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Aquatic Marketplace: Decorative Items Captivate Customers

Posted: June 26, 2012, 6:00 p.m., EDT

From naturalistic items to fantasy products, décor items bring in new business, reduce hassles and keep hobbyists coming back.

Aquarium décor covers a wide range of products and applications, and can be a source of sales and profits for any aquatic retailer. Part of the appeal is the potential variety of ornaments to offer. There are products for kids, decorative designs, naturalistic configurations and everything in between.

“We have between 300 and 500 ornaments at any one time,” said Sean Fitzgerald, manager of The Fish Nook in Acton, Mass. “We are always bringing in new ornaments, fake plants and rocks, and items that don’t sell within a reasonable period of time we keep marking down until they do sell.”

Natural Versus Artificial

Decorative Items Captivate Customers
Decorative items displayed in-shop grab customers' attention and allow them to see what products would look like in their own tanks. Sherri L. Collins/BowTie Inc. in Safari Pet Center
In the world of aquarium décor, offerings range from all-natural rocks and wood to brightly colored cartoon characters, sunken ships and novel objects designed to attract attention.

Driftwood has always been a mainstay for hobbyists who prefer sticking with the natural look. However, as it is generally collected locally, some retailers reported the need to find local sources.

“We have a guy from Tennessee who drives around and sells driftwood from his truck,” said Sandy Davidson, founder of Sandy’s Pet in Louisville, Ky. “He collects it himself, cleans it and mounts it on slate with stainless-steel screws.”

Another type of wood that is becoming very popular is mopani.

“Mopani is very heavy, and branches a lot,” reported Garett Shull, fish room manager of Little Critter Pet Center in Exeter, N.H. “It always sinks immediately, and doesn’t give off much in the way of tannins to discolor the tank water.”

Part of the problem with natural décor has to do with its leaching potentially unwanted substances or organisms into the aquarium environment. Frequently, aquarists are turning to decorations that are designed to look like the real thing.

“Natural driftwood is becoming very expensive, and customers usually prefer the very realistic man-made products,” said Garett Shill, fish room manager for Little Critters in Exeter, N.H.

Manufactured versions of rocks, corals, coral reefs, and similar products are also popular, for similar reasons.

“Same for rocks, as the artificial ones look better, are cleaner and much lighter than the ‘real thing,’” Shill added.

Part of the appeal comes from the ease of use and lack of chemical impact on the aquarium.

“We really like Deep Blue’s Holey Rock,” reported Jeff King, owner of Pets Plus in Taylor Mill, Ky. “It is much lighter than natural rock, works just as well as far as the fish are concerned, and it doesn’t affect [water] pH or hardness.”

Plastic Versus Silk

Industry Voices
What selling points affect your decision to offer various aquarium decorations?

“There are two extremes. On the one side, hobbyists go for bright colors, outlandish configurations, and with a touch of humor. The other extreme are the ‘naturalists’ where even though [decorations] are fake, the more they look like the real thing, the better.”
-Garett Shull, fish room manager for Little Critters in Exeter, N.H.

“We tend to push more ‘natural’ decorations such as rocks, driftwood and caves. Many customers are concerned with price, and the resin ornaments have become very expensive.”
-Jeff King, owner of Pets Plus in Taylor Mill, Ky.

 “Hobbyists seem to go for the unusual, but not too grotesque, and price is a real concern; $11 seems to be the price point. While it may seem that the kids drive the ornament sale, in fact most are selected by and for adults.”
-Sean Fitzgerald, manager of The Fish Nook in Acton, Mass.

“In our store, it’s really hard to say what makes an ornament or decoration sell best. We do see that with children it is the parents and the kids selecting what they want together, so you have to stock products that appeal to both.”
-Patty Ream, co-owner of Boston Pets in Peabody, Mass.

