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Are Stores Supposed to be Ethical?

More questions for you than answers from us.

by Dennis DiPaolo

If you go into a store and purchase a product that you’ve used successfully for years, and it’s been changed so that it is no longer the same quality, would you care? What if the quality difference was not readily apparent, and it would never occur to you to blame the product when problems arose? Would it surprise you that we carry products that I would never use in my own pool? Do you care? What if the product that I don’t like is something that you do like? If you have an opinion, please call, write, or stop to talk to me the next time you’re in the store. We wrestle with questions like this every day in our effort to balance our reputation with the need to make a living. Here’s two real-life examples:

Last year, there was a major shortage of white quartz filter sand. This sand is manufactured by crushing quartz. The only plant on the east coast was purchased by the Native Americans who own the Casino in Connecticut, and closed (they don’t need the money). Most of the sand distributors switched to brown sand, which is considerably cheaper because it is not manufactured—it’s dug out of the ground.

In your filter, there are two differences: 1. The white sand is sharp and jagged—and the sharp edges catch very small particles in your water. The brown sand is round—it has no such edges. Think of it this way—if you were dusting your furniture, would you collect more dust with a soft cotton cloth or a handful of marbles? 2. The white sand is what is required in the directions to most filters, including Hayward, Pac Fab, Triton and Starbright.

The biggest distributor around just stopped putting white sand in a clear bag, and started putting brown sand in a white bag. The name, the label, the item number, everything else stayed the same. If you bought your sand from a discount store after May 20th last year, that’s probably what you got. One of the discount pool supply chains has been using brown sand for three years now.

I found out about the shortage the day that the plant closed, (I used to work for a sand distributor who’s still a friend) and I bought up every available bag of white sand. We never ran out. We also never put it on sale after the shortage started—for some of the sand, we paid more than we were charging you!

Here’s the question: If we switch to the brown and don’t say anything, you’d probably never know the difference. We can actually make more money per bag, because it costs us a lot less. Over the next few years, our sales of clarifier, liquifloc, filter aide, shock and even DE filters should go up—as we chemically fix cloudy water problems caused by cheap sand.

Our competitors who carry the brown sand get to look cheaper than us, when they’re just carrying a cheaper product. We can carry both, but doesn’t that carry with it an assumption that we think it has some value? Frankly, we’ve carried the brown sand all along, we just never told you about it. We use it to fill umbrella bases, and we spread it on the parking lot in the winter. Would you prefer that we give you the choice?

A new quartz sand plant has opened in Virginia, operated by the people who used to own the Connecticut plant. The cost of the sand has gone up to us about 15%-which we don’t plan to pass along. We will not run out, and you won’t pay any more. The brown sand is about $3.00 a bag cheaper-so that’s $6.00-$12.00 a year cheaper for most pool owners. Is it worth it to you?

Here’s another example:

When closing an above ground pool for the winter, most stores advise using a cover 3 feet bigger than the pool, draining the pool below the return, and leaving the skimmer and return open. This generally results in needing a new cover every 3-4 years, and $50 in balancing chemicals every spring. On average, that’s $800 in store business every ten years. We advise using a cover that’s 6 feet bigger than the pool, plugging the return and the skimmer, and leaving the pool full. This generally results in needing a new cover every ten years, and no balancing chemicals in spring. On average, that’s $120 in store business every ten years. If you follow our advice, you would buy a bigger cover and two plugs the first year (so we look more expensive than the competition the first year), and then we miss all that extra business over the life of the cover.

Is this what you expect from us? Do you expect this level of ethics from other stores? Do you get it? Should you?

Frankly, we do what we do mostly because it’s right. Fortunately, Jeanne and I make a good living—we don’t need to make every last dime. Stores who steal from their customers always develop employees who steal from the store. We have never given that a moment’s thought. What do you think?

A final legal note: just because I have never seen brown sand that was as good as white, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The color is not important—the shape, size and consistency of the grain is. This editorial is intended for our own customers. If you trade somewhere else, and they feel that their sand is just as good as ours, maybe it is.