Cash is making a comeback.

Squeezed by a tight credit market, more and more consumers are dipping directly into their savings when making large purchases.  

And these shoppers don’t just bring cash to the table — they bring an expectation as well.

“Everybody wants the deal of the century,” says Amy Barto, co-owner of Barto Pool & Spa in Phoenixville, Pa. “People think that if they pay with cash then automatically they don’t have to pay sales tax. And it’s frustrating because there are no margins left [anymore]. It’s been a tough market to weather.”

Barto’s experience is hardly unique.

Pool and spa retailers across the country report more shoppers than ever are looking to spend less, or score additional products or services, if they pay with cash.

The dilemma is clear: Does it make good business sense to come down on price if it means an immediate sale? Or do merchants run the risk of devaluing their goods, and perhaps raising questions about their standard pricing, if they choose to play ball?

Here, a number of retailers share experiences and philosophies on cash discounts in this new era of consumerism.

The modern consumer

Debra Leclerc has just about heard them all. The requests for cash discounts typically involve higher-ticket items such as hot tubs or aboveground pools, says the vice president of The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island in Coventry, R.I.

But the range, she says, stretches from automatic pool cleaners all the way to custom inground projects.

“One customer point-blank said to me, ‘What can you do for cash on a $50,000 pool?’” Leclerc recalls. “Or they’ll say, ‘Give me a reason I should put that pool in now instead of looking around more.’

“The modern consumer is being told it’s worth the time to haggle — that there’s nothing wrong with asking,” she adds. “Consumers think we have a product that’s been heavily hit by the economy, and that we must want to sell it for whatever we can get for it.”

There’s no real consensus as to why pool and spa retail shoppers feel they can negotiate with cash. Some speculate it’s the mom-and-pop setting that leads customers to believe prices aren’t set in stone. Others say it’s conditioning: Businesses like gas stations offer cheaper fuel for cash customers, so why not here?

Which is why Chuck Baldwin wasn’t surprised when a recent pool customer offered to pay in cash if he could “take something off the price.”

The man had already signed a contract, so there was little motivation for Baldwin to consider the suggestion. But it did highlight the extent to which consumers feel they have the upper hand.

“Right now, they realize there are not as many customers out there,” says the owner of Swim Things in Blue Springs, Mo. “They’re in the driver’s seat if they have cash.”

Regardless of the reason, the bottom line is that it’s happening, and happening more often.

The options

When Todd Duncan sells a spa, customers receive a package that includes steps, chemicals and delivery. Still, he says, consumers always seem to want a little more.

“I don’t usually respond well to wheeling and dealing,” says the owner of Out’back Pool, Spa, Patio in Henderson, Ky. “But we may take it that one extra step. Maybe I’ll throw in another accessory, or a first drain and re-fill, or we’ll do their first closing at no charge.

“There isn’t much wiggle room in our pricing,” he adds. “So I can’t take anything off. But if they’re the type to ask, I will provide that additional service. I’m the one that generally does it anyway, so it doesn’t really cost me anything.”

When spa customers approach Leclerc for a cash deal, she too may include an extra set of cartridges, or offer a winter closing, or cut a deal on a replacement cover. She’s willing to discount service, or more labor-intensive jobs like liner replacements.

But on retail items, unless the product comes with a significant markup, it’s usually a non-starter.

“Normally our price is our price,” she says. “So [in terms of a discount], are they looking for dollars, or are they looking for product in lieu of? You have to decide what you can work with.”

The sales staff at Lake Norman Pool & Spa in Statesville, N.C., is afforded a bit of flexibility when dealing with cash customers. More than a couple hundred dollars, though, and customers are directed to retail division manager Neil Johnson.

Based on the customers’ needs, Johnson may be willing to move on price if it secures a same-day purchase. But he much prefers adding, say, $300 worth of in-store products.

“They think they’re getting a better deal, because obviously your retail price is more than you spend,” he says. “This way you’re only losing on your cost. So for a spa, I may do a lift, some steps or chemicals.”      

Others may be willing to discount items for cash buyers, but only between 1 and 2 percent — essentially what most credit card companies charges per transaction. Consumers, however, tend to believe fees are closer to 4 percent, and often continue pushing, according to Nadine Browy, retail division manager atArvidsons Pools & Spas in Crystal Lake, Ill.

In such cases, she may offer hot tub customers a deluxe spa package (candles, scents, etc.) that’s not part of the standard purchase. But with multiple stores to manage, Browy says consistency is crucial.

“I don’t want customers to get different stories,” she says, “because that just hurts our credibility.”

So for Browy and others, the key is leeway in extras, “but we stay firm on price.”

Good for business?

Retailers by and large concede the practice of discounting for cash purchases isn’t ideal, though it’s clearly more prevalent today than it was just 4-5 years ago.

And showing good faith by offering a deal can be important for longtime merchants with deep roots in the community.

But it’s equally important to know when to draw the line, retailers say. And agreeing to a discount too quickly can have adverse consequences, according to Steven Olsen, a sales associate at Rick’s Patio, Pool and Spa in Moreno Valley, Calif.

“If you immediately start offering no tax, free delivery and more options … you run the risk of diminishing the value of the products themselves,” he says. “They think everything is overpriced if you throw out discounts too quickly.   

“Things are slower right now, but you can’t change your whole mentality,” Olsen adds. “You have to work with the customer more, assess what their needs are and find a solution for them.”

Indeed, salesmanship has been a hallmark at B and B Pool and Spa Center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., for nearly 40 years. Partner Bruce Bagin doesn’t begrudge customers who request cash discounts.

He knows it’s a function of the economy, as well as the nature of the business. And, he says, he’s lost major jobs over just a $50 price difference. But when he explains the process — that he tracks a spa, for instance, by serial number from the moment he orders it — more often than not, customers understand.

“We explain what we do — some people get it, and some are just price-oriented,” Bagin says. “I can certainly respect someone who asks. Anyone who’s intelligent will ask the question. But my reality is I’m fully insured, and most of my service employees have been here 16 years or more. It’s really a matter of you get what you pay for — that’s how I deal with that.”