Photo by John Cobb

Big-name retail chain closings — whether Payless Shoes or Pier 1, Office Depot or Family Dollar — deal harsh reminders of retail’s vulnerability in a “Amazoned” consumer world.

Pool and spa stores are far from immune to the online siege. Other factors cause regular customers to abandon their former retail haunts. The question is, do you know precisely which customers left the fold? And what do you do about it?

Harness your data

Tracking customer activity to determine whether you’re losing customers, and who they are, is hard work — not a one-and-done event — according to retail marketing expert Becky Auer of Pittsburgh-based Becky Auer International. Pool-store owners who wear 10 different hats in a day may view the data dirty-work as an overwhelming proposition. It can be debilitating to know where to start, she acknowledges.

You need to start with a good in-house database. “Not a Facebook group or something that is just online where people join,” Auer says. “It’s an in-house database where you offer something in exchange for the customer’s name, email and cell phone number. You are letting money walk out the door every single time you don’t collect that information.”

Derick Todd, owner of Aquanut Pool Care in Greenville, S.C., subscribes to this school of thought. Equipped with fairly robust customer data, he tracks lost-customer activity early each year with software that enables broad report-generating capabilities.

“I want to know how many people walked in the front door and what the average sale was for the year ... ” Todd says. “And then how many new customers did we add to our database in this fiscal year, as well as how many customers didn’t come back from last year. We’ll take that number, and then we look at why.”

Todd says his customer attrition is low. But when somebody leaves, he regularly reaches out with phone calls and mailers to entice a return.

Last year, Aquanut sent out a mailer offering lost customers a free bag of shock to get them back in the store. “Most of them bought something while they were here, offering us a very rare opportunity to win back their business,” he says.

Reputation management

Another way to detect — or even predict — lost customers is to monitor reviews on social media.

Mark Reed, president and CEO of Memphis Pools, in Memphis, Tenn., keeps two employees on social watch. If there’s a bad review or lack of recommendation on Facebook or Google, he personally gets involved by sending handwritten notes.

“I would encourage anybody in upper management to plug in to those [social media] areas,” he says. “You may have problems on jobs that you’ll never know about, because people on the jobs are making sure that doesn’t get back to you.

“To me, having other avenues to monitor and reach out to those folks is critical. If we owe them something, we’re going to do the right thing and fix it.”

The convenience factor

Customers may leave your store for reasons besides the internet or a bad experience.

Former patrons may find it difficult getting to a store location that’s off the beaten path. That posed one of the biggest challenges for Watercrafters, a retailer based in Gaithersburg, Md., says co-owner Stephanie O’Neil. Based 20 miles from Washington D.C., the pool and spa store sits in an industrial park rather than a retail shopping area.

That wasn’t a problem five years ago, but today O’Neil sees a noticeable uptick in customers who add pool and spa products to their shopping lists at big boxes, she says.

To counter the convenience conundrum, she and co-owner Denise Viner capture customer data with their point-of-sale system and are experimenting with scatter maps software to help visualize year-over-year trends regarding gained and lost customers in different regions. Focusing on geography enables the owners to analyze contributing factors such as new competition and demographic changes.

“We can then start target marketing these customers to ... get them back,” O’Neil says. Geographic mapping also helps the owners decide if they should open another store.

The company has stepped up its targeted marketing program over the last two years. Watercrafters hired an in-house marketing professional dedicated to creating faster and fresher promotions and winning back customers with more offers and coupons.

“We also revamped our loyalty program last year so that our truly loyal customers partake and benefit from it,” O’Neil says. “And that will help with some of the tracking we do moving forward.”

The program was changed to focus on customers who spend more, which triggers larger-denomination coupons that provide a stronger incentive to come back to the store, she says.

Tools to automate

Entrepreneur Jillian Foucre leans heavily on her point-of-sale system as well.

At, Marcel’s, her upscale kitchenwares store in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Foucre analyzes year-over-year transactions two or three times per year. However, she doesn’t actively go out and pursue lost customers. Instead, she relies on a third-party system that tracks frequency of customer purchases and automatically pushes out text messages with special offers to customers who haven’t bought in six months.

Reed annually uses his system to generate a similar report, which he segments. For instance, customers from 2018 who didn’t return in 2019 with a purchase of $200 or greater, receive a $10 credit on their Splash Rewards membership account. If they haven’t subscribed on their own, Reed’s team signs them up, loads a card with $10 and mails it to them with a letter. That strategy has yielded the company a 40% return, he says.

This also serves as a way to connect his construction and service customers with the retail side.

“If we built them a pool and haven’t seen them in the store, then we catch them on that report showing they purchased from us but then didn’t come back the following year,” he says.

On the construction and service side, Reed uses a software that automates appointment reminders and includes an option to cancel. He has cancellation emails routed to his Inbox, as well as the service department’s. To those customers, he sends a personal, handwritten card.

“I keep it short and sweet, but I let them know I saw they canceled their service call and ask them to please let me know if there’s any issue,” he says. “We want to make sure we haven’t done something to run them off.”

On the customer-outreach front, Reed’s company sends all customers two emails a month. His 35% open rate is three times above the national average, but he wishes it were better.

But Auer offers encouragement — even if customers slide your emails into the trash, she says, “they’ve still seen your company name; you’ve put yourself in their mind.”

To further automate a small business’s outreach to lost customers, Auer says a customer relationship management system (CRM) is a key tool. She also had recent success with Facebook Messenger bot to push communication to at-risk customers, reminding them of the date of their last visit and inviting them to enjoy a special offer, a discount code or a BOGO.

The offer doesn’t always have to cost you a lot, she says. Something of perceived value to the customer is all it takes.