Backyard Masters

Long Island hot tub retailer keeps business alive amidst frustration with online sales, ineffective MAP policies — and finicky customers

Best Idea
Differentiate Your Store
Backyard Masters’ flagship in Farmingdale, N.Y., is located on Broadhollow Road, home to several pool and spa stores. While many are competing with the store across town, Salvani is in competition with the guy next door — literally. This tight market has made differentiating his brand of the utmost importance. “We spend a lot of energy on that end of the business,” Salvani says. The company does whatever it can to add verifiable accolades and awards, whether it is through the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List, TradeCertified, their manufacturers, or local magazines and organizations. But they don’t stop at just winning an award — they make it part of their message. “Every sale, all my employees are trained to not only say it but to also give them reading material in their packet,” Salvani says. “If they haven’t made their decision, this helps tell them why they should do business with Backyard Masters rather than over the Internet.”

DEAN SALVANI ISN’T PULLING any punches. After 35 years in the industry, the owner of Long Island, N.Y.–based Backyard Masters is candid about the problems he sees in the industry, who he thinks is responsible and what needs to change for everyone to survive.

Salvani started Backyard Masters in 1976 selling toys and pools. At one point, they also sold baby furniture, but eventually dropped the kiddie products in favor of spas and patio furniture. The company now operates three locations, including its 30,000-square-foot flagship in Farmingdale, N.Y. Salvani’s sons, Dean Jr., Dustin and Derek, work in the company along with his wife, Sherrie.

“We always say this should be a reality show,” Salvani jokes. “It has its stressful moments, and it has its rewarding moments.” Salvani and Sherrie initially discouraged their sons from working in the family business, wanting them to pursue their own dreams (Dustin turned down a scholarship to play college football) but all have grown to love the pool and spa industry. These days, his sons bring a youthful outlook Salvani says the industry desperately needs.

“There are not a lot of young people in the business,” Salvani says. “Manufacturers love my sons because they know that they’re the future.”

As Salvani looks forward, he fears online sales may rob his sons of the future he wants for them.

“I don’t see good things down the line for American brick-and-mortar retailers if this is not curtailed,” Salvani says. “We’ll be around in the long run, but I shouldn’t have to struggle with this other side of the business that goes on quietly and sneakily.”

Salvani says people come to his store, check out his products, learn as much as they can about then — and then disappear. “[The consumer] was able to buy it on the Internet for a little less money” without having to pay sales tax, Salvani says, adding that he places blame squarely on manufacturers in the pool and spa industry.

“Some will tell you, ‘We have MAP pricing and we’re controlling it,’ they’re

full of baloney,” Salvani says. “Those companies have ghost companies under a different name. They’re playing both sides of the fence. But, [retailers] are not stupid anymore.”

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As retailers cease doing business with manufacturers who are undercutting them — and as the government finds ways to get tax revenue from online sales — Salvani says the practice will eventually come back to bite manufacturers that operate this way.

“As more and brick-and-mortar stores go out of business because of the Internet, the manufacturers will become the retailer taking care of all the problems with warranty,” Salvani says. “That’s what a manufacturer traditionally does not want to do. But you can’t have it both ways; you can’t be greedy.”

Strong language for a small industry and directed towards companies and people he’s known for years. “I’m stepping out,” Salvani says, “because I feel so strongly about these issues. I want to help. I want to put some light on this.”

In starting an ecommerce site, Backyard Masters aims to compete with online sales. It’s not something Salvani wanted to do, calling the process to get it up and running “grueling,” but they’ll find out whether the gamble pays off once the site goes live (as of press time it was 90 percent complete).

The company has also begun to tout new green and energy-efficient products. As part of a buying group, Salvani can directly import containers of patio furniture, which has given them a boost. It’s all part of the new focus Salvani is seeing people give to their backyards as more families entertain at home in an effort to stretch their dollars.

“The backyard has become the third room of the house,” Salvani says. “Every dollar you invest in the backyard, you get a full dollar back [in resale value]. We were always competing against the income that was spent on vacations. But it’s stressful to travel today; people are afraid to travel.”

Like many small businesses, the truth behind the success and longevity of Backyard Masters is its tenacity.

“We’re growing despite what is going on with the economy and the Internet,” Salvani says, “because we’re passionate, we’re fighters. We trudge on and we adapt.”