Brick-and-mortar stores in the pool industry compete with online retailers on a near-daily basis, and nowhere is this more evident than in the pool cleaner category.

Customers come in to browse and learn about the cleaners, but because they have a hefty price tag, people often go home to think it over. Is there any surprise that, educated by their in-store experience, those customers might find a product online that’s less expensive and purchase it at their convenience?

It’s a scenario that many retailers frequently face and one that pool cleaner manufacturers are working to prevent.

In store only

One way manufacturers help stores is by creating unique cleaners just for them. These are products that aren’t available online and are patrolled by the manufacturers to make sure they are not sold on the Internet.

For example, this year Zodiac Pool Systems introduced two exclusive cleaners, a pressure cleaner and a suction disc cleaner, in a new Trade Series.

“Both of these products are being developed for exclusivity at the brick and mortars and are not to be sold through online channels,” says Michelle Kenyon, vice president of marketing at the Vista, Calif.-based company.

Reserving the best products for brick-and-mortar stores means that even if customers can shop for a cleaner in store and learn about their options, they won’t be able to purchase that model online later. Zodiac’s enforcing its store-exclusive products with a policy designed to deter online sales.

“If we find that these units are being sold online, we will stop shipping to the respective customer or distributor that is not following the policy,” Kenyon explains. “This is a step that we’re going to protect as much as we possibly can.”

Cleaners always are going to be available online, though, so a number of manufacturers, including Zodiac, also make exclusive models for consumers who want to buy a pool cleaner while wearing pajamas.

Norcross, Ga.-based Maytronics has made cleaners for about 15 years with its Dolphin brand, which was only available to certain groups of dealers or distributors.

“In 2009, when our technology got to the point where it’s at, we just kept with that rule of thumb, and we’ll have cleaners that are private labels for certain distributors, certain distributor buying groups or dealer buying groups,” explains John Phillip, vice president of sales. “The shape and color are definitely going to be different and then we’ll let those groups choose the features they want to make it private for them.”

Maytronics’ cleaners also come with one marketing feature directly on the outside of the box: A stop sign. It tells consumers that if they purchased the cleaner online, the warranty is void when the box is opened. The purchaser then can send the cleaner back to the online merchant and buy the product from a dealer.

“We took a lot of phone calls from consumers that year,” Phillip says. “Then it really weaned down to literally just maybe a handful or two a summer.”

If and when exclusive store models do end up online, Maytronics takes action.

“We’ll send them a cease-and-desist letter,” Phillip explains. “We’ll contact them, let them know we appreciate the business, but there are Dolphins that are capable of being sold online. If we have the same offender a couple of times, you trace it back to where they’re getting it from and have a sit-down.”

Store events

Increasing store sales isn’t solely accomplished by reserving the best products with the best features for dealers. Advertising and marketing also play a large role.

Attractive displays are a goal for Sanford, N.C.-based Pentair Pool Products with the Kreepy Krauly brand of pool cleaners. The new Racer model comes in a trapezoid-shaped box, which can create a layout with as few as two cleaners. So far, it’s just the Racer model that has the unique packaging design, but the other cleaners in the line benefit from updated packaging for this season.

“It’s a nice, eye-catching display,” says Brian King, Pentair’s product manager for cleaners. Because the packaging attracts a customer’s attention, it leads right to the sale conversation, which can highlight the cleaner’s features, such as a light on the power supply that lets the owner know when the filter is dirty, or a remote feature for scheduling the robotic cleaner without having to be present at the pool.

Dealer specials also draw in consumers, so Zodiac launched Zodiac and Polaris Days last year to create more interest for dealers’ in-store events for pool cleaner sales. Last year the company expected to have about 500 dealer events, but the promotion proved more popular than that target, with about 1,000 events in the 2013 season. This year, Zodiac officials anticipate about 1,500 to 1,600 store events, all advertised on the manufacturer’s website.

“A dealer can have three events per year,” Kenyon explains. “We allow that dealer, because they have opted in, to advertise products 10 percent below LAP. And that offers their consumer a special price.”

In addition to the special promotional price below LAP (lowest advertised price), the consumer also can still take advantage of Zodiac’s rebate program, honored at the full price. Meaning, if the consumer is buying a cleaner regularly priced at $499, they’ll receive 10 percent off LAP — or $50 off — plus receive the $125 rebate available for the cleaner’s full price.

To get into the program, dealers need to buy eight qualifying cleaners and display them on the floor during their event to support it. The dealer also receives a box of promotional merchandise from Zodiac to help market the event and create excitement for the customer.

This will be the first year Penny Palmer will participate in Zodiac Days. The owner of Palmer Pools & Spas in Renwick, Iowa, coordinated her April promotion to coincide with her yearly preseason sale.

“I appreciate manufacturers doing that because a lot of them haven’t been mindful of what they’re allowing [online],” she says. “It’s gotten a little bit out of control with the Internet. There are a lot of things in the pool industry that are unique to our industry, and they shouldn’t really be sold without instruction, without guidance, without help in the future and so forth. When people purchase off the Internet, they don’t get that backup support.”

Maytronics elite dealers also are able to offer their customers promotions, including a manufacturer rebate from April 1 until July 31 each year.

“This year we made it a little more flexible for the dealer and it’s a point system [to qualify as an elite dealer],” Phillip says. “Basically, if it’s a new dealer, as many units as you buy on early buy, you’re going to get a little bit more benefit when you cash out at the Dolphin store when you buy your marketing products.”

Consumer benefits

A warranty is a must for many buyers when investing in a pool cleaner, but even with a warranty, servicing an issue often means waiting weeks while the product is sent to the manufacturer for assessment and repair.

Not so for Dolphin cleaner owners.

“We’ve made the units basically modular, and they’re DIY for the dealer,” Phillip says. “Every dealer that signs up on that elite program, either our sales rep or one of our trainers will do an in-store training for them.”

Dealers now troubleshoot and repair the units in the retail store, which takes about 10 to 15 minutes for the entire process, according to company officials.

“That really seems to have a lot of legs with dealers who have been selling cleaners in the past and not being able to work on them,” Phillip says. “One of the things I teach my sales guys out in the field: Train the dealer to use that as one of the selling features. Everybody talks about the features the unit has as far as cleaning the pool, but to me, it’s the simplicity of our unit. It’s basically only three major components. We supply the dealers with a diagnostic kit, they simply take the three parts, test them in a certain order each time and then replace one of the three parts.”

Hayward Pools declined to comment for this article.