PHOTO: Concord Pools & Spas

An unusually harsh and long-lasting winter in most of the nation has led to delayed pool openings and, in some cases, postponements of the annual chemical sales for retail stores.

But after being cooped up in their homes as winter dragged on and on — even snowing heavily in late April in parts of the country — millions of consumers are getting ready for summer and the backyard living opportunities it affords by buying new products.

Germantown, Tenn., didn’t experience the polar vortexes of other areas, but business at Garden Spas & Pool did suffer from a harsher than normal winter in the Memphis area. After some slow months, business rebounded well as people starting prepping for summer.

“There’s no question that there’s pent-up demand, and that’s what we saw in March and April,” owner Eric Zaharko said.

Even with the slow warm-up in some areas, store owners and managers have noticed excitement for backyard products. A chilly April in Manhattan, Kan., meant delayed pool openings, so owner Kimberly Weber opted to move her store’s annual open house sales event for chemical sales to May and have a sale on grills instead.

“We even plan on extending our grill promo because it was a success,” Weber said of the store, Energy Center-Manhattan Pool.

Grills were also a strong product category for sales at Garden Spas & Pool. Normally, people are buying grills in January and February, but because of the weather, didn’t start coming in until March and April.

Increased grill sales aren’t a surprise to Napoleon Appliance Corp., a manufacturer based in Barrie, Ontario, Canada.

Because pool retail stores generally cater to homeowners with inground pools in their backyards, those customers are going to be looking for items that increase their enjoyment around the pool area.

“Typically, the homeowner is also going to add, in their outdoor living space, a kitchen area,” said Kimberly Stuteville, national director of sales at the U.S. grill division of Napoleon. “And so because of that, there’s going to be a barbecue there, and that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing that uptick in the grill sales.”

Economic strength across different regions also could be a factor. The number of new housing starts continues to increase. While it’s nowhere near the number of starts the housing development industry was seeing before the housing bubble burst in December 2007, it’s becoming more steady. And those who aren’t buying or building aren’t staying idle.

“Because of the aggressive nature right now of our housing market, the people can’t go out to buy a new house or choose not to buy a new house because they have the equity in their house. Now what they’re doing is, they’re remodeling,” Stuteville said. “So they’re going out and reinvesting in that [backyard] space and adding new life to their current house.”

Retailers also are hearing that the economic cloud of the recession that was previously holding customers back from making larger backyard purchases in past years is floating away, causing even more customer excitement for this summer.

“They just don’t care,” Zaharko said. “They want to move on with their lives. Most people feel the recession is behind [them]. … As a result, they’re buying hot tubs again, and they’re buying grills. People want to live now.”

Napoleon’s grill sales for this year already were up double digits for the first quarter, and Stuteville said the second quarter is expected to be up also.

“The people who are wealthier at this point want to reinvest those funds and, luckily for someone like us, who’s a premium, high-end manufacturer of really high-quality barbecues, we’re in the right position at the right time to really reap the benefits from it,” Stuteville explained.