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Why Brick-and-Mortars Are Still the Best Resource for Aquatic Hobbyists

Aquatic retailers have several advantages over their competitors when it comes to driving sales of aquarium equipment and maintenance supplies.


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A difficult competitive landscape continues to challenge local fish stores. Many have shifted their business models to focus on livestock sales and offer maintenance services. However, they are able to maintain their sales of dry goods—and specifically filters, pumps and temperature control equipment—by offering a combination of educational services, superior in-store experience and high-quality equipment.

“Customers are looking for products that show good results, said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquarium products. “They want everything to be easy and quick. Thus, they look for quality equipment that is easy to use and offers good results.”

Customers are still price sensitive when it comes to dry goods, however. 

“Customers are looking for innovation,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Hagen Group, a Mansfield, Mass.-based manufacturer of aquarium products. “They want products that maintain reliability and efficiency, all at a competitive price.”

Still, retailers may find success by pointing out that higher initial prices may translate into savings over time.

“Even though quality products seem to be more expensive, they are actually not,” Frenken noted. “By using high-quality products, customers’ maintenance effort will be less, which saves them money in the long run.”

The trend toward nano aquariums remains prevalent, especially if retailers carry general offerings for both freshwater and saltwater systems. 

“A lot of customers are going for planted tanks or nano tanks,” said Pam Nunnally, manager for Azalea Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Richmond, Va. “I’m actually selling a tremendous amount of sponge filters, and not a lot of my competitors do. I get a big trade when people just want to set up nano tanks with a sponge filter.”

With the prevalence of smaller setups, customers are relying on simpler hang-on-the-back filtration.

“In my experience, if customers are keeping tropical community freshwater fish, usually they’re buying hang-on filters because they’re easier to maintain,” said Robert Dixon, M1-certified aquarist for Absolutely Fish, a tropical fish store in Clifton, N.J. “We see a lot of customers looking for these. Canister filters are OK too, but customers usually use those on bigger tanks … such as planted tanks.”

Smaller hang-on-the-back filters sell well for retailers relative to canister filters, as these serve to meet newer aquarists’ high demand for equipment suited to function in small and even nano-sized aquarium applications.

“I see more hang-on-back filters versus canisters selling for smaller setups,” said Melissa Ellison, assistant to the manager for Austin Aqua-Dome, a pet store in Austin, Texas. “Some customers are sensitive to aesthetics, even with smaller systems, and then they’ll opt for a canister. But I would say

most of the filters we sell are hang-on types.” 
There’s no getting away from the fact that, when it comes to more generic equipment, such as aquarium pumps, customers are price sensitive.

“Aquatop filters seem to be selling OK,” said Frank Schmidt Sr., owner of the Coral Reef Pet Center, a pet store in Norridge, Ill. “This is probably because of their longevity and the price point.”

Kit sales also appeal to customers who are looking for a bargain.

“The kits are what people seem to buy because of the price point,” Schmidt added. “Nothing over 55 gallons [goes] out the door quickly. It’s the 10-, 20- and 29-gallon tanks that hobbyists are buying.” 

New Products

Next Generation

Manufacturers are focused on providing products that meet the criteria of affordability and quality. This often means introducing new equipment and lines that offer innovative design and value in creative ways. 

“Our X07 series marks the seventh incarnation in four decades of Fluval’s top-selling canister filter family worldwide,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. “The latest generation [is designed to] integrate power and dependability customers have come to expect.” 

The X07 features several new performance upgrades designed to make it up to 25 percent quieter and more robust overall, Hester stated, as well as energy efficient and easier to use.

Innovation in filtration often comes in the form of new filter media offerings. Hobbyists are turning to resins and other new chemical filter media to help control waste and contaminants. Sera recently introduced a new chemical filter media to help reduce nitrite, for example.

“Sera Nitrite-minus [is formulated to] immediately remove up to 1.5 milligrams/l nitrite per dosage from aquarium water,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. “[Removing nitrate] provides immediate help in cases of acute pollution.”

The media is designed to bind nitrite and convert it into organic amines that can be utilized by filter bacteria, Frenken added, and can be used preventively against nitrite accumulation.

Retailers noted that chemical filter media are increasingly popular as well, especially among advanced aquarists. 

“A lot of customers have been going to [Seachem’s] Purigen when it comes to filter media,” said Robert Dixon, M1-certified aquarist for Absolutely Fish, a tropical fish store in Clifton, N.J. “They’re choosing it over traditional chemical filter media such as charcoal. It’s becoming a lot more popular. I do see customers using reactors more frequently, especially with customers doing larger saltwater and reef systems. They are also using UV sterilizers more often, and protein skimmers continue to be popular.”

Chillers, on the other hand, are largely out of favor in the hobby, as low-heat LEDs continue to reduce the need for temperature reduction in many applications.

