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Plug-and-Play Products Boost the Automated Aquarium Equipment Category

There’s profit in automated aquarium equipment for savvy retailers who are ready to spend the time and understand their market.


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The aquarium hobby hasn’t caught up to some hobbyists’ “ideal” setup where every function in an aquarium is automated, and most long-time industry professionals know this isn’t the best way to go about maintaining a system. However, new products increasingly are featuring more integration, connectivity and automated features than ever before.

One of the most ubiquitous pieces of technology, the smartphone, is impacting aquarium products and how customers view automation.

“We see more hobbyists wanting to connect their aquariums to their mobile devices,” said Michael Elliott, co-owner of Aquatic Life LLC in South El Monte, Calif. “Since everything else seems to connect to a Galaxy or iPhone, it seems only natural that people want their aquariums to connect as well. Several of the controller companies are now integrating pumps, dosing, lighting and more into their systems—allowing hobbyists to monitor and control the aquarium equipment and water parameters through their mobile devices.”

The appeal for hobbyists is the ability to keep a closer eye on their systems, which especially is important in high-dollar reef setups.

“A lot of [these hobbyists] travel quite a bit,” said Todd Furmanek, head marine curator and store manager for Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. “A lot of people are using these Apex controllers to control a lot of things, like their LEDs, or their pumps; they can check it all through an app on their phone.”

Additionally, manufacturers are building integration into their product lines, which in some cases are becoming their own integrated ecosystems.

“EcoTech Marine has [implemented] connectivity across all their products,” Furmanek said. “Everything they sell now can connect through the ReefLink. It will spin up their return pumps. The lights will dictate what the powerheads do. Things of that nature.”

However, for some retailers, customer appeal is limited to advanced hobbyists with a bent for technology.

“I don’t sell electronics—and when I say that I’m thinking mostly of controllers—to people based on the fact that they’re going to make their tank more successful,” said Ian Schakowsky, co-owner of Old Town Aquarium in Chicago. “Whether it’s a doser, a controller or an auto top-off, anything that you become reliant on, it’s not foolproof. I think people have the tendency to think that with any type of electronic device, you can set it and forget it. Rarely does it work that way.”

 

“We see more hobbyists wanting to connect their aquariums to their mobile devices,” said Michael Elliott, co-owner of Aquatic Life LLC in South El Monte, Calif. “Since everything else seems to connect to a Galaxy or iPhone, it seems only natural that people want their aquariums to connect as well. Several of the controller companies are now integrating pumps, dosing, lighting and more into their systems—allowing hobbyists to monitor and control the aquarium equipment and water parameters through their mobile devices.”

 

New to the Automated Category

Though not every aquarist will graduate to high-end controllers meant to automate many aspects of their system, there are a growing number of products with automated features built in from the start, especially when it comes to LEDs—and customers are responding.

“There are substantial amounts of excitement [for programmable and automated equipment],” said Steve Oberg, aquatics manager at Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. “Whether it’s lights that contain programmable features—that would be the main item customers are interested in—or whether it’s the controller systems like the Apex, or the EcoTech VorTech pumps, we do a whole lot of those.”

Other retailers agreed that demand for automated LED features is the biggest trend in the production space.

“Lights these days have to have some sort of programmable features, either in terms of being capable of automation or already built into them,” said Bruce Kelley, manager for Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “People want to be able to do dawn, dusk and photoperiods automatically. There are some people who want special effects. I tell people that’s something they’ll use infrequently.”

Manufacturers are responding to the increasing demand for more integration and new features in LED equipment.

“Sometimes we get requests for new functionality that is tech related,” said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine in Allentown, Pa. “For example, our current initiative on the software side for our lighting is to include better direction for LED programming—to help users get up and running with an efficacious lighting schedule and spectrum.”

On the reef side of the market, new releases further push integration.

“This week we launched two new wavemakers that connect to the water return of the aquarium,” Elliott said. “These 110V motorized diffusers create dynamic wave-like currents in the aquariums, helping sweep away detritus.”

 

Education and Sales

“The feedback we get from retailers is that if the product has a programmable function or is automated, then it must be simple to operate,” said Michael Elliott, co-owner of Aquatic Life LLC in South El Monte, Calif. “Most retailers do well with plug-and-play products.”

Increased automation often means retailers must dedicate more resources to educating customers as well.

“As a retailer, it’s hard to stock because it requires a lot of time in terms of selling it, explaining it and supporting it,” Ian Schakowsky, co-owner of Old Town Aquarium in Chicago. “We don’t sell any kind of automated feature or electronic stuff predicated on the idea that it’s going to make your tank more successful. I’m leery of the customer who comes in and says, ‘I don’t plan on doing anything with my tank; I don’t want to have to touch it.’ Those tanks rarely are successful.”

There’s a divide between hobbyists who are looking for automation to reduce the amount of work they have to do in their aquariums and hobbyists who are seeking automated equipment to have better control of their setups. Freshwater hobbyists tend to be attracted to automated LED features, and most of the higher-end products appeal exclusively to marine and reefkeepers, said Brandon Bacod, product manager for Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore.

“Freshwater people [sometimes] respond very well to that kind of functionality, but, by and large, 90 percent of my customers don’t really find that [greater integration] either a pro or a con, but just a feature,” he said.

“With the cost of LEDs coming down, it’s easier to get customers to replace their entire fixture,” Bacod said. “Certain customers want wireless functionality … but with all the [new LED product] entries into the marketplace, being able to provide all these different options really helps.”

The retailers who succeed selling products in these categories report that they use in-store show tank displays and demonstrate how integrated products work to build enthusiasm.

“We’re a hands-on store,” said Bruce Kelley, manager for Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “We have most of the equipment on tanks where it’s visible. … If people can’t see it in operation, they can’t seem to grasp what it does. Both education and merchandising are part of one big picture.”

This means retailers will have to make sure staff are educated and capable of relaying information to customers. But for those that make the extra effort, there are potential profits—and happy customers—to be had.

“[Retailers need to] use the product that they sell—I think that this is true of most retailers in niche spaces,” said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine in Allentown, Pa. “One of the greatest things that a local retailer can do is to be an expert on the products. Using the products gives the retailer the insight to better assist the customer in their purchasing and consequently increase the hobbyist’s chances of success.”

 

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Pet Product News.

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