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Aquatic Marketplace: Capitalize on Aquarium Lighting’s Evolution

Posted: March 28, 2012, 1:45 p.m., EDT

From stocking staple lighting and new technology to speaking from experience and showcasing success, employing a spread of strategies can boost bottom lines—and keep customers coming back.
By Brian Wheeler

A growing trend in the aquarium world, LED lighting systems are here to stay, offering hobbyists an alternative to many traditional lighting options. And, according to some retailers, the general public’s interest in the hobby is coming back after the economic downturn, so fish store owners can likely expect to see increased sales of aquatics products in the future.

LEDs over an aquarium
Though LEDs have been on the market for a while, new product offerings and a wide selection mean retailers now havethe tools to catch customers’ attention. Clay Jackson/BowTie Inc.

“We’re finally seeing interest in the hobby pick back up after the recession over the last couple of years,” said Douglas Kulesza, manager at Phoenix Tropical Fish in Phoenix.

Going, Going, Green
While customers are starting to spend more of their money again, they appear to be spending it in a slightly different way when it comes to lighting. The marketplace is seeing a slow-down in metal halide fixture sales, and compact florescent fixtures are almost non-existent now, according to Michael Elliott, co-owner of lighting manufacturer Aquatic Life in Los Angeles.

“Consumers are more aware of their electric bills and LEDs definitely can save money each month,” Elliott said. “Not to mention, you don’t need to replace the bulbs every nine to 12 months like you would in a fluorescent or metal halide fixture.”

Customers aren’t the only ones who can reap the cost-saving fruits of LED lighting, though. Aquatic retailers can also benefit.

“We have gradually phased out our metal halide lighting fixtures over the [display] coral tanks and replaced them with LED pendants,” stated Cyrus Ferris, owner of Exotic Aquatics in Boulder, Colo. “We look forward to the savings of not having to replace bulbs each year.”

It’s not surprising that more of these systems are appearing on the market, as evidenced by the increase in the LED options consumers now have.

“The biggest change [in aquarium lighting], especially over the past year is the multitude of manufacturers now producing LED systems,” said Daniel Huhman, assistant manager for The Fish Gallery in Houston. “Also, many of the manufactures discontinued producing power compact fixtures and bulbs, which used to be the standard for plant tanks and smaller reef tanks.”

Given the length of time LED technology has been around, it’s an open question as to why the fishkeeping industry has taken so long to embrace the energy-efficient lighting.

Industry Voices
What will be the next turn in aquarium lighting?

“Many LEDs are still centered around retrofitting. I think the market needs a larger selection of full fixtures to replace current fluorescent and power compact strip lighting.”
—Cyrus Ferris, owner of Exotic Aquatics in Boulder, Colo.

“[Given that] bettas are a huge way to get people into the hobby [who] normally wouldn’t be thinking about it, I would like to see some really good quality, cheap [less than $50 retail] clip-on lights for small tanks.”
—Cameron McOuat, co-owner with his wife Jeannie Lister at Aquariums West in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

“Our number one selling light fixture [right now] is the 48-inch T5HO Four-Lamp fixture. That said, we just launched our new 1-watt LED fixtures that also include purple LEDs and we sold out in the first three days. We’re working on building more to keep up with the demand. My guess is that our LED sales will out-number our T5HO sales by sometime in 2013.”
—Michael Elliott, co-owner of Aquatic Life in Los Los Angeles

“It took our industry a bit longer than other industries to accept LED lighting because the community was unsure if you could keep your livestock under LEDs,” reported Manny Mandalia, managing director for Innovative Marine in Cerritos, Calif. “Now that it’s proven, there are a lot of lighting options when it comes to LEDs.”

At Amazon Stingrays in Clawson, Mich., Patrick McWilliams is one of many aquarium shop owners seeing the upswing in LED sales. However, he noted that the high cost of LEDs makes them a viable option only for hobbyists with larger budgets.

“But as costs come down, I can see them taking a large part of the aquarium lighting market,” McWilliams said.

Aside from the LED trend gripping the industry, another type of energy-efficient lighting solution is starting to make its way to the marketplace.

“Where LEDs use many small light sources to try and balance the light output, plasma does this all-out-of-one ‘tic-tac’-sized light bulb,” said Gerald Rea, CEO of Stray Light Optical Technologies in Scottsburg, Ind.

Dubbing its plasma lighting line Seashine, Stray Light Optical manufactures a fixture that features low power consumption, low maintenance costs, dimming controls and is designed specifically for both residential and commercial aquarium applications, Rea added.

Tried and True T5s
Though new technologies are gaining ground in the marketplace, many retailers reported that T5 High Output (HO) systems remain their top sellers.

“T5 lights still sell the best for us,” McWilliams said. “They are inexpensive and still allow the consumer to grow a wide variety of coral. There are many brands that sell well, including the Tek fixtures by Sunlight Supply, Aquatic Life and many others.”

For the majority of retailers, HO systems can still dominate their lighting offerings. T5 fixtures are the mainstay of lighting sales at Saltwater Fanta-Seas in Portland, Ore., reported owner Patrick McBride.

While opinions vary regarding the staying power of T5s, Aquatic Life’s Michael Elliott noted that despite the boom in LED interest, T5HOs still reign for two reasons.

“One, the price point is still really good and, two, there are more light spectrum options with T5HO bulbs versus new LEDs,” Elliot said. “This is especially important depending on the types of corals you are trying to grow.”

Shining Sales
To successfully market and sell LED lighting, retailers may need to make customers aware of the system’s advantages.

“The stores need to give the hobbyist the cost benefits of changing to LEDs,” Mandalia at Innovative Marine said.
“One of our key dealers in Michigan had a spreadsheet giving the cost of a customer’s old lighting systems—halides, compacts, T5, you choose—and showed them their savings over the next five years in bulb replacements and energy savings,” he added. “This makes it an easy sale for them.”

Showcasing success can prove effective, too, especially when it comes to LEDs, which some hobbyists may still be skeptical about. Case in point: The Fish Gallery’s 72- by 30- by 24-inch primary reef display, which features four Aqua Sol LEDs, is designed to show customers what they can expect over the long term with a variety of different corals.

“Retailers need to be careful not to appear to push the more expensive lighting options,” McWilliams at Amazon Stingrays said. “Be honest with your customers about what the various light system capabilities are, and help them choose a system that fits their needs and their budget.

“For instance, I make sure my customers know that they don’t need a $2,000-plus LED system to try coral,” he added. “But if it’s in their budget, they will be very happy with LEDs.” <HOME> 

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