Walk into Swim World Pools, and there’s no doubt you’re entering a family business — a 2-year-old boy is usually found next to the service counter.

“We renovated that whole area of the store so our son could play there,” says Jay Tucker, owner of the Gallatin, Tenn.-based retailer. “We call it his ‘lab,’ and we even had business cards made up for him; our customers love to come in and visit him. So we like to say that we’re a ‘mom-and-pop shop’ in the truest sense of the word.”

It’s this personal feel, Tucker says, that’s kept his store thriving for more than 13 years. But others take a somewhat different view of the issue.

“I see the brand, not the ownership, as central to the business,” says Frank May, president of A&M Distributors in Chattanooga, Tenn., which operates the chain The Pool Place. “I’m focused on maintaining our brand through a scalable business model.”

The owners of most businesses would agree that customer loyalty must be a top priority. But while some build that loyalty by cultivating a local look and becoming part of the neighborhood, others work on creating trust in a brand, and unifying their stores under a single style. And as it turns out, just about any tactic in between is also possible.

Here, we talk with staff at retail stores whose choices fall all along that spectrum of options, and examine how they’re adapting to the needs of their areas.

The personal touch

Many family-owned pool retailers have seen several generations grow up in the industry — and have watched several generations of customers pass through the doors.

“We’re supported a lot by families, because we’re a family business,” says Laura Minor, sales and marketing manager of Herb’s Pool Service in San Rafael, Calif. “We get grownups who come in now, who were coming in with their parents when they were kids. And a lot of customers tell me, ‘We could be buying these parts on the Internet, but we’d much rather support a family-owned business.’”

That “family-owned” feeling can influence a retail store’s appearance in a variety of ways. Not every shop can keep a cute toddler on staff, but many store owners have found that putting a personal touch on signs and displays can help spark customer conversation.

“I feel that the whole ‘mom-and-pop’ look creates a better customer service rapport,” Morrow says. Thus, she chats one-on-one with her customers as much as possible, and works to tailor her product displays to their needs. She even puts her personal touch on the store’s announcements. “We have a dry erase board on our wall, and I write techniques or reminders on that,” she says.

One of the biggest advantages of a personalized look, say many retailers, is adaptability. “We observe our customers as they walk in,” Tucker says, “and if people are walking by a display without paying attention, we’ll change something about the way we display it.”

Using this technique, Swim World can keep its displays relevant to the area — in one case, when a particular model of grill wasn’t attracting much attention, Tucker’s team decorated it with the local school’s colors, and watched sales rise almost instantly. “Having that mom-and-pop look enables us to reach out to the neighborhood, and respond to what the people here want,” he says.

Still, the managers of shops like Swim World and Herb’s have found that the mom-and-pop experience is much more than a style of décor. “It’s a whole approach to doing business,” says Colleen Morrow, sales manager at All Seasons Pools, Spas & Billiards in Lafayette, La. That approach, local retailers say, should be focused on employee expertise, and on establishing and maintaining personal relationships with as many customers as possible.

Building trust

As soon as a shop owner thinks about scaling his business up to a chain, some new questions about customer loyalty become apparent. Which is most important, for instance — loyalty to a particular location, to a certain group of people, or to a set of brands?

“There’s certainly virtue in having attachments to whatever town you’re doing business in,” May says. “But I wanted to build a business that would address the needs of our industry in a more scalable way.”

May realized he could scale up his business when he noticed that customers were regularly asking for referrals at his retail shop. “People would come in saying they wanted an in-ground pool, and we’d refer them to a builder,” he says. “But we eventually realized that we were the name they knew in that town. They’d grown up with us in that town, we’d created the business model there.”

In this case, customers had already learned to associate May’s brand name with the pool services and products they wanted. Thus, it was relatively simple for him to leverage that awareness as his company expanded. By the mid-2000s, he’d cultivated a series of brands throughout the retail, service and construction segments of the industry — and whether his staff members were selling chemicals, servicing equipment or building pools, he made sure the transaction was always tied back to one of his brands.

Interestingly, the reasons why May chooses to spotlight his brand names are very similar to those why Minor and Morrow emphasize their family ties. “[Pools have] a long buy cycle,” he says, “so you can’t always have a TV ad in front of the customer at the moment when they’re ready to pull the trigger. But if whenever they think ‘swimming pool,’ they think of my brand name, then I’m at a competitive advantage.” And when a customer finally does make a large purchase, “you’re typically wed to them for a long period of time, oftentimes for life.”

The Pool Place now operates five retail locations, and all are fairly unified in terms of visual style. As might be expected, the personal brand names May has worked so hard to build are heavily promoted throughout the stores. “I see developing our brands as being central to the growth of both any market we’re doing business in, and to any future markets we may enter,” he says.

At a scale somewhere between Morrow and May stands Dave McKibben, manager of Tucson, Ariz.-based Patio Pools & Spas. “Even though we’re a large retailer,” he says, “I still consider us a mom-and-pop business.”

McKibben’s chain comprises five retail locations, and the company has remained family-owned-and-operated for more than 42 years. This, McKibben says, has given them the versatility to adapt store layouts to customer needs, and provided them with multiple testing grounds for new techniques.

“Our store in Oracle [Ariz.] has lately come into its own in terms of patio furniture,” he explains, “so when you walk in there, you’re going to think, ‘Wow, these guys are serious about patio furniture.’ You’re not going to see that at all at our Campbell store, which is smaller, and caters to pool and spa owners.”

McKibben understands that as his chain continues to expand, he’ll need to keep his brand recognizable if he wants to expand his customer base as well. That’s why many areas of his stores — like points of purchase — look the same at each Patio location.

Still, McKibben allows the managers of those stores to design their layouts around the needs of the local customer base. Adaptability to local neighborhoods, he’s quick to emphasize, is entirely compatible with polished in-store branding. “By taking the ‘mom-and-pop’ mentality to a multi-store scale,” he says, “we’re able to target the needs of the highest percentage of customers in each individual area.”

Staying in style

If there’s one thing these stories have all demonstrated, it’s that there are plenty of options between a family-style image and a more branded look. As some store owners have pointed out, the two approaches can even be combined, or adapted to almost any scale — the key, in every case, is to stay attuned to the needs and wants of your own particular set of customers.

“We’ll often walk through the front doors, to try and see the store the way a customer would,” Tucker says. “Basically, we try to bring a professional look to the store without giving up our local flavor.”

Minor would agree with that strategy. She’s just opened a new location, and has been working with a distributor’s incentive program this time. “They provided us with in-store displays, and with the ability to work with a marketing company, to market really heavily,” she says. “And that has definitely paid off.”

Still, Minor says she’s always felt she’s kept creative control over the store. “I think they still want you to be a family business,” she says. “So we’re able to use their marketing budget — which is a huge budget — and still keep that family-owned feel.”

Minor’s experience may reflect a larger realization among manufacturers and distributors: That in the pool industry, at least, adaptability is mightier than corporate glitz.

“The trend seems to be toward the mom-and-pop feel, rather than the corporate look,” says Greg Piercy, sales manager at HASA Chemical in Saugus, Calif., who oversees sales throughout the western United States. “Even multiple-store chains, people who have four or five stores, don’t feel like corporate-owned-and-operated businesses when you first walk in.”

In fact, Piercy says, he’s seen some smaller stores try to brand themselves with a more corporate look. And some have pulled this off with a certain amount of success. “But,” he says, “all the busiest stores I see fit the mom-and-pop model.”