Some independent pool and spa retailers are concerned over changes they’ve observed among manufacturers.

A number of vendors, they say, are producing smaller or fewer brochures, pushing early buys back into fall, and raising the minimum purchase requirements for free freight.

“When these companies cut back on staff, it affects marketing materials, promotional items and overall dealer support,” said George Catelli, owner of Sunshine Pool & Spa in Santa Rosa, Calif. “They’re supposed to paint a rosy picture of their products, but they’re actually giving you less.”

In the past year or two, Catelli and others — many of whom are members of buying groups — also have observed dealer meetings at factories suspended; manufacturers’ representatives paying fewer visits; and shrinking inventories that have retailers questioning whether manufacturers can respond to in-season orders.

“If you have a [product] that you’re not sure about and it gets popular and you run out in July, that’s it,” said Chris Callanan, owner of North Shore Pool & Spa in Wakefield, Mass. “They’re not sitting on inventory like they used to. They’re depending on distribution to keep inventory, and I don’t buy through distribution.”

Approximately 500 miles south, in Gaithersburg, Md., Kelly Reed said a number of her fellow retailers now are relying more on just-in-time inventory. There’s no point in keeping it in stock, she said, because storage space has shrunk in recent years.

“But the manufacturers don’t keep it in stock either. They expect us to be the warehouse,” said Reed, operations manager at Contemporary Watercrafters and a director on the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals’ Retailers Council.

“So while they’re increasing the minimums for early buys, we also have less inventory space,” she added. “The result is it makes it harder for us to take advantage of those early buys.”

Dealers across the country also report that for some manufacturers, free freight minimums have nearly doubled. One has taken to adding a fuel surcharge to orders that ship after a certain date, said John Hasselbach, owner of All Seasons Pools, Spas, Billiards in Lumberton, Texas.

“That trend isn’t going to change,” Catelli added. “Fuel costs continue to go up, and that’s going to impact us in a big way. We may have to increase our prices anywhere from 3- to 5 percent on some key items before the season.”

As for manufacturers’ reps, Reed said the impression is that territories have become stretched to the point where the quantity and level of product information dealers receive on products now largely covers “just the basics.”

The technical and anecdotal information that once formed the basis of understanding about a product and how to sell it have been curtailed or sacrificed in some cases, she added.

“They’re relying more on electronic communication,” she said. “And that’s good, but online training isn’t what we’re used to in terms of depth and interactivity.” 

In response, manufacturers concede there’s little that can be done to defray rising freight costs. Whether it’s due to fuel or their own vendors passing on the expenses, “that’s definitely a concern,” said Cassi Burt, marketing director at Dimension One Spas in Vista, Calif.

And while the manufacturer’s marketing team has contracted in recent years, Burt said the evolution that has occurred in its communication processes are, in fact, geared toward greater customization and efficiency."

“Everything is changing right now,” she said. “Just like the dealerships are having to change the way they market and the way they look at buying, the manufacturers are doing the same thing.

“We’re trying to do different things and hoping that what we do is most effective,” she added. “A few years ago you’d see a lot of new POP for specific promotions, [but] this year you’re seeing Facebook banners and social media ads. It’s just not something that the dealers have been used to, nor do they necessarily see the benefit. So I can see how that might come across as ‘the [manufacturers] aren’t doing for me what they used to.’ But it’s just a change.”

At Pentair Water Pool and Spa, Carlos Del Amo said his company hasn’t significantly altered its early buy program in recent years. The vice president of marketing at the Sanford, N.C.-based manufacturer also said no changes have been made to its freight policies because of economic conditions.

“None of these decisions have been driven by a downturn in the economy,” he said. “Any decisions have been well thought out and industry-driven. I don’t know who has made those types of changes.”

He did say the company has produced more electronic media, “but that’s just another way for our customers to get information.”

Indeed, in today’s evolving marketplace, it’s a new reality the industry may just have to embrace.