The change seemed to happen almost
Instead of paying retail price in a brick-and-mortar store, pool
and spa customers began buying products online.
“Not only can homeowners get stuff cheaper through the
Internet, they’re getting it cheaper than us pool guys can
get it from our distributors,” says Bryan Chrissan, president
of Clear Valley Pool Service in Temecula, Calif.
This has left many brick-and-mortar professionals frustrated and
concerned. Not only has the Internet cost them substantial revenue,
but there’s the growing problem of homeowners who buy a
product — often the wrong one — at a lower cost online,
then want a local professional to install it.
“[Customers] are putting these huge pumps on filters that
don’t have the correct flow rate. Or they’re using
1½-inch line when they need 2-inch,” says Fran
Stefanski, president of the brick-and-mortar shop Regina Pools
& Spas in Timonium, Md.
“An e-tailer may sell them what they want, but it’s not
what they can use.”
When a service tech arrives at a job site only to find that the
wrong equipment has been purchased online, they often blame the
Internet retailer. While that response may make sense in some
instances, the fact is that online businesses are here to stay, and
getting angry won’t solve the problem. Instead, a number of
service techs are moving beyond the blame game to seek real
From competition to cooperation
Between lower prices and greater convenience, Internet retailers
may appear to have some clear advantages over brick-and-mortar
“There are some guys online whose prices are so low
it’s just absurd,” Stefanski says.
This cost discrepancy has led some in the industry to characterize
online pool retailers as little more than fly-by-night hucksters
with no overhead and no staff.
But the reality is more complex. “The guy who’s selling
out of his garage is going to have a really tough time growing his
business, because he’s operating on a narrow [profit]
margin,” says Dennis Marunde, president of Pools.com, an
Experts say that many distributors experience turnover of up to 40
percent of their Internet dealers from season to season. The
majority of Internet sales, insiders agree, come from a few
dedicated online companies that have made significant investments
in their businesses.
Many of those companies are hoping to move into referral-based
partnerships that allow both Internet sellers and local techs to
find more customers. But before that can happen, e-tailers say,
they and the local service techs must come to a clearer
understanding of what exactly each party is selling.
Local shops may feel the heat from lower prices online, but the
Internet will only ever be able to provide a limited range of
services. With customer expectations gravitating toward both
personalized service and 24/7 convenience, the owners of both
types of business are beginning to realize that they may have to
learn to depend on each other.
“I know the brick-and-mortar guys consider Internet retail as
the enemy, but it’s honestly hard for me to understand
it,” says David Williams, CEO of the Olympia, Wash.-based
Website The Spa Depot (spadepot.com). “Yes, the
Internet’s taking a percentage of their product sales, but we
can’t go out to a customer’s backyard and balance the
water, or install equipment.”
However, as more e-tailers try their hands at the referral process,
and more local techs discover new leads thanks to online sales,
unique solutions are beginning to emerge across the country.
Some referral services aren’t as much partnerships as they
are databases. Poolandspa.com offers a free nationwide local
service company search.
“There’s a box on the site that says, ‘Search
over 50,000 local pool and spa dealers, installers, stores and
service companies throughout the USA,’” explains Dan
Harrison, president of the Las Vegas-based Poolandspa.com Inc.
“And customers can go on there, if they do find that
they’ve bought something online and they’re in over
their head, and they can find a local service company.”
Williams, too, has worked toward networking with brick-and-mortar
businesses. “We have good relationships with some local
service techs,” he says. “We refer business to them,
and they do business with us. Sometimes we send them an e-mail, but
mostly it’s through personal acquaintance.”
In each of these cases, however, actual networking has been spotty.
For many local service techs, the toughest hurdle to overcome is
resentment felt from loss of income, since sales of big-ticket
items has historically been a profit center.
“When a customer buys an item online, we don’t make any
gross profit from that piece of equipment to cover the potential
costs of working on it,” Stefanski says.
That may be true, Chrissan says, but there are still ways to turn a
profit in those situations.
“Today we charge for other things — the plumbing; all
the parts that are going to go with the item; hooking it up;
setting up any automation that’s necessary; and most of all,
my knowledge of the product,” he says. “There are
plenty of ways to make money on a service call for a product bought
on the Internet. I charge for my time and my
Even as some techs begin to experiment with online partnerships,
other obstacles to a nationwide network are becoming more
“I met one Internet retail guy at a trade show last
year,” Chrissan says. “He’s referred three
accounts to me, and that’s what got me interested in
Chrissan says that forming a partnership with an e-tailer is as
simple as approaching one at an expo or other events. According to
industry insiders, thousands of these companies have sprung up, and
many are looking to forge alliances with local techs.
But, as Chrissan described, many of those thousands have only a few
dozen techs signed up; or are having trouble finding a specific
niche within the industry. Chrissan believes there’s a simple
reason that no one’s tapped the full potential of the
referral concept: “The market’s too broad. You’ve
got so many types of parts and jobs, and these companies are
selling to customers all over the country.”
That means a tech who partners with an online retailer can only
expect to receive three or four referrals per month, Chrissan
explains. Thus, if a tech wants to keep the bills paid, he’ll
need to supplement that referral income with some sort of other
If one major difficulty is scarce service calls, however, that may
be gradually changing as the economy drives more customers online;
plus, changing business expectations mean an increasing number of
techs are willing to work on Internet-bought equipment. Within the
next several years, some retailers say, a nationwide referral
network may become a serious possibility.
That potential depends, of course, on forward-thinking service
techs who are interested in moving beyond the traditional business
model. For Chrissan, the future looks both exciting and
“I think we’re going to see a ‘Geek Squad’
of the pool industry,” he says, referring to the nationwide
technology repair company. “The Geek Squad are owned and
operated by an independent company, and they use a retailer [Best
Buy] to help set up referrals. And that’s exactly what
I’m looking at doing.”