1 Paddock Pools and Spas $35,950,000 $33,000,000
2 Anthony & Sylvan $14,000,000 $11,000,000
3 Patio Pools & Spas $7,700,000 $7,700,000
4 Shasta Industries $5,700,000 $5,000,000
5 Griffin Pools and Spas NEW TO LIST $4,260,000

Businesses both large and small struggled to keep their doors open, often discounting inventory at a rate that would have been unthinkable just one year earlier.

And the pool industry was hardly immune.

“We knew we were in for a tough year and did not expect ‘business as usual,’” says Dave McKibben, retail and spa division manager for Patio Pools and Spas in Tucson, Ariz.

But in spite of the faltering economy, a number of Top Builders saw positive signs from their retail divisions in 2008. A few even held steady against, or surpassed, the previous year’s revenue.  Here’s a look at three successful builder/retailers and the strategies they used to stay ahead.

Patio Pools and Spas

In ‘08, Patio Pools and Spas changed its store design and product focus in multiple locations to better suit individual markets. For example, the shop closest to the University of Arizona specializes in swimwear, while the Northwest location, which caters to an older demographic, largely focuses on patio furniture.

“This allows each store to utilize its square footage according to…customer profiles, as opposed to a canned corporate layout,” McKibben says.

The firm, which runs four retail stores in Tucson and another in Sierra Vista, equaled its ‘07 retail revenue in ‘08 with $7.7 million.

But Patio’s greatest strength may lie in its ability to capture specific consumers. Last year the firm identified a handful of promising groups and decided to tailor advertising and in-store product and POP displays to these targets.  The potential clients included former service route customers, salt-pool owners and clients of defunct competitors.

“Many pool builders…tend to ‘overpromise’ easy pool care when selling salt systems,” McKibben says. “We’ve seen a big increase in salt pools recently, as well as frustrated owners.”

So how does he target this group? Patio’s customized software allows it to hone in on individual customer sanitizer preferences – be they for SilkTabs, chlorine pucks or salt systems.

“The more specific your advertising is, the higher return you’ll enjoy,” he says. “After all, there’s no sense sending a puck ad to a salt pool owner. And this was certainly a year to maximize the effectiveness of your ad dollars.”

Pools of Fun

At Pools of Fun in Plainfield, Ind., “downtime” is a foreign concept. Each of the builder’s five retail stores in the suburbs of Indianapolis plays host to a noteworthy event seemingly every month.  

A new early bird-sale in February has helped jump-start the season, says Debbie DeVault, general manager for retail stores at Pools of Fun. And a regular preseason sale in March is followed by a week’s worth of consumer pool school in April, where a BioGuard representative and service technician review equipment and answer questions in an informal yet instructive setting.

This year’s course drew 150 attendees, DeVault says.

A recent four-day Mother’s Day sale tripled the firm’s retail revenue over the same period last year. And in mid-June, each store hosts an annual Meet & Greet — another opportunity for customers to view products up-close and interact with manufacturer’s reps.

The company in 2008 recorded $3.4 million in retail revenue, on pace with the previous year’s figures. But that’s no reason to rest easy, DeVault says. She continues to build on the store’s core capabilities while introducing new services when business demands it. Case in point: aboveground pools.

“This year we hired a full-time employee for aboveground pool installs,” she says. “We sold a bunch of the aboveground kits last year, and now we’re doing the installs as well.”

DeVault’s latest initiative is a mobile water-testing station that she expects to be up and running by late summer 2009. The vehicle is outfitted, the hardware wired — all that’s left is hammering out staffing and scheduling issues, she says.

Carlton Pools Inc.

Much of Joe Solana Jr.’s retail success in ’08 can be summed up in two words: aggressive expansion. The president of Carlton Pools Inc. in Warminster, Pa., oversaw his company’s segue into three new markets, including the home of what was formally Dover Pools, a 9,000-square-foot space in Toms River, N.J.

“That store was a good performer,” Solana says. “It’s what gave us a big shot in the arm.”

That shot in the arm helped Carlton post healthy gains ($4.1 million vs. $2.8 million) over its ’07 retail numbers. The company now has eight retail stores throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Solana concedes his impressive sales figures are likely due as much to new vistas and a relatively stable local economy as any inspired retail strategies.

“We didn’t feel it like the major markets,” he says. “Things here were as good or better than anywhere from D.C. to Connecticut. This area has held together pretty well.”