PHOTO: Valley Pool & Spa

“Retail Raves” asks one retailer to specify a product that’s making a difference in his or her business. All professionals featured in this column are selected at random.

Jim Harding opened Valley Pool & Spa in North Versailles, Pa., in 1967. Two decades later, he sold it to his then-21-year-old granddaughter Corie Kraft, who has run a successful business ever since.

In 2007, Corie and her husband Jeff opened a second store in Greensburg, Pa. I originally joined the team six years ago as a sales manager. After a year and a half, she promoted me to vice president, and I now oversee operations in both stores.

French-fry philosophy

As part of our business strategy, we studied several big corporations. And we discovered that the success of McDonald’s is built, in part, on consistency. The company makes an effort to ensure that every French fry its franchisees sell tastes the same regardless of location. We live by that same philosophy. If a customer visits one of our stores, he or she will find the same product lines at the same price, and receive the same level of customer service, as in our other location. Even the displays and store layouts mimic each other, and the showrooms are nearly equal in size, approximately 6,000 square feet.

Even though we sell aboveground pools and hot tubs, when people walk into our store the focus is obvious. We emphasize small retail purchases, and help people take care of their investments. Customers can shop in our store for an hour and not see every item in it.

We found our niche and how to grow in a down economy. Our efforts were recognized in 2009 when the Pittsburgh Business Times ranked us No. 67 of the 100 top businesses in the region. The award is based on independent customer feedback and sales growth. There are a lot more than 100 stores in the area, so it was a very prestigious award for us to receive. Our strategy also is allowing us to expand, and we plan to open a new location sometime this year.

Business booster

GLI Pool Products introduced Armor Shield about four years ago, and we have been carrying it since it came to market. It’s a heavy-duty, thick fabric constructed of the same material used under asphalt highways, and it goes between the sand base and the liner of an aboveground pool. Unlike the foam products on the market that deteriorate after five or six years, Armor Shield will not break down under extreme weight or pressure. It also protects against termites — which are very common in our area, and also seem particularly fond of eating vinyl — as well as the sticks, stones and grass that often work their way through the sand base and puncture the liner from below. In addition, it prevents foot tracks that often appear after a new installation.

Whenever people come in to buy a replacement liner, it’s a quick sale. The product is easy to self-install because it’s pre-cut and packaged to every pool size. You just take it out of the box, lay it down, and install your liner on top of it. GLI even adds three years to their liner warranty when a customer buys one and installs Armor Shield with it.

We also sell it as an add-on to new pool installs. We quickly tell the customer what could happen to their liner without the protective barrier, and most people are happy to invest a bit more money. Those who don’t add it at the time of the sale often come back and purchase the product before the pool is installed, after they realize the price of Armor Shield is much less than the cost of a new liner.

Many dealers still aren’t aware of Armor Shield and how easy it is to sell. But if word gets out, more will take advantage of the product.

Seeing is believing

Any time you can visualize something for a customer, it makes it that much easier to sell. We display samples of GLI’s pool liners and Armor Shield product close to the counter, and if you are in the store you can see it clearly.

But what actually seals the deal is our quick demonstration. We place a rock on our counter and ask the customer to lay the liner tightly over the rock, and push down on it with their hand. Of course, they feel the rock through the liner. Then they add a sample layer of Armor Shield between the rock and the liner, and do the same thing. Customers always try to put two or three times the amount of pressure on it, but still can’t feel the sharp edges of the rock. Overall we have a 75 percent closure rate whenever we demonstrate the product to the customer.

We also display an eye-catching poster that highlights Armor Shield’s benefits. If a customer isn’t shopping for a liner or a pool, they still notice the poster and often ask about the product. Several of them may feel roots under their current liner and keep Armor Shield in mind for a year or two down the road, when it’s time for a replacement.