The recent slump in pool sales has left at least one aspect of the industry relatively unscathed: the market for covers. By most accounts, the product is immune to discouraging news.
Whether it’s for safety, convenience, aesthetics — or a combination of all three — traditional and automatic pool covers are proving more popular to consumers each year.
Many manufacturers, retailers and builders report that cover sales are up this year, from 10 percent to 15 percent. “Covers have a proven track record across the board,” says Tom Dankel, vice president of Aquamatic Cover Systems in Gilroy, Calif.
Frank Patel says that his company has increased cover sales by 15 percent annually in the past five years. “As years go by, people like our covers,” says the president of Pegasus Products in Branchburg, N.J.
One thing helping drive the growth in pool covers is a renewed focus on safety. State legislatures across the country are increasingly mandating multiple layers of protection to decrease the risk of drowning. Just building a fence around a pool is no longer good enough. Thus, safety covers are offering extra peace of mind.
LeeAnn Donaton-Pesta says she’s seen a “dramatic increase” in demand for mesh covers over the past five years. In fact, says the CEO of Loop-Loc Ltd. in Hauppauge, N.Y., purchasers are “pretty much across the spectrum. It used to be just high-end buyers. But now you see more lower-end [shoppers], and middle-class families with children and pets, buying the covers.
The effects of natural wear and tear on covers also helps keep business brisk, says John Romano, president of All American Custom Pools & Spas in Norwalk, Conn., aPool & Spa News Top Builder. “It’s like anything else,” he says, adding that cover installations at his company are up 10 percent this year. “Pools are aging and covers are as well. They don’t last forever.”
Others agree. “What we may have over pool builders is that we have a re-cover business; covers need to be replaced. You don’t build a replacement pool,” says Brian Hatfield, regional sales manager at Anchor Industries Inc. of Evansville, Ind. “Every time a pool is built, we have potential business.”
While safety concerns are important to consumers, so is saving energy in today’s greener political and social climate. Less water evaporates from a pool with a cover, especially an automatic one that can be easily unfurled when the backyard is idle. A pool with a cover also is easier to keep chemically balanced and warm.
These benefits are increasingly resonating with the pool-buying public. “Consumers and builders recognize the safety value. But more and more people see the return on investment the covers have in respect to energy savings through reduced operating costs,” Aquamatic’s Dankel says.
Not all markets are buoying the pool cover segment, though. “This year, business has dropped off a little bit,” says Dick Rayner, president of Rayner Covering Systems in South Elgin, Ill. “It’s tied to the fact that dealers have been concentrating on automated pool covers and those are tied into mortgages.”
With mortgage rates rising, and fewer Americans taking out home-improvement loans to build pools, it tightens the cover market. “With the drop-off of new pool building, I think the pool covers have taken a dip,” Rayner says. “That’s been our experience.”
Innovation on the edges
Manufacturers, builders and retailers acknowledge that there hasn’t been much pool cover innovation in recent years, at least, nothing dramatic. Maybe better fabric, stitching or quality springs and anchors have emerged, but every improvement, no matter how small, counts.
“It’s the little stuff,” says Dave Buchman, manager of Don Marcum’s Pool Care in Newtown, Ohio. “Something as simple as the bracket that holds up the lid is so improved over what we had in the past.”
Probably the most growth has been in automatic pool cover development. Still, such changes appeal mainly to upscale consumers.
“As covers are growing, it’s still a somewhat niche market,” Dankel says. “So unlike computers and LCD TVs, people don’t know anything about pool cover technology. They just want to know that it opens and closes while keeping their pools safe, warm and clean.”
Nevertheless, consumers also want to feel confident that the covers they choose will protect any pool design, even complicated ones. The days of the standard rectangular pool are fading, and the cover market has had to adjust.
A common complaint of builders years ago was that the demand to incorporate a pool cover in the design crimped their creativity. But a few manufacturers make automatic covers that can accommodate almost any vessel shape — even vanishing-edge pools — which makes it easier to sell the feature to the consumer.
“That’s the fun stuff,” says Tim Lillpop, general manager of Anchor Industries Inc. “That’s where our custom products come into play.”
Manufacturers say that the vast majority of their business is involved in making covers for custom pools. “I’d say it’s at least 80 percent,” Loop-Loc’s Donaton-Pesta says. “And out of that 80 percent, about 40- to 50 percent have custom treatments such as rocks, waterfalls, caves and bar stools.”
Manual safety cover manufacturers are increasingly melding style with functionality. “The trend in pool covers continues to be focused on aesthetics and customization,” says Jenn Blum, marketing director at Cover-Pools Inc. in Salt Lake City. “The latest technology includes advances in automation, from wireless operating controls to accessory-feature controls.”
Pegasus Products’ Patel says many of his customers demand that covers accommodate complex pool designs. “More pools have waterfalls and all kinds of stuff,” he says. “We have to provide for that in an adequate manner, which has been a key to our growth.”
Covering the future
Education is the key to keeping the pool cover market humming, many industry insiders say. “In-person sales presentations are the best way to market new cover technology,” Blum says. “The salesperson can help the customer truly understand the benefits of the new technology.”
Yet, as in any aspect of consumer activity, what was once complicated and seemingly a luxury — think iPods and home theater systems — can become a routine part of American life. Pool covers are no exception.
“The biggest trend is that 10 years ago, you’d have to be a pretty educated consumer to know about automatic pool covers,” Don Marcum’s Buchman says. “Today, anybody who’s shopping for a pool has somehow heard of, or knows someone who has, an automatic cover. It’s grown so much in the industry now.”
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