Suit Their Needs
Setting up an aquarium for the first time can be a daunting venture for many consumers. The tasks of selecting the right tank size, filter, lighting and other aspects are enough to make one’s head spin.
When you add to that the alternatives that consumers have for spending their leisure time and money, it become obvious that retailers face some major challenges to recruit new aquarium hobbyists. Aquarium starter kits, which combine quality and variety as they continue to evolve and improve, offer the perfect solution for consumers while also allowing retailers to ultimately reap the rewards.
Veterans of the aquarium trade will remember a time when a typical “starter kit” involved retailers assembling a 10-gallon aquarium, incandescent light/hood, a corner box filter with filter floss and some carbon, an air pump, a bag of gravel and samples of flake food and water conditioner. A clip-on heater and thermometer were “add-ons” while instructions were minimal or nonexistent. The success rate among new aquarists was abysmal, and many of these kits often ended up in the local rummage sale.
Over the years, manufacturers began putting together equipment inserts wrapped in cellophane, based on the intended aquarium size. These inserts made creating starter kits simpler, but the cellophane frequently tore, spilling the contents into the tank. In addition, experienced hobbyists frequently wanted to switch out the filter or heater for their favorite brand, which resulted in retailers going back to creating their own setups.
Looking back, it’s a wonder retailers were able to get as many people involved in fishkeeping as we did. In many cases, it was the passion for aquariums—handed down from one generation to the next—that sustained interest in the hobby. Manufacturers eventually recognized the shortcomings of their early efforts and developed starter kits and marketing strategies designed to attract new aquarists.
High-quality, user-friendly filters, LED lighting, reliable submersible heaters and copious instructions for setup, choosing fish and ongoing maintenance tips are all standard features in today’s kits. In addition, starter kits featuring bowfront, hexagon, cube, column and “widescreen” aquariums have become commonplace, adding some exciting options to the traditional selection of rectangular tanks.
Catch Their Attention
You want to get shoppers and your staff excited about setting up an aquarium. If you haven’t already done so, create an aquarium starter kit display at the entrance to your store or fish department. Check with local distributors for Christmas specials and stock up.
Assemble one or two kits out of the box, plug in the lights and decorate the kits with seasonal themes or your local sports team. Place ribbons and bows on the boxes, and have pricing clearly visible. Offer discounts on décor and maintenance packages or even include some free starter fish!
Big or Small?
Beginner aquarists don’t always have a preconceived notion of the type of fish they want for their aquarium, so it’s a good question to ask. Have them browse your livestock aisles and identify fish that appeal to them, then gear their setup accordingly. For example, angelfish do best in taller aquariums, schooling fish need more length for swimming space, and cichlids need a lot of territory on the bottom. If all the customer wants is a betta, a nano tank will suffice.
Newcomers to fishkeeping often gravitate toward smaller tanks, thinking they will be less intimidating, less work, less expensive and take up less space. While the last two are certainly true, larger aquariums are much more forgiving of beginner mistakes and more conducive to long-term success. Beginners should be encouraged to start with a tank as large as their available space and budget will allow. Avoid gimmicky movie- or TV show-themed kits that are impractical or have low-quality equipment.
Considering how budget is often a big factor in a purchase, it’s acceptable to ask shoppers how much money they’re thinking of spending. There is no benefit to showing someone a starter kit that is out of their price range. In fact, it may deter them from making an aquarium purchase. Always extol the virtues of larger aquariums; avoid focusing on the “limitations” of desktop and smaller tanks. Most consumers will spend a little extra if they feel the benefits justify doing so.
Once the appropriate kit has been selected, it will need to be accessorized with substrate, décor and maintenance equipment. Decorations not only provide valuable cover for certain fish, but they also allow customers an opportunity to personalize their new aquarium’s habitat. Be sure to offer a complete selection of accessories near the starter kit display, and inform staff members to assist shoppers in selecting these items.
Marine fishkeeping is increasing in popularity, so don’t hesitate to suggest a saltwater setup to customers. Novice aquarists make perfect saltwater hobbyist candidates as they have no preconceived notions or bad habits that need to be broken. While high-quality traditional boxed kits can be adapted to fish-only saltwater applications, another option is the integrated nano tank kit, with high output lighting and filtration designed specifically for reef aquariums.
The future of the aquarium trade is dependent on recruiting new hobbyists and ensuring their long-term success. High-quality, all-inclusive, easy-to-understand starter kits can help retailers accomplish this. Coupled with a well-trained staff and a diverse selection of accessories and healthy livestock, your future is secure!
Focus on Foods
They say “you are what you eat,” and this is certainly true when it comes to aquarium inhabitants. A varied diet of high quality foods promotes color, growth, resistance to disease and, of course, spawning in tropical and pond fish, as well as corals and other invertebrate.
While it is true that today’s flake and pellet foods can certainly sustain most fish without supplementation, there is a huge difference between being sustained and “thriving.” In addition, many rare and unusual freshwater fish, as well as marine specimens – most of which are still captured in the wild – can be pretty finicky when they first arrive in captivity. Offering live foods or frozen alternatives that mimic their natural fare will usually encourage them to start eating. Hikari USA, Ocean Nutrition, San Francisco Bay Brand and V2O Foods all offer a wide variety of frozen foods, along with comprehensive information on their uses.
Today’s frozen fish foods are clean, free of pathogens, loaded with vitamins and other nutrients and come in convenient, easy to use packaging. To make things easier for hobbyists with multiple needs, several frozen food manufacturers offer products with four different types of food in one package. As an aquatic specialty shop, you have a unique opportunity to earn profits and establish your store as a go-to source of knowledge and information by recommending healthy, appropriate foods for every creature you sell. Train your staff to ask customers what they feed fish they already own, and make suggestions for new and interesting foods. Make sure they recommend the best foods and treats for every new aquatic organism they purchase. A great selling point is to show shoppers what foods you feed in your store, or what your employees use in their own aquariums at home.
Knowing what a fish or invert eats in nature is paramount to recommending the right frozen or live foods to hobbyists. Feeding herbivorous fish a constant diet of brine shrimp, bloodworms or krill is not beneficial because their digestive systems can’t process these foods. Mbuna cichlids from Lake Malawi, which graze on algae mats, can actually be harmed by too much fatty food like bloodworms. Similarly, carnivorous fish don’t derive much nutritional value from a steady diet of plant-based foods. That said, all fish benefit from variety in their diets. Herbivores need a little meat in their diet, and carnivores need a little roughage. In addition, many hobbyists either own multiple aquariums or keep a mixture of different kinds of fish in the same aquarium, and a lot of folks buy fish without researching their purchases, so alternating foods benefits the entire tank!
In addition to offering the right nutritional makeup, particle size and presentation are important factors in attracting fish and matching the right product to the fish it is intended for. The size of a fish’s mouth is an indication of what size foods to feed them. Small schooling fish can be fed daphnia, baby brine shrimp, Cyclops or regular brine shrimp. Plankton, mysis shrimp and spirulina enriched brine shrimp make excellent foods for medium sized fish. Large predatory fish should be fed squid, superba krill, gammarus or silversides, depending on their size, habitat and natural diet. Whole clams and mussels on the half shell make fantastic offerings for marine angelfish, butterflies and triggers. The shells help triggers file their teeth. Tangs, rabbitfish and large species marine angelfish will grow and maintain vivid colors when fed foods made from natural seaweed and other plant matter. Uarus, Severums, silver dollars, tinfoil barbs and other freshwater herbivores can be fed frozen veggie foods as well. Discus, other medium sized cichlids and predators, stingrays and most freshwater catfish grow and prosper on frozen bloodworms, beefheart, mysis and ocean plankton. These are but a few scenarios; encourage your customers to try all sorts of frozen fish foods and offer to exchange uneaten food in good condition if their fish don’t like it.
Frozen foods aren’t just for fish. With the popularity of reef aquariums, manufacturers have responded with frozen products intended specifically for corals. Rotifers, Cyclops, zooplankton and phytoplankton are all available in frozen forms as well and should be recommended with every coral purchase.
When deciding what brands and types of frozen foods to stock, consider variety, availability and freshness. Avoid vendors who require minimum purchases, as you may be out a particular product for long periods before you need enough product to generate an order. It does no good to get customers hooked on a certain type of food and then not be able to keep it in stock. To maximize sales, invest in an upright freezer with glass doors so your customers can see your product line, and sales associates can show and discuss your selection.
