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Web Week Magazine - August 4, 1997

Pool Store Dives Into the Web and Finds Success
written by Elizabeth Gardner

WHILE INDUSTRY pundits spin exotic theories about how to make the Internet pay, and Fortune 500 companies shovel millions of dollars into the furnace of Web Site development, small entrepreneurs are creating winning formulas by trial, error, and common sense.

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Theresa Belcastro & Dan Harrison

Dan Harrison operated a booming pool and hot tub store on Long Island in the balmy days of the Reagan era, but closed up shop in 1991 during a recession so deep that "you couldn't sell water to a fish." Today he could afford to have store again, but instead pulls down $5,000 to $6,000 a week selling aftermarket products- chemicals, pool covers, pump replacement parts, inflatable dolphins, and whatnot--over a 400-page Web site designed and maintained by himself and his employees.

Harrison's business--Long Island Hot Tubs and Paramount Pools--makes $1 million a year from cleaning and servicing local pools and spas, which represents the bulk of his overall revenue. But the Web has enhanced the mail-order part of his business 50 fold since he first went online in 1994. "Never in a million years did I expect this would take off the way it has, he said. Harrison's success on the Web comes from filling a need that he understands from 17 years of dealing with pool and spa customers and from the heavy overlap between those customers and Internet users. The demographic niche of the kind of people who have intimate access exactly matches the people who have pools and hot tubs," he said.

For the most part, Harrison sells either commodities or low-cost items that people don't need to see in person before they buy (though he has recently been doing well with $300 to $600 hot-tub covers). He answers questions--The "Ask the Pool Guy" and "Ask the Spa Guy" e-mail query forms generate hundreds of inquiries a week--and Harrison is considering hiring someone solely to answer e-mail. "People don't know a lot about their pool or hot tub," he said. I get e-mails every day that I couldn't make up."

People can order via a secure order form at the Web site or call an 800 number for extra hand-holding and advice from one of the staff. Spa or pool owners faced with a broken pump or other component can find exploded diagrams of their particular model with part numbers clearly marked, scanned in from product manuals with the distributors' blessing.

For publicity, Harrison has concentrated on getting the site included in the major search engines, and he now has three different domain names to enhance his search-engine hit rate and the odds that he'll be found by sheer guess-work. He also integrates the Web site with off-line marketing strategies. But Harrison estimates that many of the site's 30,000 hits a day are generated through word of mouth, and that many of his orders are repeat business.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Web sites selling pool and hot tub supplies. - But contrary to the accepted wisdom for selling commodities on the Web, Harrison so far has not had to slash prices to keep the orders rolling in. "We're not cheap, even for the Internet," he said. "We're selling our knowledge. You'd get a bottle of some chemicals from us for $28 that you might find at Price Warehouse or someplace for $24, but we'll make sure that you're buying the right thing."

Harrison keeps his overhead low by doing in-house design and relying on his ISP for hosting. "Three of my employees are chained to their computers in the off season, making Web pages," he said. "It would cost me $800,000 to have a consultant do the same work."