From YouTube videos to good old-fashioned salesmanship, brick-and-mortar retailers are overcoming Internet undercutting by championing superior service to sell automatic pool cleaners.

A product that takes the hassle out of owning a pool should sell itself. And it does. Online, that is. Moving units through storefronts, however, takes finesse.

Consider Sean Dougherty’s approach. The store manager of E-Z Test Pool Supplies in North Redding, Mass. sold eight cleaners in June — not bad, he says, for a store that’s only in its second year. Cleaners are outside of boxes on display. Customers are invited to handle them and pop open the filtration cabinet, giving Dougherty the opportunity to pepper them with questions.

“Having a conversation with them is going to tell me more than simply trying to sell them something,” Dougherty says. To sweeten the deal, he might kick in $100 in-store credit. That costs him less than knocking down the price of the unit and it brings customers back into his store. If they need more time to think about it, he refers them to a blog he wrote about robotic cleaners. “Sometimes I’ll cite that to show our knowledge of the product,” he says.

Dealers’ dilemma

It’s no secret customers can find automatic cleaners cheaper online than what mom-and-pop shopkeepers can sell them for. That’s why some manufacturers are supporting dealers through in-store promotions and rebates not available online. “We do all the rebate work,” says Cal Boothby, owner of Redlands Pool & Spa Center in Redlands, Calif. “We make sure they get their money back.”

Retailers also have the edge in warranties. Depending on the brand, some dealers can guarantee a product for two or three years. That’s a point Dougherty emphasizes to customers. “I tell them, ‘Keep in mind — you buy this online, your warranty is void.’”

With six locations throughout Houston, Texsun Swimming Pools & Spas did good business selling extended manufacturer warranties. It was an effective way to bolster margins, says president Tom Steinbacher.

However, the manufacturer recently ended the program. Now Steinbacher is exploring ways to continue offering extended warranties through his company. “We haven’t decided how to proceed, but we have to do something along those lines in order for the customer to differentiate between buying a cleaner from us or online,” he says.

Banking on repairs

Texsun is one of Polaris’ leading dealers, selling about 500 units a year. Steinbacher says he takes full advantage of the manufacturer’s promotional events where customers can get discounts and rebates. A direct-mail and radio advertising campaign draws serious foot traffic, he says. While the units sell briskly, his repair division does business like gangbusters.

Steinbacher estimates Texsun repairs about 1,200 cleaners during a promotional run. Employees work late into the evening mending and tuning up equipment. “We cater to it,” Steinbacher says. “There is no labor charge. … You have to find ways to combat the price point and show a level of professionalism the other guys can’t offer.”

Service is a retailer’s best line of defense against the Web. Replacement parts, such as wheels, tracks, bumpers, bearings and propulsion kits, offer comfy profit margins. “Where brick and mortar comes in is, ‘Hey, you can buy the parts from us and we don’t charge you labor,’” Boothby says. He estimates his service department fixes four to six cleaners a day during swim season. “If we give away a cleaner at 16 percent, we’ll make it up in repairs,” he adds.

Likewise, Debbi Leclerc, co-owner of The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island, primes customers to come back to her for all service needs. “We tell people right up front that they’re similar to owning a vehicle. They need to have tune-ups,” she says.

The Pool Doctor stocks an expansive inventory of parts — comparable to that of a small distribution company. That ensures customers a fast turnaround. And their pools won’t go dirty in the interim. The Coventry, R.I. store loans cleaners to customers while theirs undergo repairs. “When any customer has an automatic pool cleaner, they very rarely ever want to touch a manual vacuum system again,” she says. Leclerc estimates some 20 to 30 cleaners a week come through her service department during the summer.

Shelf help

Don’t overlook the importance of having an eye-catching display. Retailers are doing themselves a disservice if they’re simply stocking pool cleaners on shelves, says consultant Bob Phibbs, aka The Retail Doctor. Try configuring cleaners in three categories: best, better, good. Under the best cleaner, list five or six selling points. The benefits become fewer as the customer makes their way down the aisle until they reach the “good” category. The subliminal message being: “It’s better than scrubbing by hand twice a week,” Phibbs says.

Texsun stacks boxes in a pyramid formation with sporty-looking cleaners on top. They’re displayed early in the year, reminding customers that swimming season is just around the corner: Don’t spend it cleaning.

Among all the products in your store, pool cleaners do the most to lighten the load of pool maintenance. That puts the seller in a good position. “If the only time I’m coming into contact with my pool is to clean it, I’m not going to like it very much,” Phibbs says. “But if you can build up my passion for my pool again, you’re my hero.”

And don’t underestimate the power of a good sales team. “If you haven’t done sales training with your crew, you’re settling for crumbs instead of the whole banquet.”