The quality of frozen foods has come light years in the last couple decades, and they are the safest, most nutritious option for hobbyists looking to give their fish and invertebrates the very best diet possible. However, there is simply no substitute for live food, especially for super finicky fish or if you’re trying to condition fish for breeding. When you mention live foods, however, many hobbyists think only of brine shrimp, feeder fish and blackworms. And unfortunately, to many aquarists, live foods also represent the likelihood of introducing diseases into their aquarium. But this doesn’t have to be the case. By buying live brine, blackworms, feeder fish and ghost shrimp from reputable vendors and caring for them properly, you can offer your customers safe, healthy options.
Freshness is especially important with live foods. Fast turnover and regular delivery is critical. Remember that summer months can make things tough, but proper preparation and advising customers that outages or subpar quality is a temporary situation will help avoid problems and preserve your customers’ confidence. Maintain pristine water quality and run a UV sterilizer on your feeder goldfish and guppy systems. Keep live blackworms in a cold water flow-thru setup or refrigerate and rinse them daily. Instruct your customers to do the same. Aerate live brine shrimp vigorously and do frequent water changes. Encourage buyers to strain them through a brine shrimp net and rinse lightly in freshwater to remove parasites, especially if they intend to feed them to marine fish.
There are a number of other live foods to consider besides the traditional ones purchased from commercial vendors. During my nearly four decades in the retail aquarium trade, my staff and I hatched baby brine shrimp daily for in-store use and sold portions to our customers. We also cultivated daphnia, microworms, grindal worms, vinegar eels and white worms. We sold starter cultures and provided instructions on their uses and how to cultivate them. In addition, we offered ghost shrimp, four sizes of crickets, waxworms, mealworms, silkworms (great for enhancing color and luster in koi!), redworms and nightcrawlers. We educated our customers about their use and developed a strong and steady clientele because few other stores offered what we did.
Aquarists love their fish, and like all pet owners, they love to spoil them. Let’s face it, it’s fun to feed the fish. Buying frozen or live foods online is expensive unless you’re buying large quantities at a time. You and your staff can be real heroes to your customers and their fish by teaching them how to provide the very best diet possible. And your cash register will thank you, too!
The aquarium hobby is increasingly influenced by modern technology, and the range of equipment available today can be mind boggling, both in sophistication and price. If you’re hesitant at the thought of stocking a lot of high-tech aquarium equipment on the grounds that it tends to have lower profit margins and turnover rates, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise.
Stocking key pieces of aquarium technology that help make your customers more successful and their lives easier can turn you into a real hero in their eyes, and having a knowledgeable sales staff to help customers make good buying decisions will make your store a destination for their every need. In addition, investing in state-of-the-art equipment and fixtures for your store will lower maintenance costs and improve conditions for your own aquatic livestock.
Many aquarists today are technologically savvy, and these hobbyists are very interested in—and not the least bit intimidated by—high-tech equipment. Some hobbyists just love gadgets, and for them, the more the better. More gizmos on your tank doesn’t necessarily make you a more successful hobbyist, though. As with anything, choosing the right tool for the job is crucial. High-tech equipment does, however, help maintain more consistent and precise conditions in sensitive systems like reef tanks and Amano-style planted aquariums, and reduces the work involved at the same time.
Upscale product lines that aquarium specialty stores should carry include integrated reef-style filtration systems, low-voltage circulation and drive pumps, protein skimmers, reactors, CO2 systems, controllers and monitoring systems, digital testing equipment and RO/DI systems.
Arguably the most significant area of advancement in aquarium technology today is high-output lighting, specifically programmable LED systems.
“Entry-level LEDs like AI Prime or Hydra start at $100 for a display unit,” said Glenn Laborda, coral and invertebrate manager at Absolutely Fish in Clifton, NJ. “Download the app to a phone or tablet and learn how to control it, and show the customers.”
Backing up knowledge with jaw-dropping live displays lets customers see for themselves that you and your staff know what you’re doing. And nothing inspires hobbyists to beef up their own setups like an out-of-this-world display. Using equipment on store displays is essential to demonstrating how products work and allows shoppers to see, touch and experience items they are considering purchasing.
“Have high-end items on display in the store to inspire customers to have beautiful displays,” said Patrick Egan, service department manager at Absolutely Fish. “This works best on tanks we do not sell from so [long-term] results can be viewed.”
To help defray the cost of installing high-end equipment on in-store displays, Laborda suggests enlisting support from manufacturers.
“Retailers should be approaching tech companies and getting free store display models or ones at a greatly reduced cost,” he said. “This lets them gain and showcase high-tech items.”
Laborda takes it one step further by encouraging stores to draw on support from manufacturers as well.
“Have reps from companies do in-store demos, offering incentives for anyone who shows up for the demo,” he said.
Consumers often think price first, and many independents are reluctant to carry high-end products because of competition from online vendors. But brick-and-mortar specialty shops offer value that online vendors simply can’t.
An important step in selling upscale equipment is establishing what your customers expect to get out of their purchases and then helping them choose the products that will best suit their needs and their budgets. Staff members need to be knowledgeable in the products their store offers, and they need to be trained to ask key questions and listen carefully to the customers’ responses to determine what products best suit their needs.
“We’re able to provide support, being able to show the advantages of one product over another,” said Todd Furmanek, Absolutely Fish’s manager of marine fish.
“We have much more experience on products and provide support that online vendors cannot,” he said.
For retailers, display systems with integrated filtration and lighting, like those designed and built by Pro Clear Aquatic Systems, keep animals healthier and make store operations more efficient and less labor intensive. They add a clean, professional look to your aquatic livestock area. Pro Clear also offers a complete line of wet dry filters, reef sumps, protein skimmers and prefilter overflow boxes. With the increase in popularity of Betta fish, installing self-service fixtures like Elive’s Betta displays or Pro Clear’s Grab ‘n Go systems can really brighten up your Betta presentation and add convenience to the shopping experience. Matt Allen, marketing director of Elive Pet, says his company’s Betta display systems have been wildly popular and have increased Betta and related supplies sales even in stores where aquatics are not a specialty.
In today’s highly competitive marketplace, independent retailers need to position themselves as destination stops for serious hobbyists as well as those looking to upgrade basic setups. Big-box stores and mass merchandisers get beginners started in the aquarium hobby, but it’s brick-and-mortar specialty shops that keep them involved and help them grow and progress. By offering enthusiasm, expertise and upscale products, you’re sure to develop a strong customer base.
Although summer is still going strong, if you live in an area that experiences the changing of seasons, it’s time to get your customers thinking about preparing their ponds for winter. What climate zone you’re in, how large and deep a pond is, and what type of fish and plants are in it will determine what pond owners have to do to make it through to spring successfully.
This is a key time for establishing your store as a source of reliable information and quality pond products. Set up a pond winterizing display in the store with all the items they’ll need, and create a checklist for customers of the things they need to do and the items they need to buy.
Prepping the Pond
The first consideration should be the fish. In climate zones 5 through 7, ponds should have an area at least three feet deep to safely overwinter fish in the pond. Remember that many koi and pond goldfish these days are raised in warmer climates such as Southeast Asia and the southern United States, so these fish may not do well over winter in severe climates. These fish and those kept in shallower ponds should be brought in for winter, especially in more northern areas. Put together a few mid-size to larger aquarium setups designed specifically for pond fish with oversized filters and place them near your winterizing pond display.
If fish are going to be left in the pond over winter, the bottom should be vacuumed in fall using a Python Ulti-Vac or similar product. Leaves and organic debris deplete oxygen as they decompose, and this can be especially problematic where the surface freezes over, sealing the pond off and preventing gas exchange. Python Products also makes high quality pond nets for skimming leaves and removing larger bottom debris, as well as well-designed display racks. Make sure you stock and recommend pond-specific water conditioners such as Tetra Pond AquaSafe, Laguna Water Prep or API PondCare Stress Coat to remove harmful chlorine and chloramines when hobbyists fill their ponds up after vacuuming.
