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Aquatic Marketplace: Dive In to New Business

Posted: November 25, 2013, 12:00 p.m. EDT


Adding an aquatics section to your store could lead to more foot traffic and profit, but it’s an endeavor that takes special dedication and skill.

By Lizett Bond

These days it’s hard to go anywhere without noticing an aquarium.

"Malls, museums, medical offices, restaurants and airports have them, even resorts are featuring aquarium exhibits,” said Les Wilson, co-founder of Cobalt Aquatics in Rock Hill, S.C. "Public aquariums are introducing more and more consumers each year to the incredible underwater world.”

The American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey cited nough to get you started,” he reported.

However, even a small inventory of fish can be beneficial to a budding aquatics department, according to Julie Loehr, co-owner of Paradise Fish and Pets in Humble, Texas.

Adding Aquatics
Adding aquatics to a store’s mix can bring new customers into the hobby—just make sure you have the staff to educate them. Sherri L. Collins/i-5 Publishing at Nature Pet Centre

"For a full-service retailer, adding aquatics will expose people to something that they are going to enjoy,” said Rick Preuss, co-owner of Lansing, Mich.-based Preuss Pets, a full-line, 24,000-square-foot pet supply store that devotes 70 percent of that space to aquatics.

Passion
However, beyond product and livestock, education and passion are crucial components to a flourishing aquatics department.

With this in mind, the successful retailer must possess a strong desire to offer customers a hobby they are going to love, Preuss said.

"It has to be contagious,” he said. "If you are not willing to connect with the individuals and inspire them about creating an aquarium, don’t put the pants on.”

A live aquatic section creates a destination for customers, and full-line pet stores typically see an increase in all department sales because of the crossover to ownership of other pets, Wilson said.

"Live fish in your store will make a dramatic impact on your dry good sales but require a higher capital investment, more in-store labor, combined with knowledge and expertise, to get it right,” Wilson added.

Education
For these reasons, front-loading the educational process is crucial before filling up those aquariums, stocking the shelves and setting out signs, retailers agreed.

To gather advice and expertise, Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., suggested attending national trade shows. These venues often offer seminars and workshops featuring expert panels eager to assist and answer questions.

Further, organizations such as Nexpet, a cooperative for independent pet retailers, provide a strong resource for obtaining competent information.

"Their network for aquatics is amazing,” said Donston. "You can get all the help you need and it’s free.”
 
In addition to these resources, Preuss suggested searching the Internet for information and taking advantage of webinars that will educate both retailer and employee.

Staffing an aquatics department with knowledgeable and educated people is a vital element to an aquatics endeavor. Donston noted that staff could make or break an aquatics section.

"You can have the best fish in the world and have great marketing, but as soon as people start visiting your aquatics section and they don’t get the help they need, they aren’t coming back,” Donston said. "It’s a onetime deal and that’s the end of it.”

Profit margins for aquatic products are great, he continued, but retailers must be aware that an aquatics department is also labor intensive and requires specialized staff.

"If you dive into it and just throw tanks up without the proper staffing, it fails quickly,” he added.

Douglas Kim, owner of Pacific Reef Tropical Fish, with locations in Fountain Valley, Orange and Torrance, Calif., said that in addition to expertise, employee turnover rate is equally important to the success of aquatic sales.

"You spend time building loyalty,” he said. "Your sales staff needs to be stable over time in order to make your customers feel that your business is stable and responsible.”

Industry Voices
What unique
methods do you use to promote aquatics and provide  customer education?

"I get a lot of compliments on my on-hold messages. We have 15 to 20 short facts playing on a loop. At the end it says, ‘Thank you for holding, we’ll be right with you.’ If a customer calls several times, they’ll hear different facts. We wrote and scripted it ourselves. Many times people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’”—Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.

"One of the key things to keeping fish is understanding the nitrogen cycle. A lot of people are intimidated by it. I have drawings demonstrating the nitrogen cycle posted throughout the store because we explain it so often. We also have handouts.”—Bob Hanes, owner of Animal Jungle in Virginia Beach, Va.

"We have signs posted throughout the store that describe what we call ‘The Four Pillars.’ These are the four things that every employee is required to explain to potential aquatics customers if the opportunity unfolds. If our staff can help customers understand The Four Pillars, they are far more likely to be successful. Those pillars include: the biological cycle of the water, gravel siphoning and proper management, proper feeding and fish health.”—Rick Preuss, co-owner of Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich.

