Pet Age spoke with Howie Berkowitz, owner of Aquaridise in East Brunswick, New Jersey. With an intimate knowledge of business as well as the aquatics category, he knows what it takes to run a top of the line aquatics retail store, complete with aquarium service offerings.
Q What background in business and aquatics did you have before opening Aquaridise?
A I have been keeping fish all my life. I got my first fish tank when I was 4. My dad was a true fish geek, and as a kid, we always had multiple tanks in the house. My favorite was the octopus we kept in a large hexagon aquarium.
My dad opened his first full line pet shop when I was 12, and I started working there when I was 14… During my college years, I went home every other weekend to work at my dad’s shop. Although I do have strong knowledge of all pets, aquatics has always been my true passion.
My business education has helped me tremendously over the years. While I believe being an expert in the field is paramount for success, running a small business has many challenges. Understanding consumers’ buying habits as well as understanding the importance of things like inventory control and scheduling are just as important in order to be successful.
Q How is aquatics a unique segment of the pet industry?
A Keeping most pets like dogs and cats is not really a hobby, but rather just part of our lives. Fishkeeping is a hobby. Many of my customers are extremely passionate about their fish. They can spend hours each week maintaining numerous aquariums only to come in and see another fish they must have. But since they do not have a tank it will work in, they just buy another tank! Although I do believe aquatics is segmented from the mainstream pet industry, it is certainly connected. Pet lovers are just that: lovers of pets. And although I cannot give you real numbers, I can tell you the majority of people who own fish also have other pets.
Q How do you find quality staff with expertise in aquatics products and services?
A Finding great staff members is a challenge in any industry. I have been running my business for 34 years and over that time I have hired countless employees who have stayed with me for 10 years-plus. I currently have one employee who has been with me for 29 years and another who is a 17-year vet.
Today, when I look to hire, I first want someone who is passionate about fish… Ideally, I want someone who has at least some experience keeping both fresh and saltwater tanks. Next, I want an employee who is looking for a long-term position. Over my 34 years, I have never hired just summer or holiday help… Training is very expensive and time-consuming. Once I hire an individual, I believe it is now up to me to cultivate this person into one who loves to work for me. I treat all my employees with respect, [but] salary is important, and all the respect in the world won’t keep a quality employee who is underpaid. But, salary alone will also not be the answer. Everyone makes mistakes and, as the owner and mentor to my employees, I do not yell at my staff or degrade them but rather I point out the error and discuss with them what I think needs to be done to correct it. Employees like to be praised for the good work they do. Praise will resonate much longer than the 50 cent per hour raise.
Q What kind of services do you offer, and how have they bolstered your business?
A Service—the one thing a customer cannot buy online… Today’s consumer wants it all. They want advice and price. Spend 30 minutes with a customer telling them why their fish are dying and then recommend a product to correct the problem and watch how fast they scan the barcode into an app to make sure your price is competitive. What they cannot buy online is in-home or office aquarium cleaning. Thirty-plus years ago we took on our first service client. Over the years, that customer base just continues to grow. The best thing about the aquarium cleaning part of the business is it is ongoing and constant. The majority of our accounts have us clean their tanks every month—some every two weeks and some every week! Today, the aquarium service department of the store is truly what drives the business.
Q What kind of equipment and products does the store offer?
A We are a full line aquatics store. We carry an assortment of aquariums, including the basic starter kits to high-end marine tanks like Red Sea and innovative Marine. As experts in the field, customers come to us for advice, and it is important that we have the correct merchandise to fill their needs. As a retailer, I try to support the brands that support the LFS (local fish store). I understand that most consumers want to buy from the local store as long as the price is competitive. Some suppliers make this very difficult by providing big online retailers with deep discounts that make it hard if not impossible for us to compete. So as a buyer, I believe it is very important to know what companies will provide me with the margins I need to be competitive in order to succeed. Much of the aquatics industry is using MAP pricing to maintain the retail price of their products. The companies that do this and actually control the MAP are in most cases the companies I like to support. Some of my best selling companies include Seachem, Eshopps, Reef Octopus and Hagen.