Keeping an opening in the ice is critical to a fish’s survival when ponds freeze over. De-icers like the Laguna Power Heat and Pondmaster’s Pond De-icer should be installed well before freeze-over, but keep them in stock well into winter months, as hobbyists often wait until the first hard freeze to install them. The Laguna Pond Closing kit is also a great turnkey value as it includes their PowerHeat De-Icer, Aeration Kit, protective netting and Spring/Fall Goldfish & Koi pellets. Where long term freeze overs are less likely to occur, aerators such as the Tetra Pond APK 100 or Laguna’s Aeration Kit will maintain oxygen levels in winter as well as during hot summer months, and are a great investment for any pond owner. They can also be used in conjunction with de-icers to help maintain a larger opening in the ice.
The question of whether or not to leave ponds filled or empty during winter often comes up and there are different opinions, depending on who you ask. Most experts recommend keeping a pond filled with water to prevent damage from ice and falling branches, and to prevent ground heave from below. Pond netting should also be installed across the surface to keep leaves out, especially if fish are to be left in water over winter.
In severe climates, waterfalls, streams and fountains should be turned off and pumps, UV sterilizers, canister and internal filters and all filter media should be brought indoors for storage. Submersible pumps should be stored in water to prevent seals from drying out. This is a great time to offer a pump, filter and UV sterilizer overhaul service so these items are ready to go in spring. Make sure you have impellers, seals and other service parts in stock for the products you sell.
Prepping the Fish
Feeding wheat germ food as cooler weather approaches helps prepare fish for the rigors of winter life. TetraPond Spring and Fall Diet and Hikari Wheat Germ Food are excellent choices that come in differently sized packages to accommodate a variety of needs. Keep plenty on hand and advise shoppers to slowly transition their fish over to it and to cut back on feeding as the water cools and their fish begin eating less. When water temperatures drop below 50° F, or when fish show little interest in food, pond owners should stop feeding altogether.
What About the Plants?
Lilies and other potted winter-hardy plants should be trimmed of all foliage and either moved to the deepest part of the pond or brought indoors. This is a good time to divide and repot overcrowded plants, so keep planter baskets in stock and include this on your “Things to Do” hand-out list. Tropical plants should be brought indoors and housed under high quality lighting such as CoraLife’s Aqualight high output T5 dual lamp fixtures or Marineland’s Reef LED lights.
Many pond owners procrastinate and leave things to the last minute, so getting them thinking about what to do in advance will save them a lot of stress and anxiety. Get the word out early on your store website and social media venues as well. And make sure your staff is trained to provide the advice and products necessary to see your pond customers through the winter. Your customers will thank you and you’ll be sure to see them in spring when they open their ponds for the new season!
Life on the Reef
Today’s reef hobbyists have literally hundreds of livestock choices for their aquariums, with new varieties entering the trade almost weekly. Stocking a wide selection of healthy, interesting reef-appropriate creatures and helping shoppers make good buying decisions can go a long way toward ensuring their success in the hobby and enhancing your store’s reputation in the community.
New hobbyists are excited, and their desire to stock their new tank with eye-catching corals, invertebrates and fish is strong. Part of a retailer’s job is to make sure they buy the right creatures for their tank size, experience level and equipment at the right time and in the right quantity. Setting up new reef hobbyists for success creates long-term customers.
Staff members need to be knowledgeable, not only in the requirements of the animals they sell, but also their compatibility in reef-style aquariums. Employees should be trained to ask about water chemistry, water quality, lighting, filtration, tank size and existing tank inhabitants. In addition, every livestock sale should be accompanied with appropriate foods and supplements to ensure their long-term health and well-being in their new home.
Fish Dos and Don’ts
It would be impossible to cover every creature that is appropriate for a reef aquarium within the scope of this article. However, we can discuss some basic dos and don’ts. When it comes to fish, there are two basic don’ts: avoid fish that feed on corals and other invertebrate life, and those that get too large. Large species of angelfish, most butterflyfish, large species of wrasses, triggerfish and groupers fall into this category. Large fish also generate significant amounts of waste, making control of harmful nitrate and phosphate a real challenge.
Pygmy angelfish, clownfish, small species wrasses, gobies and blennies make great reef choices. Small gobies and blennies are especially suitable for the popular nano tanks. Tangs and rabbitfish are herbivores, making them ideal choices for algae control in medium- to large-sized aquariums. Pygmy angelfish in the genus Centropyge and tangs in the genus Zebrasoma tend to be territorial towards members of their own genus. The owners of these fish will need large tanks if they want to keep multiples.
Multiple of fish in the same genus are best added to a tank at the same time.
Every aquarium needs a clean-up crew. Hermit crabs and snails are the most common creatures sold for this job, but brittle and serpent stars also fill a valuable role, removing food particles that fall to the bottom. Red, blue and green leg reef hermits get in all the nooks and crannies of the tank, removing bits of food and even algae. But avoid red hairy hermits in reef tanks, as they can be quite destructive to corals.
Turbos and Astrea snails help keep rockwork algae-free, and Nassarius snails forage in the sand bed, keeping it free of debris and preventing it from compacting. Some snail species are highly specialized feeders, so make sure you do your homework before stocking them.
White sand-sifting stars also help clean the sand bed but should only be added to mature tanks with ample organic material in the substrate. Chocolate chip stars and a few others are known to eat corals and even anemones, so these should not be sold to reef hobbyists. Another great group of sand sifters are the sea cucumbers, which ingest sand, remove organic material, and keep it clean and white. Urchins are yet another group of effective tank cleaners, particularly for controlling algae.
Shrimp are a favorite with many reef hobbyists, with their brilliant colors and amusing antics. Cleaner shrimp in the genus Lysmata pick parasites off fish, helping prevent parasite outbreaks. The ubiquitous skunk cleaner shrimp will readily hop onboard a hobbyist’s hand, making them especially popular. Peppermint shrimp are secretive but eat Aiptasia anemones, keeping the tank free of these annoying pests.
The Main Attraction
Live corals are, by definition, the main reason for having a reef-style aquarium. Entire books have been written that do not adequately cover this group of amazing creatures, but here are some key points.
For beginners, soft corals such as star and yellow polyps, mushrooms, leathers, xenia and colt/finger corals make excellent choices. They tolerate a wide range of water quality parameters and lower light levels, and they spread readily. These should be the first true corals recommended to new hobbyists. Zooanthids and Palyzoas are another group of soft polyps that are well suited to virtually every reef aquarium. Color combinations are endless and they spread readily, making them great choices for novice and advanced aquarists alike.
Large polyp stony (LPS) corals, including hammer, frogspawn, torch and bubble, are extremely popular, with their bright colors and fleshy, waving tentacles. Most of these corals require more intense light and stronger water flow than the soft corals. Many LPS corals have long sweeper tentacles that deliver a powerful sting, so they should be given adequate space to stretch out without harming adjacent corals. Also, hobbyists with sensitive skin should be advised not to come into contact with them. A good calcium supplement to support skeletal growth and zooplankton food should be sold with LPS corals.
Open and closed brain corals, including Scolymia, Lobophyllia, Favia and Favites, are often found in deeper water, making them suitable for taller tanks or those with slightly lower intensity light. Recent availability of intensely colored specimens has made these corals increasingly popular and they are ideal for intermediate-level hobbyists with medium to large aquariums.
Finally, small polyp stony (SPS) corals represent the holy grail of any reef aquarium. Captive-raised varieties in every color and texture imaginable continue to show up in the trade. They require intense light, pristine water quality, good water flow and plenty of calcium, carbonates and other trace elements. The extra effort to provide for them is well worth it to many aquarists. Many advanced hobbyists create entire displays of nothing but SPS corals.
An effective way of directing shoppers to corals best suited to their equipment and skill level is to group them by tank, with appropriate lighting, filtration and current clearly exhibited. Train sales staff to ask questions and qualify buyers before selling any reef livestock. Have specialty equipment, filter media, foods and supplements on display and make sure employees are well versed in their use and how to sell them.
Reef keeping is without question the fastest growing and most popular segment of the marine aquarium hobby today. Buying reef livestock online is never a good idea; give consumers a reason to shop your store by providing them with healthy animals, knowledgeable guidance and quality support products to ensure their success in the hobby.
Not So Complicated
Not too long ago, saltwater aquarium keeping was a hobby for only experienced fish keepers. Today, thanks to improved knowledge and technology, the marine hobby is available to virtually anyone. It has become a vital segment of the aquatics industry and independent retailers across the country are cashing in on its increased accessibility and popularity.
Despite this, the reputation of saltwater tanks being just for experts persists. The first step to changing that perception is getting new hobbyists involved.
