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Retailer Roundtable: The Future of Fishkeeping

With concerns over the viability of the aquatics industry mounting, pet specialty retailers talk about what works for them, how to increase hobbyists’ interest and what types of products they’d like to see in the marketplace.


Roundtable Participants:
Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.
Roger Ma, co-owner of Pet Zone Tropical Fish, which has two stores in San Diego
Bill Trufant, owner of B&B Pet Stop in Mobile, Ala.

What is the state of the aquatics segment of the pet industry today? Is it growing, stagnant or in decline? And why?

Patrick Donston: In my opinion, stagnant, because consumers are more likely to purchase online and through social media groups designed to their specific interest.

Roger Ma: We believe the aquatics segment is growing. It really depends on how a particular store is run and how often they change up their livestock offerings. There are a lot of retailers that continue carrying the same products and livestock, and many aquatic consumers do not like to see the same things over and over again. This is the main reason why many of the stores end up closing.  

When the livestock is always changing and new products are brought in on a regular basis, it brings excitement for customers. When a customer walks in to the store for the first time and sees the same exact fish in each store they visit, they’ll likely not visit that shop again as there isn’t really anything that sparks interest.  

At the same time, a lot of hobbyists are shifting from artificial décor to natural ones such as driftwood, live aquatic plants, real stones, etc. There is definitely a lack of exposure in the market, and when the right steps are taken to introduce the methods of re-creating these “natural landscapes” within an aquarium, more consumers will catch on, and this will lead to a spark in interest rather than staying stagnant and not changing the perception most consumers have of a typical fish tank. 

Bill Trufant: With the possible exception of saltwater, specifically corals and reef tanks, the aquatics segment in the pet industry is stagnant and probably in decline. True aquatics stores can’t compete since having live animals in a store is very labor intensive and expensive, which is why the big-box stores have very limited livestock. At B&B Pet Stop, the rest of the store has to “carry” the live animal departments; but for us, having live fish and animals are what make it fun.

Also, it seems that the fishkeeping population is aging. We just don’t see a lot of new, younger hobbyists.

What is working for you in the aquatics segment? And are there any particular product categories that really stand out in this segment?

Donston: Our added-value policy, which entails well-trained and educated employees. Because of this expertise, we tend to get more clients visiting us more often than in the past. The best customer service happens with well-trained employees.

Ma: We specialize in monster fish and other rare oddballs, and this is what makes us stand out from the crowd. Hobbyists get bored after seeing the same bread-and-butter livestock over and over again, and, consequently, many of them leave the hobby. The monster fish definitely give us a niche in the market, and many of our clients own massive tanks ranging from 200 to 1,000 gallons. 

We’ve been specializing in monster fish and predator fish for nearly a decade now and have built up a name for ourselves among many monster fish-keeping hobbyists. When anyone thinks of an arowana or bichir, we are one of the first shops to come to mind.

Nano tanks—anything 10 gallons or below—are also the new craze. You can re-create a piece of nature right on your office desk or home counter, and the options are endless on how the tank can be made to fit each person’s preference. One can keep a group of shrimp or simply just a single betta with maybe a few friendly tank mates. Nearly every aquarium company has its own line of nano tanks to compete in this new trend.

Trufant: We have a large store (14,400 square feet), with a very large freshwater and saltwater fish department—more than 6,000 gallons of tanks and display tanks. We are able to offer a tremendous variety of tropical fish, live plants, goldfish and koi, cichlids, and marine fish and corals. My fascination with fish started when I was 10 years old, and I’m still our head fish geek today. My  relationships with fish farms, transhippers and breeders allows us to bring in new, rare and unusual fish—definitely not the kind of stuff you’d find anywhere else in the area.

We maintain several large display tanks to show what fish look like as they mature as well as to show off our aquascaping and decorating skills. Our customers love to see what we come up with when we “rearrange the furniture” in our display tanks.

Another thing that works for us in aquatics are our regularly scheduled fish events. We start each month with our Fish Swap event on the first Tuesday of every month. Customers can bring in healthy fish they no longer want and swap them for new fish. This way, if they have a bully in the tank, they can bring it to us and select something more compatible—anything to keep them in the hobby.

Next up is Two-fer Tuesday, which is the second Tuesday of each month. Buy one freshwater fish or plant at regular price and get another one (same stock number) for 2-cents. No limit. This is a huge event every month and requires extra [staff] on the sales floor. Sales on Two-fer Tuesday are typically better than a strong Saturday.

At the end of the month—the last Friday of every month—is Salty Friday, our saltwater sale. Buy one live saltwater item at regular price and get any other live saltwater item (of equal or lesser value) for half price.

These events keep the departments hopping, and our customers love getting a good deal!

What have been the most impactful or game-changing innovations in the aquatics segment lately? 

