Distributors can view the industry from an eagle-eye perspective.

They see what products are moving and hear the experiences of a wide variety of professionals.

Here, a handful of distributors from across the country share what they observed in 2012 and what they expect for 2013.

Scenes from last year

Distributors across the country said that, overall, 2012 was flat or up slightly, depending on the region and products they sell.

“I think last year everyone was hovering around flat to 10-percent increases from the previous year,” says Eric Goode, vice president of Optimus Pool & Spa Parts LLC in Memphis, Tenn.

Spa parts sales seemed to stay level compared with 2011, according to Barry Knickerbocker, president/CEO of Spa Parts Plus in Prescott, Ariz.

Different regions had different things to report:

Northeast affected by mild winter in 2012.

The 2012 season began unusually early in the Northeast because the winter coming out of 2011 was so mild. But this proved to be a double-edged sword.

While some believe this helped the industry by extending the season, others say it took away from sales. “When you have a very mild winter, you don’t have a lot of normal winter wear and tear,” . “I don’t wish any kind of property damage on a homeowner, but a normal winter with average snowfall and temperatures creates wear and tear on equipment, decking and pool surfaces, and that creates [the need for] replacement and renovations.

“Without new construction being what it was four or five years ago, you really rely on that replacement business and even tile, coping, renovation and plumbing jobs. When that doesn’t happen, that’s a big hit to the local pool dealer.”

The end of the season seemed just as surprising as its start. “In most of our locations we saw great increases in the spring and then it tailed off,” says Fred Schlensker, vice president of distribution for Imperial Pools Inc. in Latham, N.Y. “We ended up seeing good growth, healthy growth, but ... it tailed off at the end of the season.

“Dealers started earlier and were able to build a lot of pools earlier in the season and got a jump start, but it seemed to have borrowed some from the end-season business.”

With all said, distributors report flat to high-single-digit growth in the Northeast.

Within that region, the areas close to New York City seemed to perform the best, Warshaw says, thanks to the number of wealthy counties there. “Even if the economy is not doing well, there is always Wall Street or New York City money that somehow trickles into a certain radius around NYC, so those areas seem to hold their own,” he says. “We see a perimeter around New York City still experiencing decent construction compared to [areas] as you move away.

“But in the Northeast in general, I don’t think construction did that well.”

Southeast and Mid-South stayed flat.

In 2012, the weather dynamic in the Southeast presented another mixed bag, at least from the standpoint of industry sales.

“The Southeast, Texas and Oklahoma, year-on-year, had more challenging comparables, because they had such a strong weather year in 2011,” says Manuel Perez de la Mesa, CEO of PoolCorp, based in Covington, La.

Despite this, others reported a boost over 2011 numbers. “We had increased sales last year in the double digits,” says Taryn Springsteed, co-owner of Pool Builders Supply in Charlotte, NC.

Within that region, Georgia and Tennessee fared the best because of the diversity of industry in those areas. “Whereas in Charlotte, we’re very reliant on the banking industries, [Georgia and Tennessee] have more variety of industry, so the overall economy of those areas is stronger,” Springsteed says.

Virginia seemed slower, largely due to the after effects of Hurricane Sandy, she adds.

The middle south saw the same situation, with wet weather and cooler temperatures holding back consumers’ desire to swim, Goode says.

Florida and Arizona are in recovery mode.

Both these areas, which saw some of the earliest and most devastating effects of the recession, are clearly back on an upswing, says Perez de la Mesa.

California continued to struggle.

Despite the Golden State’s reputation as the pool capital of the world, it still hasn’t seen a noteworthy rise in sales.

“Our perception is that it’s okay,” Perez de la Mesa says. “It didn’t have the market recovery characteristics that Florida and Arizona have begun to realize, and it did not have particularly great weather one way or the other in 2011 or 2012.”

All industry segments but service continue trying to find their way.

“California’s residential market has been a huge problem,” says Ralph Raub, president of Horizon Spa & Pool Parts in Tucson, Ariz. “The service industry is alive and well, but the retail industry took a big hit, and I don’t see them digging out as quickly as the service industry.”

Distributors partly blame the state government for its slow growth. “The state government is doing everything in its power to chase business out of the state, and therefore to chase jobs out of state, inhibiting economic development, which is limiting consumer confidence and, therefore, discretionary spending,” says Perez de la Mesa.

The year to come

At press time, it was too early in the year to have a true read on 2013. Even so, several distributors have reported moderately positive signs.

“We started off very well, and we’re ahead of last year already,” says Raub of his parts distributorship’s business so far. “I have every reason to believe that will continue. We’re up about 6 percent over the same time last year. We should be able to do double digits this year. We’re not going to have a banner year, but we’re going to have an up year.”

The buzz among builders, dealers and service firms also gives them reason for optimism. “In conversations I’ve had with dealers so far, I’m being told that they’re seeing people shopping for pools a little earlier than they had in the past,” Schlensker says. “It seemed earlier in the year the manufacturers were predicting a flat 2013, but at the dealer level, I’m getting optimism about growth for the year. It’s cautious optimism at this point, but the signs are pointing to a pretty good year.”

Many distributors expect the same basic regional dynamic as the industry saw in 2012, with one exception: The Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast states hit by Hurricane Sandy should see business increases as clean-up efforts include repairing pools and spas.

“There are a lot of devastated areas ... but there were [some] that are put back whole but did not address the pool yet, because you didn’t need a pool in the Northeast in November,” Warshaw says. “We’re still about to experience that surge in demand.”

Even post-Sandy, the weather has been stormy, causing the need for repairs. “People are telling me pool covers are collapsing and aboveground pools are blowing down,” Warshaw says. “And we know for a fact, just from overhead views and dealers surveying the area, that there are many sets of pool equipment and pools that were literally underwater, [where] the salt water ruined the equipment,” he says.

Virginia last year was hindered by the historic storm, however sales already are perking up there, Springsteed reports, particularly in the sale of vinyl liners and replacement equipment.

Sales in Arizona and California are getting a slow start, which distributors attribute to unusually chilly winters there. “We’ve seen some really strange weather in Phoenix and the Southwest, with freezes and more rain in the first two months than they typically get all year,” Goode says. “This has really slowed the process down, certainly from the builders’ side.”

But across the country, Goode says, builders report increases in high-end pool sales.

Ultimately, distributors continue to expect slow growth for the long term. “I see a very slow, gradual recovery in consumer behavior,” Perez de la Mesa says. “It’s got a long, long way to go — about 7 to 10 years before it’s back to normal.”