“Retailers need to dispel the idea that saltwater is hard or complicated,” said Mark Vera, senior director at Aqua-Tech Co. “There is a lot of power in being able to make a consumer into a passionate and knowledgeable hobbyist.”
Vera encourages shop owners to have a printout available to novices that includes “basic equipment, the nitrogen cycle, common tests for the first six months and appropriate starter fish.”
To foster trust, loyalty and a long term bond with customers, Vera suggests “doing free water tests for the first 90 days, making appointments to walk the customer through their new adventure, having an in-store or online board and encouraging customers to share their photos and experiences, as well as holding contests and having gift card prizes.”
While bigger is better when it comes to saltwater aquariums, there has been a noticeable trend towards smaller, more compact aquariums. They are more affordable, less intimidating and easier to fit into the average home or office. The down side is that small aquariums not only limit the number of animals that can be safely kept, but they are also more volatile and subject to wide fluctuations in water quality and chemistry.
The good news is that nano tanks specifically designed for saltwater use—with proper filtration and lighting—make excellent, cost-effective options for first-time marine hobbyists with proper guidance. Coralife’s Bio-Cube and JBJ’s Nano Cube series are just two examples of well researched, time tested products that can provide years of success and enjoyment.
Saltwater geeks are constantly looking for ways to improve their systems and lessen their work load, which is another way of saying they love to buy new toys and gadgets.
“What was previously considered higher end equipment has moved to being more mainstream, with more options,” Vera said. “MAP (minimum advertised pricing) and specialty products should be the independent pet retailer’s core product line. Stores should not engage with products that have significant online to retail price variances.”
Vera recommends that stores research and support these brands with their dollars.
“If a store cannot make a fair margin on a product, then they should not be carrying it,” he said.
Make sure you have working examples of high end products like protein skimmers, reactors, programmable lighting and circulation pumps, and monitoring systems on display, along with knowledgeable, friendly sales associates ready and able to assist customers in making good buying decisions.
Liven Things Up
Saltwater hobbyists love to go shopping for new livestock.
“There is no substitute for the LFS (local fish store),” said Carl Coloian, vice president of sales and marketing at Sea Dwelling Creatures. “Online and big box stores work for certain things, but in the end, most smart hobbyists like to see what they are buying in a tank and being fed before they purchase an animal. Knowing that a fish or coral has been quarantined at a store and that they can watch it and examine it before they buy it is invaluable.”
Consumers are becoming much more discerning, always looking for that eye-catching coral or rare fish.
According to Coloian, there is increased demand for “more interesting color morphs of zooanthids, palythoas, scolymias, mushrooms and anemones.”
“Fish that used to be limited in availablility are now fairly abundant,” he said. “We have always been able to sell them but these days they just fly out the door!”
Keep your tanks well stocked with bread and butter items like clownfish, yellow tangs, and coral beauties, but don’t be afraid to include upscale fish like majestic angels, fairy and flasher wrasses and anthias, as well as eye-popping higher end corals.
The effect of the proliferation of amateur home coral propagators cannot be overstated. Add to this the continuing development of “custom” color morphs, and the variety of new tank-raised coral varieties is truly endless. It doesn’t take long for successful hobbyists to be overwhelmed with frags that they’re looking to sell at frag swaps, online and anywhere else they can unload them. Offering store credit for these locally raised corals ensures a steady stream of healthy inventory and keeps local hobbyists coming back to your store.
An increasing concern in all aspects of the ornamental fish industry, especially saltwater, is regulation of collecting and harvesting wild specimens.
“We really have no way of knowing what the future will bring with regards to regulations,” Coloian said. “The cool thing today is that we have more and more farm-raised animals, coral fragging and better husbandry in general than we did ten or 20 years ago. 30 years ago, 100 percent of the clownfish in the trade were caught from the ocean. Today, probably only five percent are ocean-captured. This is amazing!”
The saltwater aquarium fish industry does a truly admirable job of funding and supporting responsible collecting practices as well as captive rearing programs, as evidenced by the continued efforts of organizations like the Coral Restoration Foundation, the Marine Aquarium Council, Hawaii’s Oceanic Institute (which had the first successful breeding of yellow tangs) and many others. By encouraging recruitment and fostering successful and responsible practices among saltwater hobbyists, independent marine aquarium retailers can be assured of continued success and a robust livelihood.
At Your Service
“People live busier lives today,” said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, New Jersey. “The popularity of reef and planted ensembles, in particular, has risen, yet social changes allow for less and less time to maintain them.”
Challenge and Opportunity
Adding an aquarium maintenance service to your store is an effective way of encouraging more people to own aquariums and can significantly increase setup sales and drive fish and related supply sales.
“Folks and businesses who want maintenance also want one-stop services,” Donston said. “Shops that do not provide set-up and routine cleaning services lose the livestock sales as well as the monthly/weekly dry goods needs a client has to purchase to maintain their aquarium.”
Offering installation and ongoing service with setup purchases also presents an opportunity to develop a relationship with the buyer. Steve Banach, president of The Fish Factory in West Allis, Wisconsin, includes installation in the cost of larger setups.
Once in the customer’s home or business to install a tank, the employees are more often than not asked if they also maintain the aquarium. Banach said that he and his staff thrive on getting to know their customers, and the opportunity to create the “wow factor” and show their capabilities to their clients.
In a service-oriented society, independent aquatic retailers have a real opportunity to distinguish themselves from big box stores and online vendors. But, there are some important considerations.
“It is often said that a maintenance service department is easy money,” Donston said. “It can be more stressful and frustrating than in-store sales because you have less control. I highly recommend treating it like a new business and planning it out.”
“To add a maintenance service to an already labor intensive livestock husbandry business can be a huge challenge,” he said. “You need to be on call, have a designer’s eye, superior customer service skills and a little MacGyver in you to fix anything.”
The Right Staff
The first consideration in offering a maintenance service is expertise. In addition to standard freshwater displays, you should be able to service dedicated live planted exhibits, marine fish and reef aquariums, and even outdoor ponds and water features. As with any aspect of staff training, develop a program specific to the needs of maintenance clientele and update it often.
“Hire good people with the right character, then train them well before setting them on their own,” Donston said. “Watch them work in your shop first.”
Technicians need to be mature, reliable and self-motivated. They need to keep appointments, call clients back, present themselves professionally and have good communication skills in order to keep clients informed and respond to their concerns about their aquariums. They should also be extremely knowledgeable in the health and husbandry of aquatic livestock, as well as maintaining and repairing a variety of aquarium equipment. Possessing strong attention to detail and an artistic eye are important qualities as well.
Making It Work for You and Your Clients
Liability is also a concern.
“Make sure you are insured enough and appropriately,” Donston said. “Check with your carrier for vehicle and off premise liabilities.”
Aquarium and related equipment manufacturers typically are not responsible for damage to property if water escapes, so make sure you are covered against this possibility. Use only top quality equipment and have redundancy in pumps, filters and heaters to alleviate a potential livestock catastrophe if a critical piece of equipment fails.
Determining what and how to charge clients will vary depending on your clientele and demographics. Residential clients typically purchase the setup and equipment outright, and often choose their fish and/or other livestock when shopping in your store. Business accounts, on the other hand, can be set up as leases, with livestock replacement and consumables such as food, filter media and other items included in the maintenance agreement.
Maintenance clients should know what to expect from you and what’s expected of them.
“Put your policies in writing for all clients to see before you service them,” Donston said. “Develop a minimum standards chart your clients will have to abide by in order for you and your team to be successful in maintaining their habitat.”
Depending on conditions in your area, water quality can be a major concern, especially for planted aquariums and sensitive coral reef displays. While transporting purified water is possible, it can present logistical problems, especially during winter in cold weather areas. A reverse osmosis/deionization system on site makes water quality more dependable and access more convenient. It also eliminates the need to manually top off reef system sumps when connected to an auto top-off mechanism.
Finally, be efficient and be prepared. To avoid costly delays and unnecessary trips back to the store, service vehicles should be fully stocked with filter media, pump and filter replacement parts, light bulbs and backup equipment in case a critical life support component fails and cannot be repaired in the field. Keep a log for each client’s tank and use available software to record and track water quality parameters, maintenance activities and plan equipment service intervals and needs for the next service call. Many service companies rotate out artificial décor that becomes algae covered to keep exhibits sparkling as well.
