About three years ago, Joseph Musnicki realized his customers couldn’t always drop into the store to stock up on spa chemicals.
So the owner of Ocean Spray Hot Tubs & Saunas in Westhampton
Beach, N.Y., became an e-tailer. In addition to maintaining his
storefront, Musnicki added shopping capabilities to his Website,
and soon enough, he was shipping products all over.
“I like to get customers into the habit of going to our site
and buying online,” Musnicki says. “It keeps them
loyal to us. And while they’re there, they can also see what
other items we’re offering.”
Online selling, according to the U.S. Census, has never been more
robust. In the third quarter of 2010, retail e-commerce sales
accounted for $38.8 billion nationwide, an increase of 14 percent
over the previous year. By contrast, total retail sales in the U.S.
rose less than 6 percent in the third quarter of 2010 vs.
In response, a small but growing number of traditional pool and spa
retailers have embraced e-commerce by setting up Websites that run
parallel to their brick and mortar businesses. The concept is
simple enough: If homebound entrepreneurs can sell antique dolls on
eBay, how difficult can it be to deliver a bottle of
That said, a few key logistical points — product mix, pricing
and shipping — should be considered before launching any
online selling venture. Here, veterans of the practice explain what
works for them.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., Jodi Tracey splits her days between
purchasing and managing information technology for Pools Plus Inc.
And today, IT takes up a sizeable percentage of her time.
Among her top-moving items, Tracey points to pool and especially
spa chemicals, as well as spa parts such as pumps, heaters, filters
and replacement covers, particularly manufacturers’
To keep the site fresh, Tracey updates it often — she tries
to add new products weekly based on customer requests (usually
received online) and items she sees on other sites as well as in
the trade press.
A number of other retailers, such as Vince Davenport, typically
refresh their e-commerce offerings quarterly or monthly. The vice
president of Swim Things in Blue Springs, Mo., says products are
updated every four weeks or so from October through March, and
generally remain the same through the swim season.
His best sellers tend toward inflatables, toys and underwater
“It’s the flashier items the kids are more attracted
to,” he says, “things that are more for the fun of it
than the functionality. And most of them aren’t available
“Plus, it’s harder to compete price-wise on the larger
items,” he continues, “because someone’s always
able to sell them for less.”
Toys and games also are a popular online category at Teddy Bear
Pools & Spas in Chicopee, Mass., where e-commerce has been a
part of the business for the last five years.
The store not long ago picked up the warranty for Esther Williams
and Johnny Weissmuller pools and equipment, so aboveground pool
parts such as slats, top caps, bottom caps and pump baskets have
become sought-after items online, says store manager Stephen
Retailers also report heavy Web-shopping demand for nets, skimmers
and spa accessories, as well as shock and chlorine treatments.
However, it should be noted that shipping certain chemicals may
require additional hazardous-materials certification, which in turn
could add to the cost of shipping and handling the product.
And unlike new spas, which are subject to territorial restrictions
(a retailer can’t sell into another dealer’s market),
pre-owned hot tubs represent yet another e-selling opportunity. A
number of merchants offer Internet specials on marked-down tubs
they receive as trade-ins.
At Black Pine Spa & Leisure near Seattle, most chemicals sell
for up to 25 percent less on the Website than they do
“Margins are tighter online,” says general manager
Khasha Mekanik. “Some of that [pricing] we just have to do to
Other retailers do try to keep e-commerce and showroom prices
consistent. Otto prefers it that way because, as he puts it,
“I don’t have to argue with the customer who comes in
and complains about it. Plus, we’re within the range of
everyone else’s pricing anyway.”
Swim Things also tries to keep its online pricing as close to
in-store as possible. However, the store will compare pricing on
certain items with similar dealers, and set its own rates
competitively, or lower, Davenport says. But, he adds, they will
never go more than 10 percent below in-store.
Victor Castro, co-owner of Swimquip in San Diego, researches
competitors’ sites to determine his e-commerce rates as well.
His general rule of thumb: Online prices are strictly for online
“They’re getting full service when they come in,”
he says. “So I’ll charge them more for that in-store
consultation — that’s why there’s the difference
in price, and that’s how I justify it. It’s
because here we pay rent.”
Pools Plus follows a similar philosophy — namely eyeing
similar sites while sticking to the 10 percent rule. Tracey,
though, is usually willing to price-match her online rates when
in-store customers request it, but only when it’s her online
price. She’s much less apt to do it for other sites’
On promotions, some retailers offer the same specials online as
in-store. Or, as Black Pine did recently, they may run an in-store
special on spa covers in which the sale price was equal to the
But in general, e-commerce pricing tends to fall anywhere between 3
to 25 percent below that of in-store. And retailers clearly monitor
their online-only counterparts for cues.
Most pool and spa merchants handle e-commerce transactions through
secure online payment processing services like PayPal,
Authorize.net or Google Checkout. And typically all major credit
cards are accepted, though a few avoid American Express, citing
Shipping is done a few different ways, and may depend on the nature
of the purchase, storage capabilities, customer distance and
agreements with distributors.
For example, Swimquip might mail a smaller product from its store
via the U.S. Postal Service, or purchase a larger product that the
distributor simply drop-ships directly to the consumer.
That’s particularly useful, Castro says, because the
company’s two biggest e-commerce customers are commercial
accounts in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Other merchants use UPS or Federal Express — whichever offers
the better deal.
One FedEx customer, Pools Plus, delivers products locally,
nationwide and across the globe. Free shipping is provided for
orders in excess of $50, Tracey adds.
Though not quite as international, some 75 percent of Teddy
Bear’s e-commerce business comes from out-of-state, Otto
says. In fact, he adds, such orders increased 150 percent in 2010
vs. the previous year.
What’s more, their UPS rates dropped twice in the last 12
Meantime, online customers of Black Pine and Swim Things generally
are found closer to home. The vast majority, Mekanik and Davenport
say, fall within the local region. Because of this, both
companies’ Websites are geared toward the Seattle and Kansas
City markets, respectively.
“The bulk of our online shoppers are people we want to bring
into the store too,” Davenport says.