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The Live Plant Sales Advantage

With competition heating up in the aquatics segment, many retailers are realizing profits in aquascaping and plant sales.


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Photo courtesy of Hagen Group

The aquatics industry is increasingly presenting pet specialty retailers with a difficult landscape within which to carve out a market niche. As a result, many are turning to planted aquariums to find attractive margins and build their customer base.

Hobbyists are increasingly interested in the planted tank aesthetic, and because there is a wide range of difficulty levels in this segment of the hobby—from setups with a few plants all the way up to those with metered CO2 injection—retailers can tweak their offerings and appeal to their base.

“The plant market has taken off,” said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. “We do a lot of plant sales. Plant sales are up across the board. We used to get plants in every other week, but now I get plants in twice a week.”

The popularity of aquascaping is also being fueled by the influence of artists in the field and hobbyists’ desire to capture the beauty of nature in their own homes, said Pam Morisse, digital and media marketing manager for Central Garden & Pet in Franklin, Wis.

“A trend that never gets old is the ‘nature aquarium’ concept, made popular by the late Takashi Amano,” she said. “This style is more like pieces of artwork and is often a contest at aquatic shows. You want to build your background and foreground to show depth, levels and balance. It’s truly a showpiece and something the owner/artists can really be proud of.”

While fish are often included in planted tanks, Morisse added, “The primary feature is definitely the aquascape: plants, substrate and décor.”

While customers are interested in a variety of tank sizes for these setups, there is a noticeable trend toward nano-sized aquariums featuring freshwater shrimp and plants.

“Small nano shrimp setups are really popular,” said Ian Glish, acting manager for Ultimate Aquarium in San Mateo, Calif. “People have tanks with just those. It’s all about having a community planted tank where plants, fish and invertebrates coexist.”

Scott Rabe, director of marketing at Central Garden & Pet, agreed that freshwater shrimp aquariums are trending—and live plants are a big part of that theme, he noted. Rabe added that demonstrating the possibilities of such a theme is key to selling the category.

“Set up a live plant/shrimp display adjacent to your supplements and other plant-related consumables section, along with signage indicating which products are used in the display,” he recommended. “Train your staff in all aspects of maintaining a planted aquarium, and teach them to engage customers and promote live plants without being overly ‘sales-y.’” 

Customers are also gravitating toward smaller tanks, based on their expectation that they require less maintenance. With many people leading busy lives, these tanks appeal to those seeking a low-tech, non-CO2 dependent setup.

“Low-tech planted nano tanks are probably becoming more popular simply because they really don’t require a whole lot of maintenance,” said Alexander Racho, plant manager for Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore. “Everyone I know is so busy. It’s hard to beat. You’ve got this really killer centerpiece that absolutely looks fantastic in virtually any setting.”

Marketing & Margins

Concentrate on Key Strengths

Next to reef aquariums, planted tanks make for some of the most aesthetically pleasing displays that pet specialty retailers can use to entice customers and build business.

“One of the first things you notice when you walk into the store is that we have at least four main planted display tanks,” said Alexander Racho, plant manager for Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore. “We try to maintain those as immaculately as possible, and when customers see these, they are pretty much immediately blown away by those displays. Not too far from that section are our tanks that we sell plants out of.”

Driving customers’ imaginations is a big part of selling planted tank supplies and plants.

“The best way to sell a product is to demonstrate effectiveness,” said Amanda Neese, supervisor of sales, support and education for Seachem Laboratories in Madison, Ga. “Having an impressive display aquarium in the store helps to sell products and also inspire enthusiasts and especially beginners.”

With big-box and e-commerce competitors able to offer nearly unbeatable prices for most aquarium equipment, retailers have had to rely on the areas of the hobby that favor them most. Plant sales, livestock and replenishment items are where the margins are at in the business, said Mike Calli, owner of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif.

“It’s a dollar thing,” he added. “You can sell all of your little stuff with a decent margin and get turn, and fill in your accessories, foods, additives and medications.”

If retailers focus on their core strengths and work to grow their business, they can compete where customers have an incentive to come in-store to help find success.