“Many people who want to own an aquarium want a maintenance service as part of the purchase,” said Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets in Lansing, Michigan. “They want it put together for them. A maintenance service not only creates a supplementary income stream for the store, but generates interest in starting in the hobby in the first place.”
With proper planning and good management, an aquarium maintenance department can be a profitable addition that reaps rewards and separates your store from the rest of the pack.
Good and Easy
It’s safe to say that, without filters and pumps, the aquarium hobby would not exist. No pieces of equipment are more essential to keeping aquatic creatures alive and the array of styles, sizes and prices in today’s market is truly staggering. Aquatic shops need to stock a well-rounded selection of quality products that serve the needs of their customers and that they can sell profitably. These products have to be backed up by a staff that is not only knowledgeable in the filters themselves, but also in how to recommend the best solutions for each customer’s success.
“As an independent retailer in today’s marketplace, you need to be aware of products’ mass and online pricing,” said Les Wilson of Cobalt Aquatics. “Many filters can be purchased and shipped direct to an online consumer cheaper than a store can buy with their everyday discount from a distributor. Do your research on both the product lines and your customer base’s buying habits and tech savvy about price comparing. After that hurdle, don’t forget the product line should be quality, easy to use and offer differentiation from the competition! Look for companies with robust warranties and a reputation for working with retailers when an issue might arise.”
Convenience, Convenience, Convenience
No single filter type works best for everyone. Getting to know your customers’ needs and budgets will help you guide them to good buying decisions. The most commonly used style of aquarium filter in the U.S., particularly with small tank owners and those new to the hobby, is the power filter that hangs on the back of the tank.
“For consumers that want to perform quick and easy maintenance, Aqueon QuietFlow filters and replacement carbon cartridges are the ideal solution,” said Lenitra Friend, brand manager at Central Garden & Pet.
According to Friend, the important selling points of aquarium filters should be ease of use, effective filtering ability and a good size assortment for consumers to choose from.
Canister filters are the choice of more serious hobbyists, particularly those who have large tanks, large fish, cichlids, live planted aquariums and marine fish tanks.
“Hydor Professional Canister Filters offer unique attachments and ease of use for consumers,” said Brian Shavlik, east zone sales manager at Hydor USA. “Hydor filters range in size for aquariums 20 to 150 gallons, are easy to prime and operate silently.”
Convenience is key in today’s world. While canister filters do not have to be serviced as often as hang-on designs, doing so is a bit more tedious and involved. The Cobalt EXT canister filter’s unique in-line pump design allows the user to disconnect the media chamber quickly and easily, while maintaining flow within the aquarium. The filter self-primes when returned to the tank.
For the Reefers
With the continued popularity of reef aquarium keeping, circulation and drive pumps are a must in every aquatic specialty shop’s inventory. Quality construction and versatility are paramount to the hobbyist.
“Hydor Circulation Pumps are all made in Italy and carry a two year warranty,” Shavlik said. “Hydor offers a diversity of sizes in circulation pumps in both flow rate and physical size. The Nano Koralia is small and perfect for all of the Nano Cube style aquariums. The New Koralia Third Generation has a new patented Dual Magnetic Support System. It allows the user to position the Koralia freely inside the aquarium. The pump can pivot in virtually any direction to guarantee flow where it is needed. It is enhanced with vibration absorbing silicone for silent operation.”
Many advanced hobbyists shop regularly online, and store operators need to have the support of manufacturers when it comes to pricing.
“The New Third Generation Pumps are protected by MAP [minimum advertised price],” Shavlik said.
Many reef hobbyists use wavemakers or random timers to simulate ocean currents in their aquariums. These devices can cause some circulation pumps to wear out or become damaged through constant on-off cycles.
SICCE Syncra and Voyager pumps are engineered with no mechanical stop or clutch, making them timer safe without damaging the pump. In addition, aquarium hobbyists are becoming more concerned with energy efficiency, and SICCE filters and pumps are specifically designed to consume less electricity while offering the highest quality, versatility and longevity on the market. Most importantly, Ralph Cabbage, CEO of SICCE USA, is committed to positioning independent retailers to be successful and compete effectively against mass and online vendors.
Pumping up Sales
Brick and mortar specialty shops offer hobbyists the opportunity to see products first hand and ask questions in real time. Having a working display of the different filters and pumps you sell gives shoppers an opportunity to see them in use and gives your sales staff the ability to demonstrate them live. A well-trained staff can not only generate sales, but can also ensure a steady return clientele for cartridges, media and advice. Successful hobbyists tend to stick with it, and most are more than willing to indulge in their favorite activity. Choosing a quality line of filters and pumps, with strong manufacturer support will ensure success for you and your customers.
Picture Perfect Ponds
Pond season is upon us once again and if you haven’t taken stock of your pond supplies inventory, now is the time to do so. Dedicating even a modest amount of shelf or floor space to this important market segment can increase sales significantly and give shoppers a reason to frequent your store. In addition, it can carry your aquatics department through traditionally slower summer months.
If you already stock pond supplies, now is the time to look over your inventory to pull out whatever has been stored over winter, place pre-orders and set up POP and end cap displays.
If you don’t offer pond supplies in your store, it might be time to consider adding them to your shelves. Most distributors run advance specials on pond products in spring and manufacturers’ sales reps can help you choose top sellers and assist in creating effective merchandising displays.
Most pond owners do spring cleaning at the start of the season. Python Products’ Ulti-Vac gives them an affordable, user-friendly way of vacuuming debris off the bottom and performing a partial water exchange at the same time. Powered by a standard garden hose, the Ulti-Vac removes decaying material from hard to reach corners and dead spots, while larger debris is trapped in a removable chamber and can then be used to fertilize flower beds or vegetable gardens. As an added bonus, company owner Lance Reyniers designed the packaging so that the box graphics could be arranged to create an effective merchandising tool!
Virtually all municipal water supplies in the U.S. contain chloramines and other chemicals, making water conditioners essential for pond owners. Tetra’s concentrated Pond AquaSafe eliminates chlorine, chloramines and neutralizes heavy metals in addition to providing a protective colloid coating for fish.
To break down organic waste and jump start the pond’s biological balance, Hagen’s Laguna Bio Sludge Control and Bio Booster are effective and simple to use.
Nuisance algae is the biggest problem pond owners face. Preventing the onset of this pest is easier and more cost effective than trying to eliminate a full blown outbreak once it gets up a head of steam. Proper filtration, a sensible balance between fish and plants, and a controlled feeding program should prevent most blooms.
However, products like Tetra Pond AlgaeControl, Pond Barley and Peat Extract help prevent algae outbreaks when applied to smaller ponds and tub gardens. Floating barley straw bales and products like Laguna Barley Straw Pellets and Peat Granules provide a more natural, long term solution when placed in filters, especially in larger ponds. Finally, ultraviolet sterilizers, while significantly more expensive than the other products, offer the most effective preventative. If you already sell sterilizers—and even if you do not—be sure to stock and recommend replacement lamps, o-rings, seals and quartz sleeves. Train your staff to ask customers if they have refurbished their sterilizers for the coming season.
Next on the list are filter pads, pump intake pre-filters and chemical media such as carbon and phosphate removers. Even if you do not sell pond filters or pumps, stocking replacement pads and pre-filters for common brands like TetraPond, Supreme Pondmaster and Laguna will generate sales and earn new customers.
Teach your sales staff to encourage hobbyists to replace pads and install new chemical media in spring and as needed throughout pond season. Pump impellers and filter o-rings and seals are also in high demand in spring. These do not take up much shelf space and having them in stock at a time of need will make customers happy.
Feeding the Fish
Of course, no pond supply inventory would be complete without koi and goldfish pellets and food sticks. As with aquarium fish foods, your selection should include variety as well as different particle sizes to accommodate fishes of different sizes.
In early spring, a wheat germ-based food such as TetraPond Spring & Fall Diet is best, followed by Koi Vibrance Color Enhancing, Koi Growth or Variety Blend for the peak season. Cobalt Aquatics’ Goldfish Pellets are ideal for smaller fish, and for the discerning pond fish owner, Hikari offers over a dozen different blends in multiple pellet sizes for every need. All of these foods are available in packages of multiple sizes.
Some people advocate focusing on niche brands to offer consumers an alternative to those sold by online and big box vendors. However, Tim Plafcan, senior product manager of the pond division at UPG Aquatics, encourages independent retailers to stock trusted and proven brands.
