In the March 12 issue of Pool & Spa News we published a letter from an irate reader on the steady encroachment of Internet retailers in the pool and spa market.

The writer felt that longtime brick-and-mortar dealers — those smaller firms that form the backbone of the industry — were being betrayed by what he saw as big money interests.

“How is it that I, the dealer, pay more for a salt system from the largest [pool industry] distributor in the world than my customers who can purchase it online from dozens of sites?” he asked.

After the letter was published, we received a number of responses, some agreeing with the writer and others stating that the problem is more complex than he realizes.

A few days later, we were sent another letter that reiterated many of the same points. Again the issue was placed in a David-and-Goliath context, with manufacturers as the bad guys. The writer even used that exact metaphor to explain his position.

Now, I’m a staunch supporter of small business. I strongly believe that mom-and-pop companies are one of America’s great, (yet endangered) resources, and so when I read a letter like that, everything in me wants to say, “Yes! I’m completely on your side!”

However, it’s just not that easy.

The issue of Internet retailing is nuanced and complex. Who exactly are the bad guys here? Should we blame the online business owners? I don’t see how that’s fair, since they’re just trying make a living like anyone else. I’m a big believer in personalized customer service, and as such, am not a huge fan of the online model, but nevertheless Web-only firms are no less ethical than any other business owner.

Can we then point fingers at the manufactures and distributors? That’s not justified either. It’s not realistic to expect them to refuse to sell to Internet firms, or even deny them volume discounts.

One solution that has been discussed over a number of years is Minimum Advertised Pricing, or MAP. Some feel this could make a significant difference, while others are more skeptical.

In response to the letters and phone calls, Pool & Spa News published an extensive news story on MAP which we hope you will find informative.

Going forward, we plan to delve into this issue in greater depth with a series of detailed articles on its various aspects.