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Mastering Maintenance

Pet specialty stores that emphasize proper tank maintenance and water chemistry can help customers succeed and stay in the hobby for the long-run.


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Tank maintenance and water chemistry products have come a very long way over the course of the aquarium hobby’s development, and retailers are finding that both old solutions and new offerings add to their bottom line. 

While many traditional maintenance products still perform for retailers, some recently developed offerings are selling very well.

“Probiotics are really becoming a big thing,” said Todd Furmanek, store manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.

Absolutely Fish has had success with these products, and the store offers the DrTim’s Aquatics line of probiotics, as well as those from Ecological Laboratories. These help with aquarium maintenance, but regular upkeep is still required, Furmanek added. 

Probiotics haven’t penetrated the saltwater side of the hobby quite as well as they have the freshwater side, however. 

“We’re in the saltwater side of things … we haven’t delved very much into it in our store,” said Jim Pedicone, general manager of Beyond the Reef in Schaumburg, Ill. “Although I know it’s becoming somewhat more popular.” 

Still, probiotics formulated for use in reef systems are becoming increasingly available. 

“We started carrying a product called Vibrant [from Underwater Creations Inc.],” Furmanek said. “Basically, it’s a probiotic bacteria or probiotic enhancer, and we’ve had some very good success with it here in the store.” 

The popularity of probiotics indicates that the long-time trend of customers wishing to reduce tank maintenance chores is alive and well.

“Aquarists today lead active, busy lives and are well-informed when it comes to their buying decisions, so they want products that make aquariumkeeping more convenient,” said Pamela Morisse, digital and media marketing manager for Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Garden & Pet Co.

Products that are labeled “natural” are increasingly popular with customers as well.

“We actually have a natural section on our bright-lit shelves,” Furmanek said. “It’s actually bannered out. When they’re shopping for cleaners, a lot of people obviously want something that’s environmentally safe or natural.”

Other retailers stated customers are interested in natural maintenance products, but geographic location and local demographics often impact sales.

“Oregon has a lot of naturalists,” said Shane Billmyre, owner of Caye’s Aquarium in Portland, Ore. “It is kind of a trend right now.”

However, it is still incumbent upon retailers to ensure these products adequately address customers’ needs.

“Some work really well,” Billmyre said. “Natural [products] just take a little longer, so it really depends on the issue that customers are having.”

Driving Revenue

Maintenance products still represent a good source of revenue for local fish stores, retailers reported. 

“On the whole, dry goods are still a majority of where [our] revenue comes from,” said Todd Furmanek, store manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.

Manufacturers continue to innovate in the category, and new offerings include both tank maintenance items and chemical additives. The Hagen Group, for example, has released a new AquaVac, designed to clean aquarium substrate. 

“The filter pad that comes with the unit removes 99 percent of debris particles,” said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager at The Hagen Group, based in Mansfield, Mass. “It also has an LED light to see the dark corners of the tank.”

The company also recently released its Razor Magnet under the Fluval brand. It features a magnet with a scrubber and a razor on the other side for scraping aquarium surfaces, LeRose said. 

Chemical removal is another segment of the category in which manufacturers continue to develop new products. Central Garden & Pet Co.’s Aqueon brand recently unveiled chemical filtration mediums, and its Coralife brand will launch its Marine Filter with Protein Skimmer combo this year. Included with the Coralife product is a large carbon cartridge and phosphate-removing specialty pad, said Pamela Morisse, digital and media marketing manager for Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Garden & Pet Co.

Sera North America also introduced a water chemistry product to the market, called Sera Chlor-ex.

“It removes toxic substances such as chlorine, chloramines and ammonium from the aquarium,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa., adding that it is pH-neutral.

From the Outside In

Tank maintenance and chemistry products aren’t always the most eye-catching on store shelves, retailers reported, and the best way to get customers’ attention when it comes to products in the category is to start merchandising outside the store’s walls.

“There are always going to be more ways to integrate business when you’re using the internet … and a lot of social media [to market products],” said Jim Pedicone, general manager of Beyond the Reef in Schaumburg, Ill.

Pedicone promotes deals on Facebook, he said. He also uses direct mailing as a means to reach customers from time to time, he noted. 

“We actually include distributors’ full brochures in the mailings to [highlight] products I don’t even carry that we can order,” Pedicone said. “Reaching out directly is how we’ve been merchandising. That, and [relying on] word-of-mouth in-store.”

Stilll, using maintenance products in-store remains the No. 1 way to promote sales in this category, according to some retailers.

“The best way to merchandise is to use the products in the store and to know what you are using and why,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. “It is very helpful if the retailers know the products they sell in the store, and it makes it easier to explain the products to the customers.”

Making display tank maintenance something employees carry out during business hours might be enough to drive sales in the category. 

“Do live demonstrations of water changes and gravel vacuum tools, or even let customers try their hand at it,” said Lenitra Friend, brand manager for Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Garden & Pet Co. “Keep an algae-cleaning magnet on an aquarium and invite customers to try it out; it’s surprising how many aquarists don’t know about them.”  

Open Communication

When it comes to the maintenance and water-chemistry product category, it’s important to ask questions and start a dialogue with customers. This is where expertise and customer rapport play large roles, retailers reported. 

“Our [sales staff] always tell [customers] what they truly believe rather than just trying to sell,” said Jim Pedicone, general manager of Beyond the Reef in Schaumburg, Ill. “You gain that trust with the customer, and that’s huge. It goes on for years.”

To address common issues and to make staff training easier, management at Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., has developed a set of cards that describe common problems and help sales staff identify customers’ issues.

“We’ve come up with what we call ‘situation cards,’ which are instances that we’ve encountered over the years,” said Todd Furmanek, store manager for the retailer. “[These cards describe] a certain way staff should move into a situation and how to remedy it.” 

Sometimes, the optimal way to help customers is to show them the right way to use products and address issues with prevention. In-store demonstrations are very popular as a means to educate customers.

“We show people how all product lines work in-store,” said Shane Billmyre, owner of Caye’s Aquarium in Portland, Ore. “We go through maintenance and chemical [product usage]. Everything gets explained.”

This aspect of customer service is necessary for a local fish store’s longevity, retailers reported.

“Customer service is the main aspect of any kind of survivability in any shop,” Billmyre said. “If [stores] lack that, [customers are] just another dollar bill. This is more of a personal business.” 

Building and maintaining a store’s status of providing expert information is a vital competitive edge retailers need to focus on, industry insiders stated.

“Do whatever you can to maintain your expert reputation when it comes to water care and fish illness treatment,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “Spend time with consumers asking lots of questions so you have a clear idea of what they are fighting and can offer the best prescription for success.”

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