In a region studded with some of the largest, wealthiest metro areas in the U.S. — New York, Philadelphia, Boston — the pool market is disproportionate. Some areas have recovered well from the recession and are thriving. But bustling business isn’t a given in every market.
“The pool business is very spotty and in some areas, business is flat and in others, it’s off,” says Jon Hulme, general manager of PoolCorp’s Northeast division.
One factor that’s affecting every market, from the mid-Atlantic up to Maine, is this year’s weather.
The harsh winter meant extra missed school days — and a longer school year. With children’s summer vacations delayed and overall cooler spring weather, customers opened their pools later than normal. This meant repair work that firms normally would start tackling at the beginning of April was delayed.
“Dealers really lost three to four weeks compared to last year when they would have been getting jobs done,” Hulme says. “But this year, they got backed up on that and, in many cases, they missed some of that business too.”
Because of the finite time of the region’s pool season, homeowners who would have done renovations put them off for another year instead.
The good news is that the Great Recession no longer is playing the role it had in previous years.
Customers who were on the fence about improvements and new builds now feel secure and are moving ahead with projects. Even better, those projects often are more elaborate.
“We do a lot of outdoor kitchens [now],” says Irene Insignares, office manager at Cool Pool in Nanuet, N.Y. “It seems to be something that is connected to each project we do.”
And the quality and scope of contracted projects is widening and returning to what people were looking for before the recession.
“We’re seeing a resurgence in people who are doing the entire project, the whole backyard makeover,” says Randy Budd, president of Budd’s Pools & Spas in Deptford, N.J. “When the recession was at its height, people were just buying a basic pool, not doing the rest of the yard. We’re collaborating now with a lot of landscape architects and other professionals in that part of the business, and putting together beautiful, complete projects, which is nice.”
Customers also are following housing trends; homeowners are improving what they already own with ambitious renovation projects with bigger budgets than in previous years.
“We’re not seeing a greater number of new pools being built, but the customers who are building or remodeling pools are demanding higher-end equipment and accessories,” says Matt Huntley, regional sales manager for the Northeast at Sanford, N.C.-based Pentair Aquatics Systems. “The net effect is that the dollars spent on pools are up, even though the number of new pools is down.”
Even some customers who don’t have ready cash for what they want now might be able to finance projects.
“We are seeing a little more on the financing end; we’re seeing a few more deals being approved,” Budd says. “Still, it’s not like it was before the recession. But at least the banks are open to taking a peek at some of these applications.”
Construction trends are having some impact for builders, though. The market for new vinyl-liner pools remains flat in some areas of the Northeast and isn’t bouncing back the way other aspects of the pool business are.
“The higher-end markets are doing better than the mid-tier markets,” Hulme says. “I think the result is: People with money are spending more money on the bigger, more expensive pools, and the volume vinyl builders, in many cases, are not seeing the same kind of growth.”
Another factor in pool builds is the delay with pulling a permit for in-ground construction projects.
“I’m sorry to say that it is getting worse every year,” says Jack Mayer, Hayward Pool Products’ regional sales manager. “In fact, the delays can run four to six weeks in many areas.”
As for what customers want once they get to the build — technology and energy-efficient products are dominating their “want” lists, much like other areas of the country. Variable-speed pumps are a big seller, for many reasons, and products that automate are popular.
“Pool owners are recognizing that switching up to a variable-speed pump presents the greatest potential to save on their pools’ operating costs,” Mayer says.
The energy saving potential also is enticing to utility companies, which have offered rebates.
“When a pool owner can get hundreds of dollars back from a utility company for purchasing a new pump, it’s amazing how many act on it,” Huntley says.
Another way pool owners in the Northeast are taking care of their pools is by automating everything they can. As homeowners become more tech-savvy, the automation aspects that can be built in, such as equipment that they can run from apps on their phone, they’re buying.
Robotic cleaners also are proving more popular.
“Anymore, people don’t want to touch the pool,” Budd says. “They want it to be automatic.”