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November 2007
Pools, Patios and Pine Trees…Oh My!
By Sherry Oosterhouse

     As the temperature in Charlotte finally takes a dip, people are finding themselves transitioning from pools and patios to the cozy comforts of indoors—just in time for the holidays. This is exactly as Wally and Susan Kooiman, owners of Oasis Pools Plus Outdoor Living Showplace and Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop, would script it.

     During the hot summer months their 35,000 square-foot building is peppered with above-ground pools as well as high-end patio furniture to satisfy the need for backyard entertainment and relaxation. As fall approaches, the pools are relegated to the warehouse and the Christmas business takes center stage—everything from pre-lit trees to precious ornaments and collectibles.

     This local success story marries two distinctively different businesses into one unique formula where the seasonal nature of the pool business dovetails into the profitable holiday selling season. Or is it the other way around?

 

Making a Splash

     In the late ’70s, the Kooimans were living in Florida, where Wally worked for a local business selling above-ground pools. Dismayed by the lack of display models and high pressure sales tactics common in the industry, the couple decided to start their own business and looked for a suitable market that was being underserved.

     In 1979, they made the decision to come to Charlotte. Wally Kooiman felt that Charlotte’s growing housing market was ripe for a business start-up. Launching Southeast Oasis Pools, Inc.,

it was their ambition to fill the market void with high quality above-ground pools and spas with plenty of display models but no pressure sales tactics, raising the bar in this market.

     “We were the first retailer in this market to display and specialize in above-ground pools,” says Wally Kooiman. “We also sell hydro-therapy spas, pool accessories and patio furniture to complete a backyard oasis.”

     Today, the company boasts one of the largest indoor and outdoor displays of above-ground pools in the Charlotte region. As a matter of fact, outdoor living products—such as patio furniture with all-weather fabric cushions and luxurious spas—are beginning to soak up not just more real estate, but also more real estate on the showroom floor. It’s all about backyard entertainment and the expanding outdoor living emphasis that major home improvement retailers, home builders and the marketplace are capitalizing on.

     With a business grounded in product knowledge and a unique mix of exclusive brands, the concern was to fill the winter months with enough business to maintain year-round employees. The Kooimans felt the consistency of employees who knew and understood the products would be important to give their business the edge over major retail chains and big box stores. The solution was to find a complementary business at the other end of the calendar.

     “Beginning in 1980 we decided we would operate essentially two businesses every year,” says Wally Kooiman. “So annually we completely transform this space from summer oasis to winter wonderland,” he says, waving his hands across the expansive 14,000 square-foot showroom he designed and opened directly behind Carolina Place Mall in 2003.

 

Santa’s Workshop

     Christmas is a mega retail category and the Kooimans own stock in it. In late summer of every year, the chlorine gives way to Christmas, and the team starts from scratch building a winter wonderland that they call Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop.

     Re-setting the stage is quite a production. The pool display gives way to a yuletide feast for the eyes. Wally Kooiman says it takes six weeks to set up for Christmas, which makes its annual debut the first week of October. More than 150 artificial trees, from 12 inches to 12 feet in height, stand in the pools’ stead. In addition, a 2,800-square-foot attic serves as storage for the many props, such as rocking chairs, shelves and fireplaces that create a backdrop for holiday displays.

     “I’m passionate about trees,” explains Wally. On a recent vacation he cut the tip off a Blue Spruce and shipped it to his vendor to replicate. “The branches are molded in polyethylene and hand-painted with a syringe,” he points out with pride.

     Wally designs many of the artificial trees that have helped grow the business over the years. The quality and realism of the trees are what sets them apart—and the fact that you can only buy them at the Peppermint Forest. This, along with a dedicated staff that takes time to explain the investment of a pre-lit tree, brings returns in retail sales.

     Wally’s eyes light up when he talks about this year’s hot new topic sure to spark conversation around the tree. The exclusive WonderLit Christmas Trees feature light sets that have a tiny microchip in the base of each bulb – the most technologically advanced solution to light set frustration. The microchip regulates the voltage running throughout the strand, rather than relying on mechanical features. This technology is the first electronic solution, and it addresses every reason that mini-lights can fail. It is especially important since the majority of artificial trees now sold are pre-lit trees.

     “It’s a unique patent and the trees will be a big seller for us this year,” says Wally Kooiman. He believes in it so much that he has stocked 35 percent of his inventory with the high-tech trees that are moderately more expensive than other pre-lit trees. The business sells trees in all price ranges, in all shapes and sizes.

