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Pool & Spa News  - June 21, 2000

Poolandspa.com took a risk when it opened its Internet retail site. Its success has come through years of effort.
By: Daniel Harrison

Reprinted from Success.com, 2000 Internet Guide. June 21, 2000.

"Overnight success." We hate that saying. But we hear it a lot. Although it is normally meant as a compliment, it really undermines the years of work that got us where we are today.

The Poolandspa.com journey has been a long one with many ups and downs. Today, our company runs one of the world's largest pool and spa Web sites with more than 2,000 pages of articles, information, pictures and products.

Last year we sold more than $2 million worth of parts, chemicals and accessories online - and this year we will just about quadruple that.

We have been featured on numerous TV shows, business magazines, radio shows and books about e-commerce and e-tailing.

According to Alexa Research, the Nielsen Ratings of the Web, Poolandspa.com gets more visitors than 99.58 percent of all other Web sites - not just pool- and spa-related sites, but all sites on the Internet.

But I can definitely tell you - there was no "overnight" success here. There was 20 years of hard work in many areas of the pool and spa industry that got us where we are today - and it was anything but easy.

Is it for right you?

Is online retailing for your business? Maybe yes and maybe no.

We have heard from many people within the pool and spa industry that the Internet "does not work" for this industry and that "it isn't worth it" and that is "all hype." We find that people who say those things basically have an unrealistic expectation for the Internet, or they are using it in the wrong way.

First you have to look at the industry niche that your business occupies. Are you primarily a pool builder? A spa dealer? A service company? A retail store?

Each one of these market segments can use the Web to their benefit, but it is not a cure-all for any other business ills you may be suffering. We always say, "If you don't run a good business in the real world, going on the Internet is not going to make your business any better."

You have to realize that online retailing or actual online sales is not necessarily the benchmark for success for all types of pool and spa industry Web sites.

For example, if you are a quality inground-pool builder, you would want a Web site that shows photos of your best jobs, maybe some liner samples and some promotional and educational information about your company.

Your Web site should act as an extension of our printed promotional literature and your salesperson's in-home presentation.

Same thing goes for hot tub dealers. Let's face facts, you are probably not going to sell many pools or spas online - no matter how nice your site is or how good your pries are. A spa dealer's Web site should have complete information, photos and brochures of all the product lines one carries as well as any educational or promotional information one may have.

If you think that having a Web site, in and of itself, is going to tremendously increase your pool or spa sales, then you probably will be disappointed.

If, however, pool and spa dealers look at Web sites as additional sales tools - to increase their closing ratios - then they are headed in the right direction.

If you are primarily a service company, then you might want a Web site that lists the services you offer, possibly some customer testimonials, educational articles and perhaps pictures of some of the more popular parts, pumps and filters that you sell. A nice touch is also to allow online scheduling of service appointments.

Want to take a plunge?

I you want big time e-commerce sales, you have to be prepared to rethink the entire way you do business, especially with the explosive growth of the Internet.

In the last 24 months, we even had to admit that we were not properly prepared for the large increase in business - and all the problems that came with it.

You can't think that you are simply a "pool guy" or a "spa guy" anymore. You must become an expert in order fulfillment, call center management, order tracking, vendor relations, product development, purchasing, warehouse management and inventory control.

You also must be willing to employ a few people with computer knowledge who can update the Web site daily and make improvements. You also have to employ design people and copywriters. You have to get a staff that is devoted to returning e-mail inquiries and questions (we get 400 to 500 e-mails per day).

It is a lot of work. And it is not an easy business.

A full-blown pool and spa e-commerce site should have all the bells and whistles that consumers have come to expect from shopping at amazon.com, buy.com, or pets.com.

Professional design is the key

Consumers will not take you seriously unless you present a fully professional image from Web site to order form to consumer service reps- all the way to the invoice and finally ending up with a professionally packaged box delivered to their door.

On top of all that professionalism, today's Web buyers also want it fast. The old pool guy saying, "We have to special order your part, and it will take two to three weeks" just doesn't cut it with today's consumers.

Poolandspa.com has online ordering for over 65,000 pool and spa parts, chemicals and accessories. We ship from multiple warehouses across the country. Most orders ship within 24 hours. This is what customers expect.

It is also nice to include such extras such as chat rooms, threaded message boards, an educational section for the do-it-yourselfers and an "Ask the Experts" section. Realize that a busy e-commerce site tends to be fairly impersonal and faceless, so any "human personal touches" really help develop your relationships with your customers.

Sound scary? Well, it is kind of scary - especially if you get overwhelmed with orders that you are not prepared to fulfill. Your shipping department had better be well stocked and be able to operate like a well-oiled machine when it gets busy in May, June and around Christmas.

Last year we were caught totally off guard by the December sales rush. We felt that it would be kind of busy due to pool and spa related holiday gifts. December is normally a very slow month for us - so we thought "a little bit busier" might be 20 to 30 orders per day.

We knew that we were in trouble on Dec. 2 when we logged in over 200 orders in one day. That was 10 times what we had expected. The entire month was incredibly busy, and we were all very glad to see Christmas finally come and go. This year we will be much more prepared - believe me!

Walk before you run.

If you do not yet have a Web site, it is advisable for you to carefully consider what you want your end goal to be. Do not be unrealistic in your expectations of what the internet can and cannot do for your company.

Do not even begin to contact a Web design company until you have decided which route you, as a company, want to take. Because if you go to a Web design consultant without any plans, you will usually end up with a site that is either disappointing or totally overkill for what you need (usually with an astronomical price tag as well).

We suggest that you walk before you run. Start small and build up. That's what we did.

Try to go for quality and not necessarily quantity. A consumer is going to be far more impressed with 5 to 10 well-thought-out and properly designed pages rather than 50 to 100 sloppy, amateurish ones.

Remember, on the Internet, your Web site is going to be compared to all the big sites that the surfer just came from. If he surfs from ESPN to Amazon.com to CNET and then to your site, is he going to be in for a big let down?

That is a painful way to check out the "curb appeal" of your site's design. Always compare it to others - both within our industry and out because that is what the consumer will do when deciding to buy your products or someone else's.

Is there room for us all?

Our market is a large one. There is a lot of room in an industry this large for more pool and spa sites.

Many pool and spa businesses may never want to be a Poolandspa.com type of operation - a pool builder used to selling a $20,000 pool or a spa dealer used to selling a $5,000 spa is not going to adapt well to the "nickel and dime" mentality of mass marketing. Many retailers consider the concept of mail order a hassle.

But the great thing about the Web is that it offers so many different possibilities for all the various niches in our industry.

The trick is to find the one that fits your specific business plan the best - and make a professional looking Web site that reflects your business properly.

Having a Web site or doing online retailing is definitely not for everyone, but if you are willing to put in the time and effort, it can be very profitable and rewarding.