Aquariums make great focal points in homes, offices and places of business, but not everyone has the time or desire to maintain one.
“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.