When it comes to live plants, aquarists are faced with the same problem terrestrial garden keepers must deal with: Plants can be difficult to keep and often die off. Here, there is even more incentive for retailers to offer realistic-looking artificial plants to help hobbyists create a natural aesthetic without the hassle of keeping live submerged flora.

Various manufacturers have developed products to suite this demand. Commack, N.Y.-based Blue Ribbon Pet has developed a line called Color Burst Florals, designed to look natural and feature vibrant foliage, said Cathy Byrnes, product manager for the company.

Retailers noted various customer preferences when it comes to buying either silk or plastic offerings.

“We do best with the Tetra plastic plants,” King said. “Silk plants do not clean very well, and some customers do not like the look of the silk ones.”

The choice between plastic versus silk offerings often comes down to customer preference. There are ways to improve either product’s appearance in aquaria, however.

“We tell customers to soak [plastic plants], in very hot water for a couple of minutes before putting them into the tank,” King said. “This makes them look very realistic.”

Displaying plastic and silk plants, ornaments and other aquarium décor in shop tanks boosts sales, fish retailers reported.

“A store has to have plastic or silk plants, moving ornaments, and any ornaments with lights set up, working, in the store,” said Patty Ream, co-owner, along with husband Peter, of Boston Pets in Peabody, Mass.

Fanciful and Themed Décor
While adult hobbyists have tended toward more naturalistic setups, and thus toward manufactured products designed to mimic that style, newer aquarists and young hobbyists continue to enjoy and purchase themed and fantasy decoration items.

In some products, functionality is built into decorative products. Many newer ornament designs include aeration and lighting, for example.

“The H2shOw Kits combine a resin decoration, bubble maker and an LED light,” stated Brian Shavlik, eastern region manager for Hydor USA Inc., based in Sacramento, Calif. “We make two groups of kits: natural and classic. The natural [kits] include [our] volcano, crystal, crystal Deluxe and tree stump. The classics include [our] pyramid, coliseum and Greek temple.”

Fanciful décor may benefit from the visual activity ornaments such as these add to aquaria. Children tend to gravitate toward activity in tanks—hence their penchant for overfeeding fish—and such products can serve to interest them, several industry participants stated.

“The Hydor Volcanoes are our best-selling ornament,” Boston Pets’ Ream said. “We also sell a lot of Natural Aquatics and Pure-Pets [ornaments].”

Some themes, such as those relating to pirates or skulls, have been and continue to be popular with aquarists as well.

“Skulls and skeletons have always been our best sellers,” The Fish Nooks’ Fitzgerald said.

The line between entertainment and fishkeeping continues to blur, especially for kids, industry participants reported, and various décor themes and complete setups have become as important —or more than—the fish.

“Bringing the movies home to your aquarium has never been easier, especially in a time where pirates and skulls seem to be in the minds of kids and adults alike,” Blue Ribbon’s Byrnes said.

There are myriad licensed characters and themes from cartoons, movies, comics, and just about every form of media, and these do especially well with children, a segment underrepresented in the hobby currently, according to some in the industry.

Issues related to competition and cost, however, have kept some retailers out of the themed décor business.

“For us, the licensing makes it very expensive, and in many ways has priced these products too high,” Sandy’s Pet’s Davidson stated. “We have to wait for these to be on closeout in order to sell them.”

Several retailers mentioned this obstacle to offering licensed products.

“They sell a little, but they’re expensive because of the trademark costs,” Fitzgerald echoed.

Brick-and-mortar stores don’t just compete with Internet-based retailers on high-end lighting systems, filters and similar products: price competition exists in the themed décor segment as well.

“I don’t carry the trademarked theme ornaments, because I can’t compete with the prices that the manufacturers allow them to sell on the Internet,” Pets Plus’ King said. “Nor can I compete on price with the chain stores.”

Despite price competition, retailers and industry participants continually report the need to involve kids in the hobby, despite competition from other forms of entertainment. A possible way to do this, if feasible, is to cross-promote aquarium sales with those of other media through the use of themed products. <HOME>

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