even if homeowners weren't originally interested in purchasing the pool, Garner says, they "logged it in" to their memory. "We've definitely had several people in that bought a pool off of that," he says.

Closing The Deal

Although portable pools are becoming a popular item with homeowners, Raffaelli says some metal-walled aboveground pool dealers are still afraid to carry them for fear that portable pools will lose the store sales and clients because it's not what the store has offered in the past.

"What they need to understand," he says, "is not to be afraid of these. The product is here, it's available and it will be around for the foreseeable future, because of the convenience, the lack of field and service problems, the quick installation and the easy maintenance.

"Why let consumers leave your property and your retail space because you can't have a pool installed quickly enough to satisfy that consumer. I can't understand. It doesn't make any sense."