Home Improvement

To ride out pandemic, more customers craft staycation inspired outdoor spaces

Though it has long been a popular marketing phrase in the industry, “vacation at home” has suddenly become 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 this year than any year prior, 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. The products will be introduced this fall.

“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.”

The showroom at Family Leisure in San Antonio, Texas, is still full of backyard living products.

Staycation Reality

“Our organization has been marketing and discussing this idea with consumers for years,” Lampkin says of the vacation-at-home concept. “It is essential to us. The idea of a staycation exists in our advertising for a majority of our promotions. It has amplified this year for sure.”

Other dealers were wary of pushing a carefree marketing message when so many Americans are struggling. David Townley, president of Townley Pool & Spa in Little Rock, Arkansas, switched his phrasing to ‘backyard retreat.’

“There are people out there who are really hurting and nervous,” he says. “This is maybe not a great time to just be like, ‘Look at us, we’re out in our pool having a big ol’ time vacationing.’ It’s more like, this is your home and you want to be in a relaxed state — a backyard retreat. So we’ve altered our marketing. It’s bringing that wellness messaging and ‘You can do this at home.’ ”

For Galaxy Home Recreation, ‘staycation’ became a much larger focus for promotional messaging in April. “We had used the term before, but now it actually has real meaning,” Shah says. “We’ve stayed aggressive on marketing ‘staycation’ and kept the same message month after month, even until now.”

Along with that, Shah and his team are building urgency for customers, as Galaxy is already booking deliveries for 2021. “It’s trying to get the consumer to understand that they are obviously in the store because they’re planning for next year,” he says, “but they need to prepare to make decisions if they really want to be able to enjoy it, because next year is going to be just as crazy if not crazier.”

Galaxy offers preorder incentives, such as free delivery and installation when the product arrives, or accessory package upgrades. The company is also offering combination purchase incentives, including getting 50% off MSRP on a patio set when buying a hot tub. Galaxy also now has 100% financing available, which has helped people get more products at once.

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Shifting Focus

David Townley next to his Big Green Egg display. See the latest cooking video: bit.ly/TownleyLive

Townley usually has 17 hot tubs on the showroom floor, but they’re all gone, so he’s working to shift customer focus while they wait for spas. He 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. They’ve done three since April, 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 marketed through email campaigns and Facebook) and mention accessories the customer might need.

“We ask ‘Hey, what are you cooking this weekend?’ or ‘Have you seen this new spice or rub?’ ” Townley says. “We’re trying to figure out how we can still get in front of our customers and be present.”

Navigating Backorder

During the national shutdown earlier this year, most every OEM had to temporarily close, putting product manufacturing behind. “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.

A Fiberlite Umbrella provides shade in this finished backyard retreat.

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. “Hot tub dealers should, instead, emphasize 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, which is key to closing the sale.”

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 that patience with customers is the only way to navigate this uncharted territory post-shutdown. “Being upfront with customers is the goal,” he says. “Create a realistic expectation and communicate often, especially if there are delays.” Coronavirus has fostered an even more personal connection with customers, Townley adds. “Encourage people to come in and [let them know] you can help them pick out a product,” he says. “It gives you a chance to listen to that customer’s wants and needs. People buy from people they like. [This situation] is helping us get down into the details with our customers. And we’ve seen an increase in sales almost on that alone.”

Galaxy Home Recreation sales associate Kathy Johnson talks with customers in the Oklahoma City showroom.