Making the Most of Anti-Chain Sentiment
By Andrew Lisa
For the last 17 years, nearly 65 percent of all new jobs were created by small businesses, which 77 million Americans currently rely on for their paychecks. Local stores are so critical to the health of their communities, in fact, that neighborhoods with thriving independent business districts enjoy average home values that are 50 percent higher than the larger citywide market. Small, local retailers put $3 back into the community for every dollar contributed by their big-box corporate competitors.
Small businesses matter, and customers all over the country are showing their love through the “shop local” movement. This campaign, which pledges to keep dollars in the cash registers of community stores, has made the hot tub and pool industries take notice. Some retailers and service providers are developing community outreach programs to capitalize on the trend. Others are reaping dividends from efforts they made decades before it was chic to shun global corporate chains.
Donations, Community Service and Plenty of Dogs
Barto Pool and Spa of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, has been a family-owned business since 1970. They were in the community outreach business long before the shop local craze was hip.
“To set yourself apart from online retailers or big-box stores, it’s all about building relationships,” says store manager Tara Stehman. “We like to think of many customers as our friends.”
The Barto family positions its business as a friend of the community by giving to dozens of local causes, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which has a partnership with its hot tub manufacturer Marquis.
It receives requests for everything from prizes for the local sixth-grade spelling bee to items for charity auctions. The Barto strategy has been to touch as many people in the community as possible by spreading their resources thinner.
“We used to say no to probably 90 percent of these small events,” Stehman says. “Now we say yes.”
As it takes on more causes, the amount it can afford to give to each naturally becomes smaller — but the payoff in goodwill does not.
“How much is an inflatable pool toy worth?” Stehman asked. “But now you’re getting a handwritten thank-you note from a cute school kid.”
The company also builds relationships in the community through social media, especially Facebook. The results of both its social and email campaigns were so strong that the store was awarded the Marquis National Dealer Award for Best Marketing and Promotions in 2016.
It is known in the community, however, for its boundless affection for dogs. The business serves as a drop-off site for two local rescues, including Justice Rescue, which has a considerable social media following.
Neighborhood dog lovers have taken notice.
“We encourage folks to bring their pups with them to shop,” Stehman say. “And then their pup may make it to our website’s Gallery of Store Dogs. We have gained new customers just because they thought it was so cool how we loved and treated their pup.”
The company is also shrewd enough to make sure that their good deeds to the community are also good for business.
“We give away a lot of gift certificates, which make folks come into the store,” Stehman says.
Wichita Proud: Flag Interbusiness Partnerships and a Case of Mistaken Identity
Ultra Modern Pool & Patio maintains three locations and a service department in and around Wichita, Kansas. Marketing manager Kara Rowlen is the granddaughter of the man who started the business in 1954. The family developed key relationships that made them a fixture in the community long before the shop local craze came into vogue.
“We partner with people and businesses that are promoting shopping local,” Rowlen says.
Wichita’s Legacy Bank, for example, partners with locally owned businesses like Ultra Modern through its Local Legacy program. The bank promotes Ultra Modern in its advertising, and Ultra Modern gives a discount to customers who use the bank’s Local Legacy discount card.
It has also capitalized on a recent resurgence in interest surrounding the Wichita flag.
“It’s become a really big thing,” Rowlen says. “You can go into any little boutique store and find coffee cups and t-shirts and pins and magnets with the Wichita flag. I didn’t even know what the flag looked like until a year ago, but it’s really fun. People are Wichita proud.”
Ultra Modern displays the flag on their electronic billboard outside the store, along with the phrase “shop local,” which also appears in its advertising.
For Ultra Modern, the shop local philosophy extends far beyond the borders of the largest city in the Sunflower State. The company sells and promotes furniture and other products made in America by other small, multigenerational, family-owned businesses.
It keeps in touch with customers through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The real bonding, however, happens in person.
“This Saturday, we’re doing a Traeger cooking school,” Rowlen says, referring to the brand name of one of their grill lines. It also hosts pool-maintenance educational events that double as parties.
“We barbecue for our customers, and they come and learn about how to open and close their pools,” Rowlen says. It also makes a mark through local philanthropic causes, making silent-auction donations for churches and schools.
Sometimes, however, its impact is felt on a much larger scale. It recently donated thousands of dollars worth of prizes for an adopt-a-school golf tournament organized by a local car dealer. When St. Jude hospital gave away a home near an Ultra Modern store in neighboring Derby, it donated the furniture that made up the bonus prize. The combined effort raised $850,000 in five days.
Its success in making themselves a household community name can be summed up in a story Rowlen relayed: A local resident was upset by something he saw in an advertisement run by a different pool company, yet he called Ultra Modern to complain. When Rowlen assured him it wasn’t their commercial, he replied that he saw a Wichita pool company and just assumed it was them.
From First Date to Pillars of the Community
Maximum Comfort Pool & Spa boasts 37 years in Colorado’s scenic Vail Valley. By far the biggest operator in the region, it includes retail stores, a construction operation and a massive service department.
Its many local outreach programs and partnerships, however, have kept the owners, Sara and Michael Charles, plugged into the community as the business grew.
Among the organizations they support are the Vail Valley Foundation, the Vail Mountaineer Hockey Club, the Shaw Regional Cancer Center, local schools, Walking Mountains Science Center, Roundup River Ranch (Paul Newman Serious Fun Camp) and Ski Club Vail.
“Michael and I have supported many of these organizations for absolutely decades,” says Sara Charles. “Michael has supported the Vail Valley Hospital for 40 years.”
Between donations to schools, churches and “even the pompom girls,” Charles estimates the business has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. She adamantly rejects, however, the idea that businesses should perform charity and community service to capitalize on shop local or any other trend.
“We believe that you give back to your community,” Charles says. “We do it because it’s in our hearts, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Charles also insists that when it comes to leaving a mark on your town, donating your time can have as big an impact as writing a check.
“We don’t just throw money at these organizations,” she says. “We support them in attendance. We’re out at a lot of events. We’re physically there, and we encourage our staff to do the same. It means something when you see your spa technician at a soccer game, or you see our warehouse manager at a lacrosse game.”
Its status as a community fixture, says Charles, is epitomized by its long-term staff.
“Some of the people who work here have been here for 25 years,” she says. “When you can retain employees like that, it’s huge — and the community knows it. Someone who bought a spa 12 years ago can come in and talk to the exact same salesperson for their next spa. That doesn’t happen in a lot of businesses.”
In the end, according to Charles, the only way to win over the community is to be part of the community. The deeper the roots, the better.
“One of our first dates before we were married or ever had kids was at a gala for the Vail Mountain School,” Charles says of she and her husband, Michael. “Our children went on to go to school there.”