Though it has long been a popular marketing phrase in the hot tub industry, when the pandemic hit, “vacation at home” suddenly became reality. The industry could never have anticipated what the average hot tub showroom would look like in 2020: Empty, or nearly so, due to the abundance of spa sales, with lead times well into 2021.
Family Leisure of San Antonio, Texas, ran out of more products in 2020 than any year before, says general manager Austin Lampkin. “I assure you, it wasn’t from a lack of effort [to keep stocked],” he says. “We’ve written more orders for products than I can remember.”
For many retailers, spa sales continue even when there isn’t product to show. Galaxy Home Recreation, with four locations in Oklahoma, is forecasting hot tub orders into August 2021 just to keep up. But sales don’t stop at hot tubs.
“Because of COVID, people are not looking at items, they’re looking at the overall backyard,” says Ronak Shah, president and CEO for Galaxy. “Besides hot tubs, we’re selling a lot of patio furniture, fire pits, grills. It’s definitely more of a total purchase. [Customers] are asking us now, for the first time, ‘What else do you have that I can put in my backyard?’ ”
While Galaxy offers other outdoor living products like trampolines, swing sets and patio furniture, the focus on backyard living has resulted in a product expansion, too. In August, Shah added outdoor pool tables and shuffle boards, aiming to find more products people can use to have fun at home.
“There is no doubt the pandemic has increased sales in the residential outdoor space industry,” says Ray Sweet, owner and president of Fiberlite Umbrellas. “The pandemic has necessitated a shift to a more home- and family-centric focus, driving consumers’ desire to improve their outdoor living areas in order to spend that quality time at home with family.”
David Townley, president of Townley Pool & Spa in Little Rock, Arkansas, says there has been increased interest in big-ticket hot tub accessories and aftermarket add-ons, like music systems and saltwater feeders. “Before people may have been like, ‘OK, we can just get the hot tub because that’s where our comfort and price point are,’ ” Townley says. “But now, what we’re telling them is, ‘If you’re going to be using this thing a lot, you may want to get some steps.’ ”
At a home show last year, Townley ordered 15 floating LED hot tub lights to sell in the showroom. From June to August, he sold 80. “People are just outside in the backyard and want to know what they can do to be out there and enjoy it more,” he says.
Townley also sells Big Green Egg grills. Before the pandemic, he would occasionally host an in-person BGE cooking demo in the showroom. Customers would pay a fee, and Townley would pull out all the stops, including serving food and drinks. Obviously, social distancing requirements has in-person classes temporarily on hold, so Townley and his wife started doing live BGE cooking demos on the company’s Facebook page cooking brisket, ribs and steak.
“We saw an opportunity,” he says. “People are stuck at home and everybody’s already kind of used to livestreaming or Zoom. And we still want to be able to reach out and touch the customer and give them a good experience. In fact, we had one customer get in his car and drive out to the store, and when we were done with a class he was knocking on the door asking what we’re going to do with the meat. We said, ‘Here you go.’ It was hilarious.”
Since doing the live cooking demos, Townley has seen an increase in BGE accessory and spice sales, noting that most of the customers who watch the demos already have the grill. As customers come in with water samples, Townley’s employees make sure to plug an upcoming cooking demo (which is also promoted through email campaigns and Facebook) and mention accessories the customer might need.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can still get in front of our customers and be present,” Townley says.
During the national shutdown in early 2020, most every OEM had to temporarily close; product manufacturing got behind and still hasn’t caught up. “Manufacturing has taken awhile to get up and running and is still nowhere near where they would like to be,” says Adam Hazenfield, store manager for Watson’s of Dayton, Ohio. “This has caused unforeseen delays in providing our customers with the backyard they have always wanted.”
This is most widely seen with hot tubs themselves and part of the cause of long lead times across the board. Backyard living products and accessories aren’t an exception, but getting back to normal has been easier, especially for U.S. manufacturers.
For suppliers who rely on imports, the difficulty in obtaining materials and products from overseas has been a major issue, Sweet says. “No dealer wants to delay the completion of a project because of delivery problems,” he adds saying customers should consider the benefits of products made in the USA and backed by USA companies.
American-made Fiberlite Umbrellas are back to a one- to two-week delivery schedule for orders. Occasionally, however, popular umbrella colors have gone on backorder. “A quick call to us about the availability of a client’s top-three color choices allows dealers to give customers a choice in delivery timeframes and color preference,” Sweet says. “Giving clients accurate and current information communicates trust and flexibility.”
Prioritizing Customer Care
Townley says he learned from his mother, who started the business in 1986, that unlike products with long lead times, they can always provide an unlimited supply of knowledge and build personal relationships. Offering cooking demos is just one way he can reach out to customers: “It helps solidify that we’re here to help and that we care,” he says.
Lampkin says customers should expect patience and understanding from dealers; it is the only way to navigate this uncharted territory post-shutdown. “Being upfront with customers is the goal,” he says, adding that dealers should “create a realistic expectation and communicate often, especially if there are delays.”