“Proven brands will sell quicker and resonate with the end consumer for higher profitability,” Plafcan said. “Companies like Tetra not only back their products but they have staff and tools to help new hobbyists get started and be successful. Also, a proven brand that is serious about the category will invest in a full line of products that allows that retailer to be a go-to resource for that customer. And backing those products with support, knowledge and inspiration will create a life-long customer.”
Finally, a complete product selection and a well-trained, friendly staff is key to any successful sales strategy. Shoppers are more than willing to spend a little more and support a service-oriented business if you can back it up with quality products, knowledge and genuine concern for the customer. Independent aquatics retailers were largely responsible for the resurgence of pond keeping in the 1980’s. Now, garden centers and home improvement stores have taken a large share of the market. Isn’t it time the fish guys took it back?
A Golden Opportunity
Goldfish have been responsible for getting many hobbyists started with aquarium keeping. Basic goldfish are hardy, reasonably priced and do not require a lot of expensive equipment to maintain. Now more than ever, quality fancy goldfish give independent aquatics shops a way to offer something the big box stores don’t. They can also be a great option for hobbyists who are becoming bored with an existing aquarium and are looking for a new direction to rekindle their aquarist interests.
For many seasoned hobbyists, goldfish have traditionally been considered something you feed to large predatory fish, rather than beautiful pets that eat out of your hand and grow to be living jewels. Having a dedicated goldfish display tank in your store with fully grown orandas, ryukins, pearlscales, moors and lionheads will quickly change that impression and can spark interest in uninitiated fish keepers.
“Independent retailers are always looking for a unique position in the marketplace and goldfish offer a huge opportunity,” said Rick Preuss of Pruess Pets in Lansing, Mich. “There are plenty of dedicated goldfish keepers out there and creating a reputation for quality, a good selection and knowledge can generate a strong regional draw.”
Teaching hobbyists proper care for their goldfish is paramount to ensuring success. Because goldfish are high waste producers, aquariums of 20 gallons or larger are best, along with high capacity filters that are easy to service. Cobalt Aquatics’ EXT canister filter is a well-designed, competitively priced option. Its in-line pump can be left running, providing vital oxygenation while the filter chamber is removed for servicing. Quick release valves and lift-out media trays make cleaning this filter a breeze.
To keep goldfish in top form, make sure you and your staff members recommend the proper food. Goldfish typically feed at the bottom of the aquarium and have specific dietary needs. Floating foods should be avoided, as they may result in fish gulping in air, which can cause them to swim upside down. Hikari Sinking Goldfish Excel pellets encourage growth and good body form, Hikari Lionhead pellets promote optimal hood growth in orandas and lionheads, and Hikari Oranda Gold enhances superior color in all goldfish varieties.
Offering customers healthy, top quality goldfish is vital, according to Rowena Chan, owner of Golden Phoenix Fisheries in Fremont, CA. Chan’s goldfish are sourced from carefully selected Asian breeders and are quarantined and acclimated before shipping. For stores that are new to fancy goldfish, Golden Phoenix offers sampler boxes of hand-picked best-selling varieties and sizes that can be shipped direct to your store via UPS or DHL.
“You don’t have to worry about what to order—we do that for you,” Chan said. “Stores can then test their market to see what sells and then order the most popular types in the future.”
Decorations for the goldfish aquarium should be carefully chosen. Sharp objects and abrasive rocks like lava and tufa should be avoided, as goldfish can tear their fins and delicate eye tissue on them. Stylized ornaments like Blue Ribbon Pet Products’ line of pagodas give goldfish aquariums a distinctive Asian flare and displaying them in sales tanks will boost sales.
To get shoppers thinking about goldfish as pets, Chan recommended having a live goldfish display aquarium in the store with jaw-dropping fish swimming around in it. Golden Phoenix will ship full-sized show-quality specimens just for this purpose. Goldfish-specific aquarium setups strategically merchandised nearby are sure to generate sales.
Do not forget about younger hobbyists and the basic comet goldfish. A 10-gallon ensemble with an oversized filter and two free “Fancy Comets”—hand-selected feeder fish—is a sure bet as well. Adding high quality goldfish to your inventory may just be the ticket to making your aquatics department the talk of your area.
For those who live in warmer areas of the country, pond keeping is a year-round activity. For others, “pond season” gets underway in earnest sometime in early spring. Being prepared ahead of time positions independent retailers to get a leg up on gardening centers and big box vendors once the shopping season arrives.
“It’s never too early to start, but practically speaking, for a good portion of retailers whose selling season ends in the fall, start the next season by scoping out new product offerings and placing orders at trade shows and taking advantage of early order buys from distributors over the winter months,” said Tim Plafcan, senior product manager at Spectrum Pet, Home & Garden.
“Getting stock in house as early as possible before spring gives retailers a chance to plan their merchandising, whether it means simply rearranging products for a seasonal promotion, getting creative with an idea for an innovative display, or making floor space for a manufacturer supplied merchandiser,” Plafcan said. “Off-season months are also a good time to plan out your marketing calendar for the year. How can you improve outreach to current and new customers? How can you take advantage of the many social tools available? Make this the year you’re going to do those YouTube videos!”
Most pond owners are primed to get their ponds going once the weather breaks, and they’ll need certain products to start out right.
A wheat-germ based food like TetraPond’s Spring & Fall food is essential for fish transitioning from not feeding to a staple food when the temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Plafcan.
Pond-specific test kits help hobbyists get a bearing on water quality before introducing fish to the pond. These kits also let pond owners know when conditions are not up to par for fish that have been overwintered in a pond. It is important to recommend that pond customers perform a 25 percent water exchange in spring and that replacement water be treated with a conditioner such as TetraPond Aqua Safe to remove chlorine, chloramines and heavy metals.
Vacuuming the bottom is easy to do with Python Products’ Ulti-Vac, and owners can remove larger debris with telescoping handled nets. If possible, have an Ulti-Vac available for demonstration. TetraPond Sludge Reducer crystals and blocks are invaluable for breaking down residual organic material and re-introducing important microbes into filters.
Advise owners on the host of important items they should check at the start of their local pond season. Liners should be inspected and any winter damage must be repaired using repair kits or self-adhesive patch material. Hoses and connections should be checked for leaks and any damaged sections must be replaced. Keep common sizes on hand to offer to these customers.
Spring is also time to replace UV sterilizer lamps and seals, and to inspect pump impellers. Keep these items in a secure location, but make sure shoppers know you have them in stock. Pond owners should replace the filter pads, carbon and other chemical media at this time as well. Make sure you have replacement pads and parts for the brands of filters and pumps you sell, but consider stocking for other popular brands and models as well.
The most common problem experienced by pond owners during the summer is nuisance algae—especially green water syndrome and string algae. Barley bales, barley pellets or barley extract are effective low-cost preventatives, and getting them into a pond early in spring and replenishing them monthly will help keep these frustrating conditions from developing. Once these problems have already started, these remedies are not nearly as effective, so make sure your staff recommends their use to every customer in spring.
Spring is time for planting. Seasoned pond owners often need to thin out lilies and emergent plants, so have planter baskets, fertilizers and even planting media ready to go.
Spring is also a time when pond owners like to spruce up their creations with statuary, fountains and underwater lighting. If possible, have a working display to get their creative juices flowing.
“If you are fortunate enough to have an outdoor pond display, take the opportunity to highlight new products; people are automatically drawn to live displays,” Plafcan said. “Spring essentials should be at the forefront of the store or checkout counter.”
“Bundle and discount price several items together that are timely spring essentials,” he said. “For example, bundle water care and food together; place plant baskets and fertilizer tablets next to live plants for sale. Keeping a database of your customers and emailing new product information, special sales, seasonal events, etc. is a great way to generate sales throughout the year.”
Finally, make sure your staff is knowledgeable. This is your most effective tool for separating your store from gardening and home improvement centers and other mass merchandisers. Novice pond owners don’t always know what they need or what to ask for, so make sure your staff recommends essential products and explains their use.
“Merchandising displays are helpful, but one-on-one conversations and a trusted, knowledgeable staff member will create loyalty and repeat sales,” Plafcan said.
With sound buying strategies, an effective merchandising plan, well trained staff and an early start, you can enjoy a profitable pond season.