Donston advised contacting local fish clubs and online reef clubs for potential employees. Once hired, an aquatics training manual is essential, he added.

All retailers agreed that specialization is imperative.

"My fish people just do fish,” said Bob Hanes, owner of Animal Jungle, a full-line pet supply store comprising 30,000 square feet in Virginia Beach, Va.

Commitment
Beyond employee knowledge and expertise, the owner-operator must still be the authority, said Hanes, who feeds his fish every day.

Other retailers agreed.

"I think the real onus should be on the owner or the manager of the organization first and foremost,” Donston noted.

"At least one of us is here every day,” said Loehr of Paradise Fish and Pets. "My husband and I run our store together.”

Keep It Friendly
Once armed with education, enthusiasm and experienced staff, it’s time to stock tanks.

Donston advised starting small and offering "community fish,” which are easier to keep.

"Don’t go hog wild and try to get every animal that you can find because you want to be the biggest and the best,” said Preuss. "Start with friendly, peaceful fish. There is a huge market in community fish.”

Kim added that while most saltwater hobbyists tend to go to fish-only stores, freshwater systems provide a means to introduce new pet owners to the hobby.

"As your intellectual IQ increases and your passion level and understanding are up, before you know it that’s old hat and you are going to put in more systems, expand your offerings, and go to semi-aggressive fish,” Preuss said.

When it comes to stocking aquatic products, Donston recommended choosing major brands to begin with. He added that products should include everything that is deemed necessary for the health of the fish being sold, allowing customers to purchase these essential items as they set up their own tanks.

"That means everything from a heater to water conditioners to gravel, and you’d better have everything on your shelf,” he said. "If you are carrying goldfish, for example, you’d better have the appropriate filters or you are not servicing your customers.”

To avoid redundancy, Hanes recommended stocking one line per category.

"With fish food, I would probably carry six or eight different kinds, although you can probably get by with two or three,” he added.

Fundamentals
Aquarium integrity is crucial, and when a retailer is constantly bringing in new fish, water quality can deteriorate quickly. Proper maintenance not only affects the health of the livestock, but also contributes to the appeal of the department, Donston said.

"It’s good water quality and proper feeding. It’s that simple,” said Hanes, adding that livestock is extremely perishable.

Consistently good water quality means filter changes, water changes and not overstocking or overfeeding, he continued.

When it comes to systems, put a budget plan in place.

"The people who you have been communicating with to acquire that basic information are the same people who can give you an understanding of what a basic aquarium system should look like,” Preuss said.

Hanes added that systems are a controversial subject; he said he prefers individual tanks with small systems.

Often retailers feel that an expensive system will solve all their problems, "but that’s not the reality at all,” Preuss noted.

"You build your own racks with your own aquariums and customize with the filtration you deem appropriate,” Donston said.

Aside from healthy fish, attractive tanks garner attention.

"We put decorations in our tanks, and sometimes it is inconvenient when we are trying to catch a fish, but those tanks look better than empty, bare tanks,” Hanes said.

In addition, planted tanks inspire customers, illustrating the potential to create beautiful aquatic systems.

"These systems can rival saltwater reef tanks and help motivate people to consider the hobby,” said Kim of Pacific Reef Tropical Fish.

Stocking aquariums is essential for capturing sales from new hobbyists, he said.

"We do sell aquariums in the store because new hobbyists will often buy a new system if they are convinced that they can make it work,” Kim noted. 

While stocking tank inventory does take up floor space, most customers prefer to purchase everything in one location.

"Customers don’t come in and buy a heater, or a filter or gravel unless they are buying a new tank,” Hanes said. "You have to offer the glass.” 

Building Confidence
Customer education plays a strong role in success or failure for the new hobbyist. More important, the retailer and staff must possess the ability to assist customers and create enthusiasm for a successful outcome.

"Understand how a tank works and how to communicate with your customers with regards to making that aquarium work,” Preuss said.

While knowledge and passion are fundamental to a successful venture, retailers agreed that selection is the final ingredient that keeps them coming back. Enthusiasts often visit many stores, returning to the establishments that offer fresh and ever-changing inventory.

"You need to budget and buy weekly because aquatics people want to see new livestock,” Donston said.

For this reason, word-of-mouth is another important component to a successful aquatic department.

"When I get aquarium people here, I win,” Hanes said. "I have customers who drive quite a ways and spend $200 to $300 every few months because we have oddball stuff that they don’t always see and they want it.”

"There is something intimate about owning fish,” said Preuss. "It creates passion.” 

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