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Cinde W. Ingram

Outdoor recreation

Whether starting from a pool and spa, hearth or childrens playset selling position, specialty retailers say they profit from outdoor recreation. Read about three different retailers' experience and expectations in this article.

The Pool Doctor

Like most other specialty retailers, The Pool Doctor of Rhode Island knows it needs to differentiate itself from its competition. So extending from pools and spas into a range of outdoor recreation became an easy evolution.

Owners Debbi and Ron Leclerc weren't afraid to test the waters of product categories to set their store apart from other outlets serving pool and spa customers. Their first store opened in 1994 strictly selling and servicing pools and spas, but later became a BioGuard Backyard Essentials dealer and an outdoor recreation retail store. Candles were a natural addition to hot tub sales and became one of their first add-on categories.

"A lot of people have this mental image of a nice, romantic, relaxing evening with your special someone," Debbi said. "Candles add ambience, whether it be fragrance or lighting."

Adding a candle warmer near the front counter with the featured Scent of the Month made it convenient for customers to pick up a $1.50 votive as they checked out, then return later for larger versions. With up to 30 employees in season, candles are removed from boxes and displayed so customers veer toward sizes that fit their tastes. "We've found it works best to change the way you merchandise things to fit the needs of your consumer," Debbi said.

High-end grills were at the top of their shopping list when the Leclercs designed, built and opened their store in Coventry, R.I., next door to their former location.

Grill delivery and set up is considered part of the deal because customers are paying $2,000–$4,000 and up. Employees trained to service swimming pool heaters found it easy to service grills. "By incorporating some of these things, we are able to say not only are we the specialty store for your swimming pool or hot tubs needs, we are a destination for some of these other items," Debbi said.

Along with grills came sales of sauces, rubs, marinades and cookbooks. Weekend events invite customers to taste the latest flavors, whether a balsamic vinegar glaze or barbecue sauce. "It fit in with the festivities and just kind of grew," she said.

Another dip into outdoor recreation involves selling sports memorabilia, including team-related Christmas ornaments year-round. As each sports season progresses, the cash register rings.

Catering to customers' children led to a Kids Corner, marked by brightly colored block letters. Even children too young to read gravitate toward the 8×8-foot area, where they can watch Disney movies and play games while their parents have water tested or shop. Sometimes the parents' shopping is finished before the checkers game, Debbi said.

"I've actually sold spas to customers who chose to do business with us because we were the only ones they felt seemed to care enough about their children to give them a designated area so mom and dad could still do what they needed to do and know their children were in a safe place," she said. "We tried to make this place friendly to shop in."

 Sports memorabilia is one category The Pool Doctor carries to differentiate itself from other merchants.  

Seasons Hearth & Patio

After nearly two decades of helping customers fulfill their backyard fantasies, I.A. "Cos" Cosentino sees more bright days ahead for outdoor living and back yard recreation.

"It's going to increase, there's no question about it," said Cosentino, owner and general manager of Seasons Hearth & Patio. "Since people aren't traveling as much, they want to spend more time in their own house and bring the resort to their home. The big thing, as a rule, is most people cannot envision a dream that a designer can because of his training and his product knowledge."

Such product knowledge is vital, but so is directing customers toward the design that will make their individual desire become a reality. For example, would a homeowner who doesn't swim prefer a pool area or a waterfall with pond where he can watch fish swim? Once a design strategy is reached, the retailer has to quickly budget what the dream is going to cost.

Cosentino drew on his own training in engineering and architecture in 1986 as he launched his hearth store in Ivyland, Pa. He was a pioneer in marrying the retail concepts of hearth with patio. After recognizing limitations of that category, he added spas. He then began to present designs incorporating patio furniture, awnings and shade products, then barbecue grills and outdoor kitchens.

"We started an Outdoor Design Center, where we offered a consumer a $500 peek-a-boo to his new back yard," Cosentino said. "We gave him a budget price on facets of it and an artist's rendering. He could chose to do it with us or take our concept somewhere else."

By the time the design was presented, most homeowners had made a connection and developed a comfort level. "The longer you spend time with them, the longer you're dreaming their dream," Costentino said. "That's how romance starts."

After designing and creating outdoor environments to suit customers' desires, Cosentino offered his big ideas to other hearth and patio dealers. Because of staff limitations, he now chooses six to eight handpicked projects for consumers willing to spend upward of $50,000 to $80,000.

"Our expertise is in outdoor design, the complete association of different functions that yard can serve the homeowner," Cosentino said.

Sweetland Outdoor

Arthur Siriani, president of Sweetland Outdoor, said his two Georgia locations have shown steady growth in sales of Creative Playthings. The first store began selling the brand of swing sets exclusively since it opened 12 years ago in Alpheretta. It later added Amish-crafted outdoor furniture, trampolines, gazebos, storage buildings and barns. The second 2-acre location opened five years ago in Dawsonville. Both rely heavily on outdoor displays.

"Most companies are either going to carry redwood only or pine only and we have both," Siriani said. "When a customer comes in my lot, I've got almost every price point for their budget. That has been a great selling advantage for us."

Referring to rising gas prices, Siriani said consumers have less money to spend on travel and other things. "But if they're going to be making less trips, they could say they want to spend more in their back yard to keep the kids entertained," he said.

Creative Playthings recently added 120,000 square feet to its manufacturing facilities, in Emporia, Va.

 Creative Playthings manufactures playsets in both redwood and pine.  

The more than 54-year-old manufacturer also is expanding its dealer network and needed extra space for inventory, said Vito Parisi, vice president of sales.

"We're not just looking for people who are in the playground business, we're looking for people in the spa business and the casual furniture business," Parisi said. With its Get Started program, retailers are able to display one of three starter models and stock another one, boxed to deliver immediately.

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