Reef aquarium keeping has never been more popular. The array of support products available today is truly endless. From consumable items to major components, such as protein skimmers, programmable lighting systems and reactors, reefers will always want and need something new for their aquarium.
Building a Reef Clientele
Reef hobbyists love to indulge in their aquariums and are usually willing to spend more money for quality and performance. Adding a new accessory or upgrading a piece of equipment is fun and typically enhances their success rate, which in turn keeps hobbyists engaged. Shops that stock reef products and offer knowledgeable advice usually enjoy strong sales and maintain a steady clientele.
“The key is building relationships with your customers,” said Ralph Cabage, president of SICCE USA. “Make it personal. Create solutions for your customers that make their desires work.”
Cabage also said that stores need to focus on products that they can earn a living on.
“SICCE sells to independents at the same prices as online vendors, making it possible to remain competitive while enjoying a livable profit margin. Authorized dealers also enjoy rebates and incentives on SICCE purchases,” Cabage said.
When deciding on your reef product inventory, Bill Trufant, owner of Mobile, Alabama-based B & B Pet Stop Inc., has some advice.
“Important factors are quality, brand recognition, customer request/demand, availability from distribution, ease of use for the customer, easily understood packaging, and reasonable pricing,” he said. “You also can’t just carry obscure brands. If you do stock these brands, have them in addition to a name brand then sell off of it.”
Something for Every Reefer
Reef products can be separated into several groups. Essential items like supplements, test kits, sea salts, filter media and specialty foods are strong sellers that support a healthy profit margin.
For additives and supplements, Seachem’s standard line and their premium Aquavitro line offer hobbyists a complete selection of support products that address virtually any water chemistry need.
For hobbyists who want test kits that combine precision with ease of use, Salifert kits have both at a fair price. Tropic Marin salt mixes can be offered as a premium option to brands like Kent, Coralife and Reef Crystals. Tropic Marin PRO-REEF Sea Salt is made especially for reef tanks.
Live and refrigerated foods designed to keep live corals in prime condition and color have evolved dramatically in recent years.
Reef Nutrition products like Phyto Feast are well researched and backed by the manufacturer. Coral Gumbo by Hikari is a frozen blend of ingredients that support the health of corals. Prohibitive shipping costs and logistics from online vendors make these foods great sellers for independent retailers.
Key mechanical devices such as circulation and primary drive pumps and heaters represent the next group of reef products. Quality is key here, since any failure could be catastrophic.
SICCE pumps are time tested and independent retailers are protected by their dealer price structure. Cobalt Aquatics offers a quality line of internal circulation pumps, including the original MJ series. All Cobalt pumps are all backed by three-year warranty. Jaeger submersible heaters, formerly Ebo Jaeger, can be calibrated to pinpoint accuracy, a major selling point for the brand. Cobalt Aquatics and Hydor offer in-line heaters that help maintain aesthetics and don’t tie up valuable space in sumps.
Protein skimmers, ultra-violet sterilizers, high output lighting systems, controllers and sophisticated filtration systems represent the last group of reef products. Perhaps the widest range of quality, complexity and pricing can be found in this group. Many retailers struggle with tying up large amounts of money in these items, as they tend not to turn over rapidly and profit margins can be slim.
“You must support brands that enforce M.A.P. (Minimum Advertised Pricing) and be willing to sell at those prices,” Trufant said. “You probably won’t make the margin that you would ideally like, but it is better to make something than nothing.”
Eshopps offers an affordable line of protein skimmers, sumps, overflow boxes and other reef filtration components that are well-built and affordably priced. Reef Octopus provides retailers a high end version of these products, as well as media reactors.
An effective strategy for selling high ticket items without tying up resources is to have working models in your store and just keep one or two popular sizes in stock. There’s nothing like an eye popping live reef display to get people’s attention and demonstrate the equipment you sell. Have all components clearly visible and invite customers to inspect and learn about them. Sales staff should be knowledgeable and trained to ask key questions to help shoppers make good buying decisions.
Some shops are reluctant to stock reef products because their customers don’t ask for them.
“You have to create demand, otherwise you’re not providing a service to your customers,” Cabage said. “You have to show people what they want, have it on your shelf and tell them how you use it in your store. Make it your solution, your sale, your show! Don’t be an order taker; be a salesman. If you build relationships with your customers, they’ll listen to you. Their success goes up as a result.”
“You can’t serve your customers properly without having the products that they need to be successful,” Trufant said. “Without the proper products you force your customers to look elsewhere!”
Reef keeping is too popular for aquatic retailers to sit on the sidelines and let online vendors reap the rewards and profits.
“Be cutting edge, focus on unique, quality products and don’t be afraid to charge a fair price for them,” Cabage advised. “Remind shoppers that you’ve helped them solve or avoid problems. Do your homework on pricing and give shoppers a reason to come back to your store.”
The Way the Fish Flake Crumbles
Most of us probably don’t give it much thought, but the invention of flaked fish food by Dr. Ulrich Baensch in the 1950s was quite possibly the single most important event in making aquarium keeping possible for home hobbyists. From those early days, technology, coupled with our understanding of the specific dietary needs of individual fish species, has resulted in dry fish foods that are state-of-the-art, convenient to use and nutritionally complete. A basic understanding of fish foods, the nutritional needs of the fish and the lifestyles of home aquarists will give independent aquatic retailers a leg up on big box stores and online vendors.
Knowledge and personal attention is what drives most consumers to shop at their local fish store versus mass merchandisers or e-vendors, so your sales staff need to ask the right questions and make sure your customers have the right foods for their fish.
“Take the time to understand the customers’ needs and application,” said Phil Bartoszek, product manager at Elive Pet Products. “Ask them about what species they are keeping, what foods they are currently feeding and what they like or don’t like about the current foods they are offering their fish. With this information you can make suggestions of new and different foods for them to try and explain why they will be better or different in a way that will resonate with them.”
With the variety of ornamental fish available in today’s hobby, retailers need to be able to accommodate a wide range of dietary needs.
“Offering a variety of foods designed to feed different types of fish ensures that all shoppers’ needs will be met at the store,” said Andy Hudson, product validation at Central Garden and Pet.
“The food should be nutritionally balanced for the type of fish that the consumer keeps and also the appropriate size,” said Scott Rabe, director of marketing at Central Garden and Pet.
An easy way to introduce new foods to your customers is to let them see them in action.
“Having some store-use samples of the range of fish foods you sell can go a long way. Not only will your employees learn more about the different foods as they feed them in store, but you can show the customer how a food feeds in person before they buy,” Bartoszek said. “When a customer is buying new fish you can send them home with the exact same food those fish are currently feeding on. This may not only get them to try a new food, but also ensures the fish will feed well for them at home and improve their success rate.”
The first flake and pelleted fish foods were ‘one-size-fits-all’ products, however, today’s product lines are tailored to not only provide the nutritional needs of specific types of fish, but also to accommodate their feeding methods in nature.
For example, Hikari offers a wide range of specially formulated pellet and wafer foods. They come in both floating and sinking formats and are available in a variety of sizes to accommodate any feeding strategy, any nutritional preference and any sized fish. Most Hikari foods are packaged in small, medium and large pouches, designed to meet the needs and budget of virtually any hobbyist.
The use of probiotics is becoming more popular as well.
“Cobalt’s flakes and pellets all include probiotic bacteria that help support a healthy digestive system,” said Les Wilson of Cobalt Aquatics. “In addition, every flavor also features the Cobalt Blue Flake or pellet that is 20 percent of blend. The Cobalt Blue Flake and Pellets have a triple dose of vitamins and immunostimulants that support the fishes’ healthy and active immune system above and beyond regular foods.”
Another key factor in successful flake and pellet food sales is effective merchandising.
“Great merchandising can always increase sales,” Wilson said. “Consider shifting your merchandising of food from organizing by brand to by flavor or vice-versa to create new excitement in the set. Take advantage of help from manufacturers’ reps’ willingness to reset the section for you and include POP materials like headers and danglers. Keep shelves well stocked and product fronted. Highlight at chest to eye-level the brands you want to push and recommend, and put other brands that you decide to carry lower in the merchandising set.”
Deciding what flake and pellet foods to carry in your store can be a challenge.
“Buyers should consider product features that will appeal to the full range of their clientele, from the first time aquarist to the seasoned hobbyist,” Bartoszek said. “Although high-end ingredients and premium features may be important for some advanced customers, they may be unnecessary or too complicated for entry-level customers who just want something easy. By offering a range of products and price points you can guarantee you will have the right combination of performance and features for every customer’s feeding application.”
