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Pool & Spa News  - July 8, 1998

Virtual Sales
By Margi Millunzi

International Data Corp. predicts on-line sales will reach upwards of $200 billion by 2002. The internet has the potential to propel many companies toward future growth— and pool and spa businesses are cashing in on these opportunities. In Its annual "Real Number, Behind ‘Net Profits" survey of Web site revenue, Activmedia Inc. (www.activmedia.com) a market research firm that specializes in Internet markets and its impact, says that 58 percent of business sites that have been operating for three or more years are profitable. Additionally, 46 percent of business executives whose companies have been on-line for only one year report success as well. The survey also notes that in 1997, the top 10 percent of revenue producing Web sites averaged $4 million in sales, and that the average business-to-business sale is almost $3000.

"What makes the Internet so profitable for our Industry Is that the demographics of typical pool and spa owners are the same demographics of Internet users," says Dan Harrison, president of Paramount Pools/Long Island Hot Tubs In Long Island, N.Y..  Chances are these baby boomers who are using the Net will likely use it to learn more about the big-ticket items they’re about to purchase such as pools and spas. An increasing number of pool and spa businesses recognize this shift in the way people are doing business and have set virtual stores and other merchandising features on the internet— and are meeting the challenges of selling on-line successfully.

Electronic retailers say that the Internet is one of the most versatile forms for transmitting company and product promotion. Successful "e-commerce" begins, they say, with highly visible Website that attracts and informs browsing consumers. "It is estimated that most people
spend, at best, 30 seconds looking at your site," says Ted Gregory, MIS manager at Aquatemp Products Inc. In Ciardena, Calif. "If they don’t find what they need, they’ll look somewhere else." "If you are going to get involved with e-commerce," says Chris DiBianco, store manager for Albany, NY-based Islander Pools & Spas, "you need to advertise with search engines and be placed at the top of their lists.

"Unless people can find you," he adds, "a Web site is not worth having." A company needs to dedicate and focus resources to maximize Its site’s visibility, Web retailers say. A Web site is not just a page on a computer screen, and operating a virtual store necessitates as much planning, time and money as any other business Venture.

"You have to look at the Web site as a real store." Harrison says. "It requires the same amount of money and manpower as a typical retail store. A lot of the pitfalls arise when people think they can put a page up on the Internet and have the money immediately come in. If you are going to go on the Internet, you have to be prepared," he adds. "A lot of it is time-intensive and it requires a great deal of communication." "You cannot treat the Internet as a new toy,’ Gregory says. "You have to look at it as another advertising medium, similar to television, newspapers and magazines — except now you have a broader audience. "The Internet cannot generate money by itself ", he says. "It Is not a guaranteed money making scheme; It’s simply another way a more flexible way to advertise your company and your products."

While initially just a service firm, Paramount Pools / Long Island Hot Tubs (http://www.poolandspa.com) reported earnings of more than $1 million in Internet sales last year. The company’s Web site, which made it's debut in 1994, is its only retail operation. The firm makes information accessible to Web users through a variety of bells and whistles. "We continuously add things to the site," Harrison says. "There is such a cross section of people using the products that we want our site to be accessible to all of them."

To keep consumers’ attention and to make their shopping experience more fruitful, the company has added many high-tech features to its site, including chat rooms and discussion groups; on-line price quotes; and product availability reports. "We are in the process of adding a shopping cart feature," Harrison says. "Users go to the pool store and click on the product; the screen shows a picture of the item, its description and price; click on the shopping cart, and the product is added to the order."

Similar in nature, Aquatemp Products’ site (www.aquatemp.com) which started in 1997, has grown to offer nearly 400 pages of product listings. "While a lot of our customers use our site to place orders, we also get many new leads through the Internet," Gregory says. "Also, we receive and respond to our Internet correspondence on a daily basis. "In the beginning, our site was clunky, then we had a professional lay it out," Gregory says. People like the ease of Information the site provides. We wanted it to be functional not just good to look at. "While Islander pool & spa" site (http//www.islanderpools.com) has been up for only eight months, DiBianco says they are already seeing a steady stream of sales. "We try to make shopping as easy as possible. Keeping the site simple so people can easily navigate through it; using animated buttons so users know that they’ve selected a product; and in-depth descriptions and photos of products make our site stronger.’

Consumers still have big concerns about giving sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, on-line. Not knowing who has access to these numbers has prompted many to turn away from the Web. Web retailers say that their sites incorporate many layers of security — through technological aids as well as heightened in-store procedures, which should give their customers peace of mind. Our store operates on a Secure server," DiBianco says, "so our customers’ credit card information is protected. Additionally our employees have limited
access to the information because our Web server is not internal, our provider provides fire walls and otter security measures," Gregory says. ‘We also have secure areas that are password-protected.

"We maintain limited access Internally," he says. "We treat the Web site as an extension of the company’s normal operation for example, just as the shipping department wouldn’t have access to credit card numbers on site, they are restricted to the on-line information as well." "While our site is totally encrypted, I don’t find security issues to be a big stumbling block for consumers," Harrison says. "They aren’t too concerned about giving us their credit card numbers — and they can always call our toll-free number." Retailers say the benefits of virtual shopping far outweigh th potential drawbacks, and security measures will make consumers feel more comfortable. "Ultimately, I find that people use the Internet out of convenience," he says. It Is the only store that comes to them."

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