More than 100 retailers already are enjoying membership in the Pool Retailers Cooperative.

The fledgling buying group is offering free membership to the first 200 members, according to Rod Sterling, president of the organization.

PRC started taking membership applications in late October, and had a booth at the International Pool |Spa | Patio Expo in Orlando, Fla., in November. “We’re getting some signing up every day,” Sterling added.

In addition, the co-op now has a facility in Memphis, Tenn., and a website where interested retailers can learn more and sign a confidentiality agreement to receive a membership packet:

“Size is totally irrelevant for the member,” Sterling said. “The No. 1 criteria for members is a brick-and-mortar store. Period. If they’re a large service business, and they’re not in the retail business, they can’t be a member. If they’re a large building firm and they don’t have a retail store, they can’t be a member. We had some people at the show who were a little disappointed.”

Custom Pools Inc., with retail stores in Hopkins and Rogers, Minn., has never been part of a buying group, but became a member of the new co-op.

“We’ve always bought from wholesalers and tend to be very loyal,” said Jan Blount, co-owner. “We have several here in Minneapolis.”

With any new business launch, cautious optimism usually tends to be the general feeling. Retailer support for brick-and-mortar stores was one factor that Custom Pools considered before joining. Another factor was the co-op model itself, with the dividend payoffs.

“After a period of time, you get money back at the end of the year, too, depending on how much is bought from everybody, not just yourself,” Blount said. “Their success equals, hopefully, your success, too.”

PRC member Randy Budd believes in the co-op’s concept so much that he also invested in it, in addition to joining.

The owner of Budd’s Pools & Spas in Deptford, N.J., is always looking for a way to differentiate his retail store from the competition, and the member-owned exclusive chemical and equipment lines were attractive.

“As a retailer, fighting the Internet and low margins, I’m looking for any advantage that I can get,” he said.

What really intrigues him about PRC is the possibility of thousands of stores banded together with the economy of scale to leverage immense buying and bargaining power, much like True Value, another retailer-owned co-op.

“I know that this is going to be successful,” Budd said of PRC.

The facility in Memphis will have a 40-person capacity training space and a 2,500-square-foot retail concept store.

“It’s a training store. We’re not going to be selling stuff out of there,” Sterling said. “When you walk into the facility, you’re going to walk into what we think a retail pool and spa store should look like.”

The free membership includes the $1,000 membership initiation fee per company, plus one year of free dues, normally $199 per store.

Members will receive profit-sharing from a pool supplies website, which will work to drive customers to a co-op member’s store. Members also own a chemical line, Freestyle, and a private-label equipment line manufactured by Fluidra, a Barcelona, Spain-based company.

“Fluidra has world-class equipment,” Sterling said. Many equipment manufacturers have distribution set up. “We felt it was important to have somebody that was looking for an alternate channel to the market. And a direct channel to the market as opposed to necessarily through traditional distribution.”

Currently, PRC has five staff members, with another employee scheduled to start the beginning of January.