In late 2009, Kathy Milbrandt held a sales event marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo Pools & Spas in Reading, Pa.

It was billed as “40 Days of Savings at 40 Percent Off,” and a month beforehand, Milbrandt sent personalized letters to all existing customers explaining that for 40 days, a different store item would be marked down by 40 percent.

Also included was a calendar indicating which product would be discounted each day, as well as a raffle for a free 40” flatscreen TV. The idea was to advertise a positive notion despite a lagging economy, according to Apollo’s president.

“I just came to the conclusion that you can’t fall into the doom and gloom,” she said after the sale had ended. “People are still spending money — it makes them feel good. And you want them to spend it with you.”

Indeed, creative promotions are nothing new for pool and spa retailers.

Tent and sidewalk sales, vendor days, and co-promotions with other businesses and organizations have all come and gone through the years. But some are built to last, whether for their originality or, more importantly, their results.

Here, a handful of leading retailers from across the country describe their favorite sales events.

Company: Athens Pool & Spa

Location: Athens, Ga.

Promotion: “Home for Christmas”

The Skinny: With North Georgia temperatures dipping into the 30s, management at Athens Pool & Spa wanted to give customers a reason to visit the store. At the same time, a local animal rescue had a surplus of cats in need of adoption.

So from Dec. 11 through Christmas Eve, the pool and spa retailer joined with the We Care Animal Haven and Adoption Service for a unique, dual-purpose promotion.

Athens Pool & Spa owner Jim Blume actually had a longstanding friendship with a director of We Care. In fact, Blume regularly lets the group hold adoption events in his 7,700-square-foot showroom. The idea to tie a holiday-themed event to a sale, he recalls, just made sense.

“Look, they’ve got more kittens than they need, and we’ve got more hot tubs than we need,” Blume says with a laugh. “We thought this would be a good way to help generate some foot traffic.”

The retailer publicized it by offering in-store giveaways in the weeks beforehand, as well as notifying followers on the store’s Website and Facebook page. In early December, tables were decorated and filled with gift baskets, handmade candles and flyers in support of the event. 

For its part, the rescue group recorded a series of radio spots, in addition to running print advertisements in local newspapers.

Then, over the weekend days, We Care brought several adoptable cats and kittens to Blume’s store.

Attendees were treated to holiday-themed refreshments, and new pet owners (and existing ones alike) received free photos of their four-legged companions. 

“People got to bring their pets in and take pictures with them against a Christmas backdrop,” Blume says. “And, to be honest, I was just going to be happy if they had some of their cats adopted.”

Meantime, practically every item in stock — hot tubs, saunas, trampolines, etc. — came with at least a 10 percent discount; in fact, Blume ended up knocking $1,000 off the price of at least one spa.

“We’re not too busy this time of year anyway,” he adds, “so if we’re helping a good cause and it happens to bring us some visibility, that’s great. And maybe if they’re thinking of a pool or a hot tub or sauna down the road, well, they’ve already had a nice experience here.”

Company: Barto Pool & Spa

Location: Phoenixville, Pa.

Promotion: “Make an Offer”

The Skinny: Also known as “Name your Price,” this sale is a favorite of Barto Pool & Spa co-owner Amy Barto. It started about four years ago, and now takes place quarterly.

The idea came in response to the growing attitude among today’s consumers that nobody wants to pay the listed price. “Everyone wants to get a bargain,” Barto says.  “So it’s a matter of, ‘Tell me what you want to pay and we’ll see what we can work with.’”

Covering strictly hot tubs, the promotion typically runs anywhere from 10 days to two weeks, and the company places a newspaper ad for the sale about once a year. But the real marketing bread-and-butter is a precise direct mail and email campaign that goes to existing leads, many of whom already have a price in mind, Barto says.

Email messages, for example, arrive in a potential customer’s inbox with a personalized note about a limited-time, “special personal offer, just for you.” It goes on to list a particular spa model, the MSRP and Barto’s price, as well as services and accessories that are included, such as delivery, coverlift, steps and a chemical kit.

It also is accompanied by a $500 gift certificate that can be used toward future purchases of chemicals and accessories. However, the coupon is only redeemable upon purchase of the specific spa listed in the offer.    

Despite the potential for exploitation, Barto says nearly all customers are realistic when it comes to “making an offer.”

“Everyone knows you’re going to give them a good deal, so they’re not going to beat you up on price,” she says. “And I appreciate that — they’re not rude about it. I think people understand that you can’t give them the kitchen sink for free.”    

The best part, Barto adds, is that it only costs about $200 to send the pieces to her current lead list.

Because of its targeted nature, in-store promotion doesn’t play a role. So in some respects, it’s more of a silent sale than one that’s open to the masses. But that could soon change, as Barto is considering taking the sale “public” by advertising it on one of the company’s billboards later this year.

Company: WCI Pools & Spas

Location: Urbandale, Iowa

Promotion: “12 Days of Christmas”

The Skinny: Technically the sale takes place 12 days before Christmas. But that’s neither here nor there — the concept is based on savings, which grow deeper by the day, for every hot tub in stock.

On Dec. 1, dozens of spas are marked down $500-$1,500. Then, with each passing day, additional discounts are applied. By Dec. 12, any remaining hot tubs are sold for up to $3,000-$3,500 below the original price, says co-owner Kathy Jurgens.

So it’s savings or selection: Customers must choose whether to buy early (they’re still getting a good deal on a marked-down spa), or take their chances by waiting until the final sale day. Either way, much like in roulette, the house usually wins.

“We’re just trying to do some things that are a little more innovative and spark some interest,” Jurgens says. “The idea is to be catchy, and to give a different twist to the typical sale.”

WCI undertook an aggressive marketing and advertising campaign in support of the event. Beginning just after Black Friday, the retailer ran promos across local radio waves, and sent direct mail, postcards and emails to specific leads. Announcements also were posted on WCI’s Website, as well as its Facebook page.

And for a personal touch, Jurgens and her team called prospective customers to remind them of the sale while it was under way.

“This [past year] was the first Christmas we did it,” she adds. “It was just a new thing, but I think it helped us keep our name out there.”

Company: B&L Pools

Location: Phoenix

Promotion: “Utility Sale”

The Skinny: In May 2010, APS, Arizona’s largest electricity utility, launched a rebate program for energy-efficient pumps and timers. It would prove to be the perfect backdrop for a lucrative one-day sale.

B&L Pools’ president Dale Howard subsequently joined with APS and manufacturer Hayward Pool Products for a daylong event in late summer that saw more than a dozen of Hayward’s variable-speed pumps sold at a single B&L Pools location.

To promote the sale, B&L sent direct mailings to existing customers, and publicized it in the retailer’s newsletter — which is given to each shopper at checkout. For the event itself, organizers set up tents, hosted a barbecue, coordinated an on-site radio broadcast and held giveaways. Hayward also brought out a trailer for educational demos.

In addition, all Hayward equipment at B&L Pools’ five stores came with a 15 percent discount.

Howard says the experience illustrated, the benefit of forging alliances: “We tried to do things like this in the past on our own,” he says, “but we got much more done partnering with the utility and manufacturer.

“Different people put forth different ideas,” he adds. “And in addition to spreading out the costs, the partnership helped give us more exposure. That was one special day that we had that I thought was very effective.”