Donston: Technology. Apps for lights, auto controllers, sensors linked to your phone with email-address alerts. We are one of four shops experimenting a new water-test system that sends email alerts to our clients.

Ma: With technology improving throughout the years, there are many methods of keeping aquariums well maintained, water clean and reducing fish disease risks. UV filters are offered at many stores now along with many brands integrating a UV light into their filters. This keeps the water clear of algae as it neutralizes most of the algae spores, therefore reducing the risk of algae blooms.  

At the very same time, many hobbyists are shifting away from chemicals and other conventional methods previously used toward holistic methods and taking a more natural approach. The use of live aquatic plants instead of plastic and/or silk plants and décor has been on the rise. We have removed 90 percent of all artificial plants and décor from our shelves since last year as a result of this.  

With live plants being much more aesthetically appealing to the eye with their real and natural appearance, the benefits don’t just stop there. They re-create a natural environment that allows fish to feel more at ease and “at home,” while keeping the water column of the tank naturally purified. This will reduce the amount of algae from growing inside a tank as the plants outcompete it for nutrients, allowing the fish tank to be much more of a self-sustainable ecosystem.  

Trufant: GloFish—the fish themselves and all of the products sold with them. Tiny tanks—nano tanks—make it easy for people to get into the hobby and be successful. Most recently, colorful nano shrimp. We set up a 4-foot section to display and sell as many varieties as we can get our hands on.

What is going on in the fish food marketplace? What is new, and what are the trends?

Donston: The fish food marketplace has been trending for the past 10 to 15 years. There is no doubt we are better at keeping a larger diversity of fish alive because of the maturation progress of fish foods. I do not see anything that stands out today except they all are producing higher-quality natural foods with less fillers and the use of probiotics.

Ma: Many hobbyists are no longer feeding their fish the typical flake and pellet foods that make up the majority of the fish food market. The majority of these foods are composed primarily of fillers such as soy or corn meal and flour-based ingredients that won’t do the fish any good in the long run. Many bloat, and swim bladder problems are also a result of low-grade fish foods.

There are a handful of companies now using complete protein sources from sustainable sources that the fish can benefit from and also easily digest. The newest food to hit the market and fly off our shelves has been the Fluval Bug Bites food line. It is composed of insect larvae protein, which many fish in the wild are usually hunting for. It has an odor that attracts many fish almost immediately, and from our first test batch, many fish, including the wild-caught species, went right after the food without hesitation.  

Many of the fish food brands are also adding probiotics to their ingredients. This allows the fish to have better digestion, which, in turn, becomes a method of waste control as it helps the aquarium water remain much more clean. Probiotics also reduce the need for antibiotics later down the line, as it helps them maintain a healthier immune system. Many times, parasites find their way into fish tanks—through the introduction of new fish, a bad batch of food, etc.—however, with healthier immune and digestive systems, the risk is minimized, as they can fight it off more effectively.  

Trufant: Fluval Bug Bites from Hagen. As more people are looking at healthier options for themselves, many are looking for healthier options for their pets—including their fish.  

What are consumers looking for in aquariums and supplies? What products are trending?

Ma: Many hobbyists are looking for simplicity when it comes to aquariums and supplies. The majority of them are looking for a tank that doesn’t require tedious work and only requires buying a handful of supplies that will last them at least a few water changes before having to replace them again. When it comes to proper tank setup, especially during the initial setup period, we make sure they understand how important it is to have an aquarium be properly cycled and make sure they take their time and buy all the right supplies to get the parameters right.  

Many companies such as Fluval or Aqueon now have complete tank kits that include everything necessary to get the tank up and running. This includes all the fundamental equipment such as the filter, filter media, LED, lid, thermometer, fish net, water conditioner and biological bacteria needed for proper tank cycling. Not only does it take the confusion out of having the new hobbyist trying to figure out what they need to get and purchasing each thing one by one, but it saves our staff time, and they are able to show the steps more thoroughly in an efficient and effective manner.  

There are other hobbyists with more intermediate fishkeeping skills who would like to take on other advanced fishkeeping projects such as a planted aquarium with very demanding plants and finicky fish. What has worked for us is building a set that we would personally use ourselves and selling it as a complete set. This often includes a more advanced lighting system and other items such as hardscape, supplements, etc.  

Trufant: Shrimp and shrimp tanks. Different kinds of fancy bettas—crown tail, half moon, koi, delta butterfly, plakat, black orchid crown tail and platinum orchid crown tail. 

In which categories would you like to see more product innovation and problem-solving developments from manufacturers in the segment?

Donston: I think manufacturers should work on how they distribute their products and be better suited to control MAP policies. We hear a lot about the impossibility of doing this, but we can see it’s done very efficiently in other industries. For some reason, we are light-years behind.