When it comes to competing with big box stores and e-vendors, Wilson had some advice.
“Stores should also think about the distribution of the brand and if the consumer will look to them as the source of the food for repeat business,” he said.
With proper understanding of fish nutrition, solid staff training, strategic product selection and effective merchandising, retailers can keep their customers coming back to them for all their fish food needs.
Is There a Doctor in the Tank?
Sooner or later every aquarist will encounter a situation that calls for the use of some type of medication, so retailers need to be knowledgeable in disease diagnosis and management, and have a good selection of remedies in stock.
By the time a medical problem is noticed, typically the situation is urgent and the hobbyist can’t wait for an online order to arrive by mail. This puts aquatics shops in a unique position to help correctly diagnose and solve the problem by suggesting a remedy—which in turn gains a customer’s respect and loyalty.
Education Before Medication
By encouraging hobbyists to provide the best possible care for their aquatic livestock with regular use of supplements and trace elements, many problems can be avoided in the first place. As a retailer, helping customers be more successful and avoid problems will put extra dollars in your cash register.
Not all fish health problems call for medications. Many perceived diseases are actually a fish’s response to problems in the aquarium, such as poor water quality, improper diet or aggression from other fish.
“Before recommending any medication, our staff checks water quality and asks about the history of the aquarium,” said Jim Kostich, store manager at Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wisconsin. “In addition, having customers bring in digital photos of their fish has become very helpful in making accurate diagnoses.”
When it comes to aquarium specific medications, API manufactures a comprehensive line that treats the most common tropical fish diseases. General Cure and Super Ick Cure are designed to kill parasites. E.M. Erythromycin, T.C. Tetracycline, Furan-2 and Triple Sulfa are effective antibacterial medications, and Fungus Cure liquid and powdered treatments kill fungal infections. For hobbyists who have an aversion to using chemicals in their aquariums, API’s Melafix and Pimafix provide an all-natural treatment for bacterial and fungal infections, respectively.
Aquarists should be advised to do small water exchanges before, during and after treatment programs, and carbon and other chemical filtration media should be removed from filters. Make sure they purchase enough medication to treat the net gallons per aquarium for the full recommended treatment cycle.
The customer should do a partial water exchange — which consists of filtering with carbon for 24 hours and beginning treatment with another product, removing the carbon again — if at the end of the treatment period, wanted results have not been achieved. Caution customers to never mix different medications unless the manufacturer specifically says it’s not harmful to do so, as with Mardel’s Maracyn and Maracyn-Two.
For the most part, medications should never be used in aquariums containing invertebrates. Removing snails, shrimp and other invertebrates or medicating fish in a separate quarantine tank is best.
Aquatic retailers have a golden opportunity to generate add-on sales of supplements whenever selling livestock.
“Our sales team is naturally trained to recommend trace elements and liquid foods when selling live corals and plant supplements with live plant sales,” Kostich said.
Kent Marine and Brightwell Aquatics offer supplements for calcium, magnesium, strontium and trace elements, as well as specialty coral foods for full-sized and nano reef aquariums. Each product includes detailed instructions for use depending on current water parameters and the types of corals being kept. Regular testing of water quality and chemistry is a must for determining how much and how often to dose each aquarium.
With live planted aquariums enjoying a resurgence in the hobby, Aqueon’s Aquarium Plant Food, API’s Leaf Zone and Root Tabs, and Seachem’s Flourish line of specific plant nutrients help aquatic gardeners get optimum results.
For plant enthusiasts who want to use carbon dioxide, but can’t afford pressurized injection systems, API’s CO2 Booster and Seachem’s Flourish Excel provide a liquid carbon supplement that can be added on a daily basis. These supplements displayed next to a jaw-dropping planted aquarium are sure to fly off the shelf
The directions on many aquarium supplements suggest weekly dosing according to the total gallons in an aquarium. Since living things use nutrients and trace elements on a daily basis, teach your sales staff to recommend dividing a weekly dose up into smaller amounts and dose several times during the week.
For large aquariums, automated dosing pumps like Eshopp’s IV marine and freshwater systems make sense. Have a working model on display and take orders to avoid tying up capital in inventory.
Aquarium medications are usually not a planned purchase for hobbyists. By having knowledgeable staff to help properly diagnose diseases and a broad selection of treatments in stock at all times, aquarists will know to come to your store when they have problems. By helping them eliminate problems in the first place and giving their animals and plants the best possible care, they’ll continue to enjoy the hobby and have you and your staff to thank for it.
Clean Fish; Happy Fish
Today’s aquarists are busy, on-the-go people, and finding time to clean their tanks can be difficult for them. Newer hobbyists aren’t always sure what to clean and when, how much water to change and how often, or even what equipment they need. Aquatics stores have much to gain by educating, encouraging and showing customers how to care for their aquariums. By showing newfound aquatic enthusiasts how to be successful, they’ll grow and expand in the hobby, increasing a store’s sales and profits in the process.
Removing algae is the first act of aquarium cleaning most hobbyists encounter. Magnetic scrapers like Aqueon’s Algae Cleaning Magnets and Gulfstream Tropical Aquarium’s Mag Float line come in several sizes and make removing algae simple and enjoyable. Be sure to keep replacement pads for glass or acrylic tanks in stock and keep a magnet scraper attached to a display tank in your store to encourage customers to try it out. For more budget-minded shoppers, handheld and long-handled scrapers like those made by Lee’s Aquarium & Pet Products are affordable, come in glass and acrylic models and are made in the USA.
Change It Up
Performing regular water changes, along with occasional vacuuming of substrate, is arguably the most important aquarium cleaning task hobbyists can do. It’s also a chore most overlooked and avoided, mostly because it can be a hassle. Handheld siphons with gravel vacuum tubes like Python’s Pro-Clean line come in a variety of sizes and are fine for tanks less than 25 gallons. For larger aquariums automatic systems that attach to a faucet take the drudgery out of tank cleaning by eliminating the unpleasant sucking on a hose and hauling buckets of water to and from the tank.
Lance Reyniers, founder and president of Python Products, developed the original Python No-Spill automated siphon/fill system. He developed it, he joked because “I’ve got one arm that’s longer than the other from hauling buckets!”
Reyniers encourages stores do tank maintenance with a No-Spill system during store hours so shoppers can see how they work. If this isn’t practical due to limited staff or space, Python also offers how-to DVDs that can be incorporated into merchandising displays for shoppers to view.
“I want people to interact with their fish tank,” he said.
All Python products are made in the USA and MAP pricing is strictly enforced.
Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich., uses his store’s water testing service to monitor conditions in his customers’ tanks. His staff is also trained to ask as many questions as possible about their maintenance habits.
“Most people will follow your advice and once they get in the habit of doing weekly to bi-weekly water exchanges, they do it faithfully. Train staff to be investigative, not interrogative; throw as wide a net as possible around each situation,” he said.
There are many different philosophies on how much water to change and how often.
“Small water exchanges done on a regular basis are less stressful than massive ones done infrequently,” said Reyniers.
Be sure to recommend Tetra AquaSafe or Aqueon Water Conditioner to neutralize chlorine and chloramines quickly in tap water, which helps to reduce stress in fish. Tetra and Aqueon also offer online tank maintenance tips for hobbyists. Beginners especially should be directed to these sites.
Many hobbyists are under the assumption that topping off their aquarium for evaporation is the same as doing a water exchange, but remind them that when water evaporates, pollutants stay behind and over time pH can drop to unsafe levels. If your customers keep houseplants, have them water their plants with aquarium water, as fish waste makes excellent fertilizer.
Lastly, calcium and lime deposits form on aquarium covers and around tank rims, especially in saltwater aquariums and hard water environments. Python Products’ RYDYT 1 and RYDYT 2, and API’s Safe & Easy Aquarium Cleaner make removing these deposits quick and easy. They’re also great for cleaning filter and powerhead impellers, heater tubes and other aquarium accessories. Hobbyists should do this three to four times a year, and more frequently in hard water or saltwater situations.
Cleaning an aquarium is a natural part of owning one. By teaching customers a regular routine and showing them the tools and products they need to make it hassle-free, trust is not only earned, but success is ensured and a hobby is will continue on for years to come.