     “We make sure we have something for everyone,” continues Wally. “We take the time to listen and learn what the customer wants, then match their needs—without a lot of pressure.”

     Susan Kooiman is responsible for all the trimmings, including collectibles, gifts, ornaments and decor—a growing side of their business that makes an appearance year-round, although with a smaller emphasis in the summer months.

     More than 35 decorated trees, mantles and vignettes are what make Peppermint Forest a designated North Carolina Tourist Attraction by the N.C. Department of Tourism. People come from all around to see the styles and buy the unique decorations that are crafted into showpieces. “We have to be worth the trip,” Susan smiles.

     One visit to the warehouse signals their worthiness. Controlled climate storage for candles and accessories along with rows and rows of trimmings and collectibles are on hand to fulfill any wish list. It’s organized in tidy rows for easy access by staff on busy shopping days when the showroom floor is flooded with “Christmas Crazies,” as Wally Kooiman affectionately calls dedicated holiday shoppers.

     Susan Kooiman follows trends closely, attending trade shows and embarking on frequent buying trips beginning in January of each year. She notes that holiday decorations follow home fashion, and home fashion follows the latest clothing trends.

     “Greens, browns, coppers and earthy reds are big this season, and the natural look is in when it comes to tree trimming,” she adds.

 

Knowing, Growing Customers

     With the hot Piedmont weather, pools are big business. However, according to Wally Kooiman, the above-ground pool market is being injured nationwide by new housing developments and home owner associations that specifically restrict above-ground pools. Some view them as an eyesore, while others see above-ground pools as an affordable means of simply staying cool, providing entertainment and building memories.

     “There’s no reason that an above-ground pool can’t be attractive,” he says, pointing to a pool complete with decking and landscape that rivals any in-ground pool. “I know people who could afford both, but choose an above-ground pool.”

     Oasis Pools Plus sells a complete line of pool accessories year round, including winterization kits and everything it takes to keep a pool serviced—even their own brand of Oasis Pools Plus chemicals formulated for the Carolinas climate. A special chlorine chamber serves to keep the chemicals contained, so that customers are not overwhelmed by the smell when they walk into the enclosed space.

     Weather also plays a factor in the success of the summer selling season. “It’s sort of like farming,” says Susan Kooiman. “Some years are better than others.”

     This summer was so hot that people spent more time inside during the day and then came out at night to enjoy the cooler temperatures. That is why the outdoor furniture category is growing by leaps and bounds as homeowners rediscover the love of outdoor entertaining. What was once a small part of the business, selling patio tables, chairs and umbrellas, is now a comfortable chunk of the Oasis Pools Plus business. Brands like Tropitone and Telescope notify customers of the high quality standards.

     Prior to building their large facility, they Kooimans had tried a mix of retail formulas. The showroom was smaller at their two previous Charlotte locations, so satellite stores were leased to cover more ground for Peppermint Forest. A large showing in the Olde Towne Village at the Southern Christmas Show was also an annual staple, but the two finally had an epiphany.

     “We decided to stop treating Christmas as a category and treat it as a business, and this location fulfills our goal,” Susan Kooiman nods to the surroundings.

     Peppermint Forest has outpaced its summer counterpart, accounting for more than half of revenue now. But that’s not to say it isn’t creating an interesting dynamic. This year there is synergy between the businesses, helping to shape the showroom this holiday season. While selling pools is a seasonal business, outdoor entertaining is a year-round cash cow in the Carolinas. As the shopper wanders amongst life-like artificial trees they can easily find a resting place. Outdoor sofas, loveseats and chairs, along with an outdoor fireplace mantle trimmed in holiday fashion are highlighted, not hidden, as an extension of the Peppermint Forest decor.

     “We are finding that our outdoor living customer is the same as our Peppermint Forest customer,” says Susan Kooiman. “They shop at specialty shops for quality products and a helpful, knowledgeable staff.”

     With more than a quarter century of retail experience, the Kooimans understand that it’s an evolving marketplace. That’s why they view the Internet as a necessity in the marketing mix. First experimenting on eBay, the couple realized that they needed to sell from their own Web sites. As a specialty shop, it’s about finding a niche in your category. This two-in-one business has found success locally and is expanding their boundaries on the World Wide Web.

     Most importantly, what the Kooimans have discovered is that people are not just buying a pool, or a Christmas tree; they are hoping to create an environment to relax, entertain and spend time with family and friends. It is this “environment” on which Oasis Pools Plus and Peppermint Forest have managed to successfully focus their continued—and collective—growth, year-round.
Sherry Oosterhouse is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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