Ma: Surface film tends to build up on the water surface as a result of protein, dust and other particles. It is more than just an eyesore, though. This can hinder an aquarium from having the right balance between gas exchanges with the water column and atmosphere, particularly in smaller nano tanks.  

More and more manufacturers are starting to integrate skimmers into their filters. But there aren’t many products on the market geared toward nano tanks. Hobbyists can find a surface skimmer for their small tanks, but it does take some sacrifice of not only the space but the aesthetics of a nano tank (the natural look hobbyists are aiming for) as well. There needs to be a filter system with a built-in skimmer that isn’t too bulky so it eliminates the need to have multiple equipment [pieces] plugged in and effecting the overall look of the tank.   

Other innovative ideas would be to create better sustainable tissue culture plants that can last longer on the shelves with better packaging to prevent rotting and/or die-off. Many of the packages are very flimsy and end up getting damaged during the shipment process, which lowers their shelf life as a result. This can turn off potential hobbyists who buy and don’t immediately plant them.  

Trufant: The main thing manufacturers could do to help brick-and-mortar stores is to keep prices reasonable and enforce MAP pricing. It’s embarrassing when customers come in with an internet price and make us feel as though we’re robbing people with our normal margins.

Do you foresee the aquatics hobby growing, remaining stagnant or declining in the next few years? And what specific factors do you think will determine the future of the aquatics segment?

​Donston: I see it going toward more of an entertainment market. Brick-and-mortars will need to utilize technology and zoo/aquarium models to make their place a destination. We will have to get creative and use exhibit display management to provide entertainment.

We have to understand our place with consumers. For beginners, we will remain relevant. For advanced hobbyists—less so. That’s why we’ll have to discover new ideas to draw advanced aquarists in.

We can get the candy, i.e., the fish, but now we have to market and display for enjoyment. They’ll leave the house for that.

Honestly, I do not foresee growth. I do believe only savvy, market-based retail experts with specialty expertise will survive for an extended time.

Ma: We believe it will continue to grow as it takes current hobbyists and local fish store owners such as ourselves to continue working together and pushing the hobby to new people who have always had an interest and never considered starting an aquarium at home or at the office. We get people that come in nearly everyday and have never had a fish tank, but after we guide them on what it takes to start and maintain one and show them examples of how an aquarium can look [from the display tanks we have in-store], they end up getting into the hobby.  

There needs to be a constant push to spark new interest. Kids and teens may have access to other forms of digital entertainment, but it also takes current hobbyists who are also parents to pass along the interest and joy of fishkeeping to their children. We see families come in on a regular basis, and over the course of maybe a few months to a year, it isn’t uncommon to find the husband, wife and son each have their own individual tanks catered to their own needs and preferences.  

Factors that can affect the future of this segment can range from environmental protection issues, which may ban certain species to be possessed or sold within a certain state, to material costs rising, making tanks and/or supplies/equipment prices go up. Being in California, it is already illegal to possess certain species of fish as the state wildlife agencies are afraid they will be released and become an invasive species. It is really up to all of us, as a whole, to ensure the entire industry is responsible for what we do with our fish and to have hobbyists take up responsibility to get rid of a fish they no longer want in the proper method by donating to local fish societies or stores, trading with fellow hobbyists, etc.  

There are certain plants, fish and other invertebrates that are not banned, but if released, they have the potential to wreak havoc on the local ecosystem and outcompete local species. We must continue to be accountable and also help keep other fellow hobbyists accountable as many of these fish and/or plant species can and will be banned if a sizable impact is made from their irresponsible release, whether negligently or intentionally. Fish hobbyists in this state, and in the U.S. as a whole, already cannot obtain many fish that other countries have not banned, and with responsible fishkeeping habits, we can continue to thrive and grow the interest and work with what we can already get our hands on.        

​Trufant: Probably stagnant and perhaps even declining. Not only are we competing with digital entertainment, but we’re also fighting folks like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who successfully throttled the sustainable harvest of saltwater aquarium fish in Hawaii, even though there are numerous studies showing minimal impact on the reefs and corals—especially when compared with other commercial fishing.

There are some glimmers of hope for the aquatics hobby. As a member of the board of directors of the World Pet Association (WPA), for the last few years I have worked the Aquatic Experience show in Chicago, which is open to the public, with lots of excited, interested kids in attendance.

Years ago, there was a program supported by an aquarium products manufacturer that funded setting up 10-gallon aquariums in fourth-grade classrooms. They donated the 10-gallon kit with a filter, a heater and lights, and we donated the gravel and fish. I would go to the school and set the tank up, explaining to the kids what I was doing as I was doing it. Why do we need a filter? What purpose does gravel serve?, etc. We had a waiting list of teachers who wanted to be included. I would suggest an aquatics industrywide program to support something like this and get tanks in as many classrooms as possible. Maybe do it for a year and really go after it! Yes, it would be expensive, but that’s how you reach a captive audience of kids.

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