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Quiet, Then Chaos

How dealers plan and prep for successful spa deliveries

“Who is the maddest?”

In the beginning of the pandemic, David Isaacs, owner of Isaacs Pools & Spas and Bullfrog Spas of Tri-Cities near Johnson City, Tennessee, wanted to identify his most irate customers. For his sales team, the one who called daily for a spa delivery update was usually bumped to the top of the list to get their hot tub sooner.

Call it bad business, he says, but that was what survival mode looked like when the pandemic started. Isaacs knew long lead times due to lockdowns, staffing shortages and manufacturing delays made for antsy, even angry customers.

These days, however, retailers say it’s less urgent as most customers get the reality of supply-chain issues.

“Customers have really gotten to be OK with that delay,” says Joe Musnicki, president of Ocean Spray Hot Tubs & Saunas in Long Island, New York. “They’re finding that with furniture, building supplies, automobiles — really with everything — there’s a delay. There are a lot of things you can’t purchase right away. They realize that. It’s gotten a little bit easier in that respect.”

A flatbed truck with customer orders sits in front of the Ocean Spray Hot Tubs & Saunas store in Melville, New York. Timing is everything with deliveries in colder climates, so manufacturing delays pose many challenges. Photo: Ocean Spray Hot Tubs & Sauna

When the pandemic first started, many dealers say managing customer expectations was difficult. With lockdowns keeping people at home, consumers who could afford hot tubs wanted them ASAP. When they couldn’t get them, consistent, angry phone calls began for dealers like Isaacs.

“Consumers were anxious about how long it would take for delivery,” Isaacs says. “We were struggling. If there were delays in manufacturing, there was nothing we could do about that. We would be proactive and email the customer.”

Even now, 24-plus months into the pandemic, customers — and dealers — still aren’t getting spas delivered at pre-pandemic frequencies. Dealers are often learning lessons about how today’s supply chain will impact next month’s installs. That means a whole lot of prep, organizing and thinking outside the box when it comes to completing deliveries.

More than anything, it has taught dealers how to perfect their delivery process and fine-tune it again and again.

Finding Space

Like a game of Jenga, spa retailers now have to literally and figuratively balance where they can put hot tubs. For most retailers, they’re pre-ordering more spas than ever before, including ones that aren’t spoken for yet.

Rarely do retailers have a perfectly aligned timeline to take spas from the delivery truck to a customer’s house.

“We find ourselves having to shift the store around a lot more,” says Ben Poggemiller, owner of Urban Life Pools & Hot Tubs, of taking truckloads of spas in at his store in Canada. “We make sure the tubs that are going out the soonest are the easiest to access so that requires a lot of careful planning, as well as trying to fight the ice and snow.”

An installation crew from Urban Life Pools & Hot Tubs works on placing a Hydropool 12FFP swim spa in a customer’s backyard in Linden, Manitoba. Because machinery tends to freeze in the cold Canadian weather, delivery conditions are often difficult.
 Photo: Ben Poggemiller

For Poggemiller, creating and refining a crystal-clear delivery process before the pandemic has helped maintain order in an otherwise chock-full warehouse. Any delay from the manufacturer or a customer who isn’t ready to accept delivery can mean his team must spend hours rearranging the warehouse in frigid temperatures — sometimes 40 below zero — that lock up the forklift.

To avoid that hassle, adding extra details prior to delivery is a must. For his team, that starts the moment a sale is made by creating an invoice in their customer-management system. Each one is detailed with the type of hot tub, deposit amount, balance due, home access, photos of the customer’s yard and more.

“Ideally, with all that information ahead of time, we are prepared for anything that comes up [on delivery day],” he says.

Isaacs knows that feeling all too well of needing to shift and make do with the space he has. He says he will never forget when he received 48 hot tubs in 10 days. At his location, there are only so many places to put spas, an issue he knows smaller dealers also face. 

“When three trucks arrive at once, it stretches our capacity for storage,” he says. “We’re just not that large of a company. We made modifications. I stored them in a gravel area. We did have to adapt. I did not have the space to store as many spas as we were receiving at one time.”

