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Maintenance Matters

To help aquatic hobbyists succeed, pet specialty retailers and manufacturers endeavor to make care and cleaning tasks simpler to perform.


With the bewildering array of species that have become available on the market and the innovative maintenance and husbandry techniques that have been developed in recent years, the aquarium hobby has reached new levels of technical achievement.

Right now, though, the focus is on simplifying maintenance and keeping hobbyists coming back for more, industry participants stated. By consolidating and focusing on customer service, pet specialty retailers are able to build their customer base and face the competition head on.

The saltwater side of the hobby is seeing growth, retailers reported.

“There are a lot more people getting into saltwater,” said Mark Hresko, co-owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. “The hobby has actually grown a little bit. It slowed for a while.”

With more people buying tanks, he noted, he’s selling more maintenance products as well. 

Novel species have also been appearing on distributors’ lists in the past couple of years, retailers reported, and these newer offerings are helping to drive maintenance product sales as well. 

“I’m looking to get into freshwater shrimp, which have unique care needs,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. 

These species generally require small, nano-type tanks, along with the miniature filters and LED lighting to go along with them, he added.

The nano trend in general has been undeniable in recent years, but these types of setups create maintenance challenges, retailers reported. 

“One thing that is problematic is people buying nano tanks and expecting too much out of them,” Herron said. “Educating them properly on what a nano tank can really accommodate has been a challenge.”

Overall, the hobby has seen the introduction of more integration and a greater degree of controllability when it comes to setting up and maintaining equipment. 

“Comprehensive solutions continue to grow in popularity thanks to the development of smart equipment,” said Michael Acerra, digital marketing manager for Penn-Plax in Hauppauge, N.Y. “Serious hobbyists are loving the ability to control different aspects of their filtration and tank maintenance straight from their phones.”

UV sterilizers are also gaining popularity, Acerra added, especially in applications with heavy-duty lighting to promote plant and coral growth, which tends to produce a ton of algae inside a tank. 

Ultimately, though, the emphasis is on making maintenance tasks as simple and efficient to perform as possible, industry participants noted.

“Mostly, people want a perfectly running tank with as little maintenance as possible,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa.

Making Maintenance Easy

The trend in maintenance equipment right now is for greater integration, a streamlined user interface and total control of aquarium parameters.

KollerCraft is introducing a line of aquariums designed to help hobbyists connect to their tanks more easily, said Rand Kollman, vice president of sales and marketing for the Shawnee, Kan.-based company. The company will release a new aquarium app at Global Pet Expo in 2018 that is designed to allow hobbyists to manage their tanks.

“Our new line … will provide reminders that will tell aquarists when to perform water changes, replace filter cartridges and perform other necessary maintenance chores,” Kollman said. “With these notifications sent to their phones scheduling and maintenance will become easier to implement.”

While new technology and apps are gaining a lot of attention in the hobby, new filtration media are also appearing on pet specialty retailers’ shelves. Sera North America recently introduced a mechanical filter media called Sera Crystal Clear Professional, said Claus Frenken, sales manager for the Montgomeryville, Pa.-based company. 

The media’s structure is designed to remove detritus as small as 10 microns, Frenken said. The media can be reused several times and is meant to work in fresh, salt and pond applications, he added.
Penn-Plax, too, is preparing a new filter media for release in the second quarter of 2018, said Michael Acerra, digital marketing manager for the Hauppauge, N.Y.-based company, but details aren’t available yet.

Keeping that Connection 

Providing information to customers and demonstrating how to use equipment properly is a vital part of any local fish store’s business, retailers reported. But being a source of information can also create issues for pet specialty retailers.

“My challenge is dealing with customers who buy [maintenance products] from somewhere else and who then come to me for advice on how to make it work,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa.

Herron’s solution is to focus on customer service and the community he’s built over the years.

“We’re a shop that’s been around a long time, so we’ve got a good reputation,” he said. “I’ve dealt with parents, children and now children of children who have been in the hobby, and I want to keep them there.”

Establishing a reputation and looking out for customers can make the difference in beating out other retail outlets to earn customers’ dollars.

“We have great customer service,” said Mark Hresko, co-owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. “We’ve been in business for 50 years, and we’re pretty well known.”
Part of Hresko’s approach is to use education as a way to build a bond with his customers.

“We take care of our customers,” he said. “We don’t get them in, sell them what they want and throw them out the door. We explain how to put everything together and set it up.”  

For retailers who go that extra mile, the reward can be a lifelong customer. This might mean bringing sales associates up to speed, too.

“Find out exactly what customers need, what their challenges are and what they’re hoping to accomplish with their new maintenance equipment,” said Michael Acerra, digital marketing manager for Penn-Plax in Hauppauge, N.Y. “Sometimes the best sales tool is your staff.”

Best Display and Marketing Practices

Though aquarium maintenance products are designed not to be seen, it is important for pet specialty retailers to put them in front of customers and demonstrate their use, according to industry participants. 

“Merchandising these products can be difficult,” said Michael Acerra, digital marketing manager for Penn-Plax in Hauppauge, N.Y. “They don’t really have the same curb appeal as décor items or lighting.”

The best way to overcome these display challenges is to demonstrate the effectiveness of these products by using them in attractive display aquarium setups in the store.

“I use maintenance products in my own tanks, and I show customers exactly what they’ll do,” said Sandra Newsome, owner of Scales and Tails Pet Store in Willard, Ohio. 

Seeing how products function in display tanks can help customers make purchase decisions in-store. 

“Show customers how products work,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. “They can’t take products out of the box, touch and feel them when they’re browsing on the internet.” 

Reaching out via social media can also give brick-and-mortars an edge. Facebook is effective, independent pet specialty retailers reported, though it’s often best to use updates about show-stopping livestock to entice customers’ interest and drive store traffic. 

“Facebook has done pretty well for us in terms of sales,” Newsome said. “Every time I get a shipment in, it gets posted. People get excited for that.” 

Internet competition continues to be a profound challenge to local fish stores, and those who are succeeding have found product categories in which they can compete and leverage their personal relationships with customers to earn business. 

“Everybody buys stuff on the internet,” said Mark Hresko, co-owner at House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md., adding that he has found he can beat online competitors in terms of price on certain items.

“With some products, we have leeway with our pricing,” Hresko said. “Most of the time, we can match prices, so people are happy with that.”

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