“Planted aquariums have been on the rise the past couple years in the hobby,” said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager at The Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. “Newer equipment is driving up the success rate for hobbyists, from beginner to expert.”

New Products

Tech Provides a Boost

With new technology and foreign product lines appearing in U.S. markets for the first time, there are fresh options to offer customers in the planted aquarium segment.

On the high-tech side of the hobby, which usually involves injecting CO2 into planted aquariums, Fluval has revamped its CO2 line, and now includes larger supply kits, said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager at Mansfield, Mass.-based The Hagen Group, manufacturer of the Fluval line.

“We are showcasing our new planted nano kit at Global Pet Expo in 2018,” LeRose said, adding that Fluval has also released new planting tools manufactured with carbonized stainless steel.

Other manufacturers are expanding their lines of aquascaping tools, as well. Seachem Laboratories in Madison, Ga., is planning to introduce a scissor designed to be compact, light and well balanced, said Amanda Neese, supervisor of sales, support and education for the company.

Full product lines that cater to the trend toward nano freshwater shrimp setups and demand for high-quality products are increasingly popular. Seachem and Aquamaster have done well for Mike Calli, owner of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif. But he said he’s excited for another line that’s catching on in the U.S.

“The thing that needs to get more popular is the Dennerle product line from Germany,” he said. “It’s distributed by JBJ, and it also includes a shrimp line that goes along with it. We carry the whole line, the tank setups and all their products. It’s a little on the ‘spend-y’ side, but it’s pretty good quality. We’re promoting more of it the last year or so.”

In terms of lighting options, LEDs are increasingly popular, though some customers still prefer traditional T5 fluorescents.

“LEDs are really doing quite well,” said Alexander Racho, plant manager for Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore. “I tend to recommend them more than our T5s specifically because they are more energy efficient and they last longer. But T5s are still pretty relevant simply because they just have a higher output compared to the LEDs.”

Add-on sales and items that require periodic replenishment are also profitable for retailers, and they keep aquarists coming back into the store.

Retailers reported that substrates and fertilizers, which are required in most cases for plants to thrive, are strong sellers.

“Substrates are something that we sell a lot of here,” said John Kuehlman, owner of Aqualand Aquarium Center in Minneapolis. “Eco Complete from CaribSea does well for us. Seachem has a really nice line of substrates that seem to be selling well also.”

Customer Education

The Wisdom of Brick-and-Mortars

With the vast availability of information on the internet, many aquatic hobbyists are well informed about planted tanks, with strong ideas of their own on what they are seeking before they visit their local specialty store. However, customers continue to value the support of knowledgeable retailers, industry participants reported.

“With the internet, a lot of customers come in with research and information under their belt,” said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. “That’s good, but we still get people with a lot of questions, and we’re still here to answer them.”

The planted tank hobby can be technical, and many customers might have opinions about plant husbandry and aquarium keeping, even if they’re new to planted tanks.

“There’s a lot of knowledge on the web,” said Mike Calli, owner of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif. “I don’t get opinionated all the time. I provide knowledge. If you get opinionated, you’re going to lose out.”

Between various forums and YouTube, it has never been easier to learn the ins and outs of keeping planted aquariums, including how to use CO2 injection to drive plant growth.

“Because YouTube has a lot more informational help and how-tos, I would say a lot of people who have a spark for a planted tank will likely have watched a video or two,” said Ian Glish, acting manager for Ultimate Aquarium in San Mateo, Calif. “It’s pretty straightforward until you start adding CO2 to the tanks. Planted tanks are kind of like pre-reef tank setups.”

With the difficulty of keeping planted tanks, it may behoove retailers to reach out and offer extra education opportunities, and even consider leveraging technology and information on the internet.

“We give all our customers the tools they need to make a successfully planted tank,” said Alexander Racho, plant manager for Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore. “Repeat customers are successful customers who are happy with their purchases. I really want to make people happy, and I’m in a very unique position to do that. We’re going to be rolling out a lot of [aquarium keeping] classes and start a YouTube channel as well.”

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