“I don’t do the chillers,” said Pam Nunnally, manager for Azalea Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Richmond, Va. “Most customers don’t need them. I still carry all the filters, heaters and that type of thing.” 

Most retailers find that they focus on products that perform well for them, and that sell well in the long run. They’re product loyalty translates into trust from customers and increased sales. 

“We’re pretty set on the Tunze filters,” said Melissa Ellison, assistant to the manager for Austin Aqua-Dome, a pet store in Austin, Texas. “We’ve always carried them, along with the Aqueon filters and AquaClear for hang-on-backs. We also carry the Eheim canister filters and the Fluval canister filters as well. Those are the main filters that people come back and want more of. If they’re setting up new tanks, they have good success rates with these products, which helps keep them coming back.” 

Consumer Education

Knowledge Leads to Success

Customer experience is the determining factor of success for many independent brick-and-mortar aquarium retailers. Offering superior education along with support after purchase allows local fish stores to stand out and build loyalty. 

“Our educational offerings definitely help drive sales,” said Robert Dixon, M1-certified aquarist for Absolutely Fish, a tropical fish store in Clifton, N.J. “The store provides a lot of classes and direct interaction with manufacturers. We work to make sure sales representatives can adequately support customers. Once people discover our store, they become very loyal. They always come back in to ask questions and make additional purchases.”

Often, this means sales staff must be up to speed on what products are best suited to a customer’s needs. 

“We try to explain how everything works right upfront, and what’s best for each person and setup,” said Melissa Ellison, assistant to the manager for Austin Aqua-Dome, a pet store in Austin, Texas. “We want customers to buy the correct product for their needs, and make them feel comfortable being able to use it with the knowledge that they have.”

Hobbyists who have been involved in aquarium keeping for a substantial amount of time might be less likely to turn to online sources of information, as well.

“We do have a lot of older customers who don’t go online,” said Pam Nunnally, manager for Azalea Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Richmond, Va. “If you take the time to show customers something, they’re still probably going to buy it from you. Younger people will tend to buy their stuff online, but older customers will want to come in and see equipment before they buy. They want good service.”

The idea is to create a value proposition in customers’ minds, industry experts stated.

“The better service and knowledge a store offers, the more value the product will have for the customer,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. “Especially when it comes to equipment … it is always a good choice to buy from a knowledgeable retailer versus buying online. Make the customer understand that there is more value buying it from your store.”

Assessing the Competition

It’s no secret in the aquatics industry that local fish stores have been hard hit over the years with customers turning to online retail as price competition continues unabated.

“People are buying most of that higher-end stuff online,” said Pam Nunnally, manager for Azalea Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Richmond, Va. “We just can’t compete with those prices.” 

Issues with minimum advertised pricing (MAP) policies and cutthroat online retail practices have left many local fish stores hurting.

“You’re an outsider looking in,” said Frank Schmidt Sr., owner of the Coral Reef Pet Center, a pet store in Norridge, Ill. “[Sometimes, customers] can buy product cheaper than I can. Some of that leaves us in a position to avoid those products.”

In many cases, there is no way for local fish stores to directly compete on price. Sometimes price matching is viable, however.

“When it comes to competitors such as Amazon that are selling equipment for less, we do try to price match where we can,” said Robert Dixon, M1-certified aquarist for Absolutely Fish, a tropical fish store in Clifton, N.J. “That helps a lot. However, where our prices are higher, we feel that the education and service we provide justifies the increase in price.” 

Emphasizing service allows retailers to offer something customers can’t get elsewhere.

“The best way to stay competitive is to offer quality products in combination with quality service,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquarium products. “If retailers have educated staff running the store, and if they know how to sell the products and especially how to make the customers feel comfortable, the most important job is done.”


Trade Talk

Kevin DeWalt, managing director of Casco Pet in Ontario, Calif.

How important is it for pet specialty retailers to have the best possible display of aquatic livestock in-store if they want to succeed in the category? And how much of a difference does it make to a store’s bottom line when it invest’s in top-notch merchandising and displays in this category?

It is essential to have a vibrant living display to help inspire customers and create the desire for a home aquarium. It is equally important to demonstrate a competence at providing quality livestock for the more experienced aquarium owner. Casco Pet’s new VE range aquatics system, coupled with their highly effective Pure bacteria additive, empower pet specialty retailers to truly support their customer base.

Investing in a visually attractive system, that is also durable and easy to clean, will ultimately reduce costs and increase profitability for the store owner. Casco Pet’s new VE range aquatics system features cutting-edge technologies that reduce maintenance times and improve fish health. Reducing maintenance time is not only critical to bottom line profitability, but also critical to increasing sales. Customer experience is key in any brick-and-mortar specialty pet retail store; the more time associates spend interacting with customers, the better. Key features like high-output UV sterilizers and revolutionary Pure bacteria additives result in healthier, more vibrant fish. Setting a customer up for success from day one is critical, and providing the highest-quality fish possible is paramount to repeat sales and repeated customer visits.

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