PHOTO: Kalamazoo Pool

Chris Lee spreads an array of pool toys, floats and games throughout her Lee’s Summit, Mo., retail store. She arranges some on shelves, and hangs others on walls or in the window.

“It’s fun — kids get excited about toys and inflatables,” says Lee, owner of The Water Hole. “Plus, it lends color and interest to the store. It really adds to the overall décor and the atmosphere we try to create here.”

Categorically, swimming pool toys and games can be lucrative — after selling out early last summer, Lee already has ordered approximately 25 percent more product for the coming season.

But they also can be tricky. Toys and games often are considered impulse items, or products added to the cart after the primary reason for a store visit — water testing, purchase of a new filter, etc. — has been satisfied. That can make for difficult forecasting.

Plus, there’s tremendous variety within the product grouping itself. Some toys, such as swim rings and dive sticks, cater to a much younger demographic than floating lounges and air mattresses.

And, as Lee notes, many are frequently (though not always) hand-picked off the showroom floor by children, whose tastes and fashions shift on a seemingly daily basis.

As for competition, most specialty retailers agree the bulk of it comes from mass merchants.

But here’s the good news: Despite their broad product range, and ability to buy in bulk and offer discount pricing, big-box stores are at a distinct disadvantage in selling pool toys and games,experts say. Read on to discover not only why, but also how pool and spa dealers can most effectively leverage their upper hand.

Advantage #1: Display

The aisles of your prototypical mass merchant do not generally utilize much imagination: 40 feet of stacked product in no particular order is a common “layout.”

This is where specialty retailers can make their most striking statement.

“Visual excitement certainly is a big part of the impulse purchase,” says Lisa Goshgarian, marketing manager at Poolmaster in Sacramento, Calif. “If people can actually see the fun and see the excitement, they may be more apt to say, ‘Hey, that looks interesting.’ So the advantage that some independents have is being able to personalize that experience.”

Depending on available space, pool and spa retailers can utilize a number of strategies to display their toys and games. Goshgarian cites one Northern California merchant who arranges a selection of lounges just outside his front door. He also sets up a basketball hoop and volleyball net, creating a “sidewalk-sale” feel to the space.

Allowing shoppers — and especially children — to pick up and touch the products helps create a stronger connection, she says. Rather than imagining or picturing oneself using an air mattress, for example, they’re actually sitting on it.

“Obviously you don’t want to be tossing a Frisbee across the showroom,” Goshgarian says, “but if there’s something where they can feel the materials, or if it’s a toy that’s soft, they can grip it or throw it, or figure out what’s unique about it — that may be something worth considering.”

Aside from taking certain toys and games out of their boxes, retailers are encouraged to exhibit them creatively and think big-picture.

For example, organizing like-minded products throughout the store creates visual vignettes that can further aid sales, says Jerry Piscitelli, co-owner of Portopong in Naugatuck, Conn.

“As much as we’d love for them to sell just our product (inflatable floating beer pong tables), if they’re selling tiki torches, plastic cups or really anything that deals with outdoor patio life or barbeques, group those products together,” he says. “Create that picture of a luau or party.”

Advantage #2: Co-promotion 

Mass merchants don’t typically have the freedom to package unrelated products together to spark sales, so this is another area in which independent retailers enjoy a clear edge. The possibilities, in fact, are limitless, constrained only by one’s imagination.

The idea is to create mini-bundles, says Mitch Smith, national sales manager at Great American Merchandise & Events in Scottsdale, Ariz. He suggests designing vouchers that can be redeemed with the purchase of a certain quantity of chemicals, such as chlorine for example.

“If you step up from a 26-pound bucket to a 40-pound bucket for $79, we’ll give you a $10 coupon good for any raft over $20 in the store,” he says. “It’s a very important part of capturing those impulse sales. There are lots of those types of in-store promotions that can be done.”

If that seems a little bold, you may want to consider packaging more closely related products. A pool saddle, for instance, can easily be added to the purchase of a deck-mounted basketball or volleyball set, or along with inflatables that retail over a certain dollar amount, says Bob Schuetz, owner of in Dallas.

“You make plenty of money on the floats,” he adds. “I guarantee once they get one pool saddle home, they’re going to come back and buy another one. I have people who buy boxes of eight saddles each — that’s a natural pairing.”

Advantage #3: Differentiation

Big-box retailers are not known for being terribly adventurous when it comes to new lines of pool toys and games. What’s more, the space they devote to seasonal items is generally limited, says Joe Pokowitz, vice president of marketing at Prime Time Toys in Pompton Lakes, N.J.

This provides an opportunity for independent dealers  to order a few new products (a random-action, battery-operated swimmer, for instance) along with more established, high-volume items like dive toys and water blasters, he explains.

“It’s [a product] the big boxes might not try in its introductory year, or it may be a few dollars more,” he adds, “but it’s also something a customer may spend a few minutes looking at or reading a package on a shelf, or thinking about the play pattern. They’re much more likely to do that in a specialty setting than a big-box setting. We’ve seen it play out over the years.”

In fact, buying flexibility is yet another factor that should encourage smaller retailers to take the plunge on innovative or unique toys and games. After all, the quantities are smaller — you’re typically not buying a truckload, or even a full container, of items, Goshgarian notes.

In addition, manufacturers often are more apt to work with specialty retailers if a new toy doesn’t sell as anticipated, she adds.

“We have customer service capabilities and relationships with independents where they can call us if something doesn’t work out,” she says. “We’ll work through it with them. It’s different with big-boxes.”

Advantage #4: Service

It goes (almost) without saying that a clerk at the local mass merchant has little to no product knowledge. And it stands to reason that for seasonal items like pool toys, that lack of information is even more pronounced.

A smaller store, therefore, owns a huge communication advantage over its larger competitors, manufacturers say. It also should extend beyond the showroom floor into the retailer’s outside marketing.

“Wal-Mart isn’t going to care about understanding who the pool purchasers are in their immediate area, but the independents are,” Goshgarian says. “They can collect data on the people that come in and gain a better understanding of what brands they are using and what they want. That should include mailings and newsletters – it’s all about how they are touching consumers in their local area.”

Finally, specialty retailers have the added benefit of a singular focus year-round, whereas big-boxes may start clearing out pool accessories in mid-summer. It’s also not typical for a mass merchant, once it runs out, to re-order a popular pool toy or game mid-season, manufacturers say.With leading toy and game manufacturers offering a product refreshment rate of between 30 and 50 percent annually, there should be no shortage of unique, eye-catching items available to excite consumers.

“Focus on the products the mass merchants don’t do a good job with,” Smith summarizes, “display them in high-profile, high-traffic parts of the store at the right time of year, and give good value pricing supported by personal service. That should get them a nice piece of business that, if they’re not taking advantage of, they could otherwise be missing.”