All in Good Time

No two days look the same in the spa industry anymore. Yet despite the pandemic’s strain on the spa sales and delivery process, retailers have made it work.

The pandemic has shown two faces of the spa industry. Some, like Isaacs, say it has been “feast or famine” — boring and then bustling.

Eventually, even with lockdowns, manufacturer slowdowns, Canadian trucker strikes delaying shipments and everything in between, the spa will get to the customer. The problem is spa retailers never know exactly when, says Jake Boyles, vice president of sales and marketing at Crystal River Spas in Carbondale, Colorado. It’s as much of a surprise to retailers as it is to the customer if a spa comes early or late. Production no longer follows a typical timeline.

Nowadays, the biggest challenge for most retailers isn’t getting a spa ordered, but timing when the customer will get their spa.

“Everyone wants to get on the soonest arriving trucks, but especially in our area we struggle with timelines of builders, permits, etc.,” explains Boyles. “Even if we spend months with the tub on order, it doesn’t necessarily mean [homeowners] will be ready when it arrives.”

No Delays, Please

When those trucks do come in, though, dealers must be prepared. Yet even with the best of preparations comes chaos, admits Isaacs.

Major kinks in the normal process mess up deliveries for everyone.

Isaacs knows more disruptions are coming down the line, too. He says a substantial portion of his spas will show up at the start of pool season. Given that his construction/remodel crew and delivery crew are one and the same, it’s a nightmare he’s already planning to navigate.

“How awesome it would be to restore a normal schedule, normal calendar,” he jokes.

Keeping it Together

Dealers agree that overcommunication is good, even when there’s not much progress to report. But a steady stream of contact is better than not enough when it comes to a long-awaited, big-ticket item like a hot tub.

With a rush of deliveries at once, organizational tools like Outlook, sales packets and Excel spreadsheets are crucial to keeping deliveries on track.

While Poggemiller’s team had processes in place well before the pandemic, he now knows his digital sales board of Excel spreadsheets that track incoming, sold and unsold hot tubs is irreplaceable. All sold tubs have details the delivery team needs for a successful, stress-free delivery, including access issues, customer instructions and more.

Delivering up to five spas a day, Boyle’s team has found Trello useful. Trello — a web-based, list-making application — is easily accessible and team members can notate phone conversations, and copy and paste emails, texts and photos for a customer’s delivery profile.

“The pandemic has helped us get more on top of keeping the delivery team all aware of the status of each customer,” Boyle says.

David Milliner of Urban Life Pools & Hot Tubs looks at a recently placed Hydropool 12FFP swim spa recently in Linden, Manitoba. Because of delayed manufacturer deliveries, the Canada-based company is delivering more spas in winter than ever before. Photo: Ben Poggemiller

With the pandemic demanding more strict organization protocols, retailers found weak spots and made improvements where necessary.

“We learned a lot about the communication side and a lot about beefing up our IT department,” says Isaacs. For his team, Outlook has served its purpose for keeping everyone on track.

Special Delivery

Many store owners are helping with deliveries right now thanks to a labor shortage. Because of COVID complications — such as unwell employees or employees with kids dealing with COVID — it makes it difficult to count on a set number of staffers on delivery days. Wrenches in the delivery process often happen with little to no warning.

“Because of constantly rotating staff I’ve taken on a lot more fieldwork as well,” Poggemiller says. “You have to change your plans at a moment’s notice to get the delivery out the door. That means being able to adapt quickly and adjusting based on the staff you do have, whether the customer’s going to be available and whether you have the tub.”

When multiple trucks come in, Isaacs also helps his crew. Some months, he won’t have any deliveries. But when it’s too quiet, he says deliveries will “rotate back into chaos again.”

While there’s not much he or any other retailer can do about the hurry-up-and-wait game, he looks forward to the day when things slow down a bit. “This has been the two best years in the industry for numbers since we’ve been in business,” Isaacs says, “but I would trade them in a minute for order and peace of mind.”

Isaacs Pools & Spas delivery video.