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Custom Aquariums Attract Profits

Posted: Feb. 22, 2012, 11:25 a.m. EST

Retailers and manufacturers can take a piece of this high-end, service-based market.

By LaRue Palmer
Designers of custom aquariums are pushing the envelope on creativity and imagination with unique designs that merge with architecture and environments to meet clients’ expectations.

“Someone will come into our store and say they’re building a house and they think there’s a perfect spot for an aquarium,” said Nick Fernandez, owner of Eco Reef in Zeeland, Mich. “They’ll show me a rough sketch of what they envisioned and say ‘Do you think an aquarium can do this?’ And we tell them if its acrylic and you can draw it, then we can get it made.”

Reef Aquarium

Though aquariums are traditionally made of glass, custom setups are almost exclusively made from acrylic because it can be shaped to fit nearly anything clients can imagine. While glass tanks are relatively limited in shape and construction, acrylic tanks are easier to manufacture in a variety of configurations and specially made sizes.

Challenges to the Industry
Custom design and manufacture generally costs more than prepackaged products. As with many other retail sectors, pet stores and other aquatic-related businesses have seen a decline in sales of aquariums in general—and custom tanks and maintenance in particular—which has a negative effect on the hobby, retailers reported.

However, thanks to public aquariums, pet stores with elaborate display tanks, and some cable television programming, interest in aquatic life is holding its own. For example, the Animal Planet’s reality TV series “Tanked” seems to have helped renew interest in the hobby.

“We did see a downturn in smaller [custom] aquariums because of the economy, but I’m starting to see that turn around, especially with the show itself increasing interest in the hobby in America and overseas,” said Brett Raymer, COO of Acrylic Tank Manufacturing (ATM) in Las Vegas. “Our show and what we do inspires people to become hobbyists.”

Brett, along with his brother-in-law Wayde King, founder and CEO of ATM and co-star of the show, run the company dedicated to custom tank manufacture and installation.

The economic impact of a recession—and a general tightening of belts—has traveled all the way up the socioeconomic ladder, however. Some in the business have noticed even high-end clients cutting back when it comes to custom tanks and maintenance.

 “We felt the impact the economy had on our business,“ said Justin Muir, a marine biologist and principal designer for City Aquarium in New York, who specializes in creating aquatic environments for his well-to-do clientele. “Even my wealthy clients were very conscious about the cost of maintenance of their tanks, and some decided to just get rid of them.”

Using a networking-based approach may take some of the edge off financial difficulties for those in the business of custom aquariums.

“What I try to do is partner with other aquarium manufacturers I do business with by providing expertise and experience that assists them in servicing their clients,” Muir said. “Our knowledge of marine biology as well as interior design and decorating are important aids for these businesses when they are designing a very large aquarium for a client, so that’s when they call us. It’s just another way for us to generate revenue.”

The benefits may extend beyond simply growing business, however. Golan Binder, founder and owner of Oceans Aquarium in Los Angeles, said retailers and service companies should learn to partner with one another in order to provide better service for their customers, and for the benefit of the hobby as well. Keeping customers happy helps keep them as satisfied hobbyists.

Home-Base Tanks
Generally, custom aquariums are perceived to be high-end marine aquariums, or very large show aquariums for businesses and private individuals with the means to pay for their construction and maintenance. However, custom tank providers shouldn’t overlook setups that can be customized to fit certain dimensions of a home or office, or be the embodiment of a client’s dream. The main drawback in a customer’s mind may not be the price, but rather the time cost of maintaining the setup.

“As far as deterrents to getting into a custom tank because it might be a lot of money, people have a tendency to not get into the hobby more because they have the impression it’s a lot of work rather than a lot of money,” said Ian Schakowsky, co-owner of Old Town Aquarium in Chicago.

Once clients commit to investing in a custom aquarium, they should be informed that maintenance will be required throughout the life of the aquatic system, no matter who does it. This is where the retailer comes into play.

“We don’t sell a system to somebody and say ‘There you go—good luck,’” Schakowsky said. “We teach them the skills necessary to be successful, whether they choose to do it themselves or if they want us to do it. Those having some familiarity with their system will greatly improve their chances of success.”

In many cases, those purchasing a custom aquarium setup may not be inclined to service it themselves. Keeping a well-trained staff of technicians and service personnel is a step toward accomplishing the goal of offering customers comprehensive service.

“I think more retailers should identify and train qualified technicians so they can open a service division that provides not only quality maintenance service, but environmentally safe products from their stores to their customers on a monthly basis,” King said. “If they don’t have the staff to do this, they should hire a local maintenance company to service their clients under their supervision. In addition to the monthly service, retailers would get repetitive business from their clients, which will increase revenue for their store.”

Custom aquarium clients aren’t just wealthy home owners, either. Many institutions and businesses keep display aquariums for the benefit of customers. For example, doctor’s offices often incorporate such aquariums in their lobbies.

“Aquariums have been proven medically beneficial to patients,” said Ron Rheingold, president and owner of Living Art Aquatic Design in Los Angeles. “It calms them while they’re waiting to see the doctor or dentist, and lowers their blood pressure.”

When doctors have custom tanks put in, professionals in the business reported, they generally also opt for maintenance, which is a big benefit to service providers, as it sets up the chance for a steady stream of income.

Meeting Any Need
By their very nature, these specialized setups can fit into any niche, demand or type of application. A custom tank with a larger viewing area is a good medium for enjoying more exotic species of aquatic livestock and more charismatic animals, such as manta rays, eels, giant sharks and huge schools of pelagic fish. These are species the average client is going to have little experience with, and which also command a higher price, retailers reported.

Expert maintenance is vital to sustaining aquatic life, and for custom designers it can represent an ongoing relationship with their client where the designer and service technicians retain responsibility for the health and beauty of the tank.

Companies such as Living Art Aquatic Design specialize in this kind of work. Rheingold has been in the tank servicing business since 1972.

“Our reputation is what keeps us going,” he said. “We’re not doing as much business as we were doing before the recession hit, but we’re doing pretty well overall. We’re still adding service accounts and doing custom installations. I would say that’s because we’ve been in business so long, and word-of-mouth keeps us striving to just keep doing a good job.”

Conditions and markets vary, however, and many retailers reported that trying to have a maintenance service in addition to selling pet products may be met with varying degrees of success.

“To run a retail store and a service company together is extremely difficult,” Oceans Aquarium’s Binder said. “It is very time consuming and takes a lot of patience to be on an installation site when you need to be there, and then have to worry about whether you ordered crickets for the store.”

Not having access to manufacturing facilities or specific knowledge of working with acrylic isn’t a deterrent to retailers getting involved in offering custom aquaria, however. Corona, Calif.-based North American Pet Products offers retailers its SeaClear acrylic aquarium manufacturing service to allow them access to the custom aquarium market.

The program allows clients to order custom or stock aquariums from the retailer, and the company will ship the final product directly to the retailer through its SecureShip program.
“We have an acrylic oven with a 15-by-15-foot opening and a depth of 30 feet, so we can do just about anything, such as tanks for public aquariums, zoos or even a special event, all the way down to a desktop aquarium,” said Jeremy Moser, director of marketing for the company. “We will work with the various designers and architects who send us plans, and then we look them over and make our recommendations. Once we have an agreement on the final plans, then we go for it and ship directly to the retailer.” <HOME>

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Custom Aquariums Attract Profits

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