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Aquatic Marketplace: Focus on Aquarium Maintenance Products for Success

Posted: July 25, 2012, 5:15 p.m., EDT

Helping customers cut down on chores and enjoy the hobby can build relationships and cash flow.

Aquarium maintenance, along with feeding, offers some of the most predictable opportunities for repeat sales. Whether the retail environment is strong or soft, hobbyists need products to control algae, perform water changes and keep up a tank’s appearance.

Aquatics retailers competing for market share continue to seek out and stock products that will lead customers to successful tank maintenance. By providing useful products and practical information, retailers are able to create trust and reinforce relationships with customers that can help build reputation and drive sales.

Maintaining presentable aquariums in-store can impress customers, leading them to seek out information and purchase products to accomplish those results.
Maintaining presentable aquariums in-store can impress customers, leading them to seek out information and purchase products to accomplish those results. Photo by Sherri L. Collins/BowTie Inc., at Nature Pet Center

“Maintenance products are a big part of our business,” said Paul Sindermann, owner of Living Art Aquarium in Madison, Wis. “Not only do we sell a lot of them, but these products get our customers to come back on a regular basis and hopefully purchase additional items.”

With difficulties still lingering for various economic sectors, fish store owners can take solace in the fact that maintenance products continue to draw customers.

“In this economy, it does seem that maintenance products are selling better than most other products, since many people are simply maintaining their tanks,” said Chris Sims, owner and CEO of Aquatic Central in San Francisco. “So, additives, supplements, feeds, bulbs and cleaning equipment are by far our biggest sellers. We try to use as many of the products we sell as possible. I either display them in the vicinity where they are being used, or have literature and advertisements about the products close by.”

New Cleaning Options
Manufacturers are refining product lines to meet consumer needs. Aquarium maintenance is necessary when keeping an active enclosed biological system, noted Scott Rabe, brand manager for Kent Marine of Franklin, Wis.

“What people are looking for is a way to minimize this maintenance or make it as simple as possible to perform,” he said.

Recently, Kent relaunched its line of algae scrapers with the release of the ProScraper II.

“The [scraper] was a refresh of the regular ProScraper line that has been around for many years,” Rabe said. “Two of the units are extendable to expand in length. Previously, extensions had to be purchased separately.

“We have reduced the number of SKUs, which should also make retailers happy,” Rabe continued. “Now, all units come with all three blade types: stainless steel, plastic and pad covered. The [scraper] also has interchangeable heads so the scrapers can be used on the varying handle lengths and potential future accessories.”

Industry Voices
How has the rise of more complex setups impacted aquarium maintenance products?

“With an increase in knowledge and technology, the hobby has really exploded into a new era of confusion. There are so many different products on the market to support the many styles of aquariums. Some of our better-selling items are plant supplements, carbon dioxide kits, water testing kits, Aiptasia control, and we sell a lot of niche foods for corals and pickier fish.”
Paul Sindermann, owner of Living Art Aquarium in Madison Wis.

“In some regards, the rise of more complex setups, and even just a more advanced understanding of what is going in our systems, has simplified husbandry and reduced the amount of general maintenance. For example, Bio Pellet reactors have drastically reduced the need for water changes and chemical media. In other regards, it has increased the amount of work involved.”
Chris Sims, owner and CEO of Aquatic Central in San Francisco

“I think for us the biggest breakthrough is the Bio Pellets. A few years ago they didn’t exist and it wasn’t mainstream. Now we use them on basically every one of our installs, and it helps a lot. It’s not a ‘set it up and watch it work’ product, so there’s information value that we can add to that.”
Joe Faszl, owner of Seascape Studio in St. Louis

Another maintenance product, the MagFloat magnetic algae cleaner, manufactured by Gulfstream Tropical Aquarium in Dania Beach, Fla., is undergoing improvement. The MagFloat line has added new magnetic cleaners in the last two years aimed at serving hobbyists with thicker-walled aquariums, as well as reef hobbyists who have to deal with coralline algae.

“The new Large Plus MagFloat Scrape targets aquariums with glass thickness of three-fourths of an inch,” said Laurie Pielack, president of the company. 

High-end Drivers
Many retailers suggested much of the innovation in aquatics is driven by the high-end reef aquarium segment. These products can often have unique maintenance needs.

“If people spend money on a high-end protein skimmer or pump, it’s a high-end precision performance product,” noted Joe Faszl, owner of Seascape Studio in St. Louis. “They’re warm, and they attract calcium. If they aren’t kept clean, it can really affect performance negatively.”

This reef-specific need led Hydor USA in Sacramento, Calif., to release the Magi-Klean pump and accessory cleaner. The product is a pre-dosed acid packet meant to dissolve calcium deposits and coralline algae. Mike Magaletti, Hydor’s head of customer service, emphasized that while traditional methods for cleaning pumps and equipment are still entrenched in the hobby, there are real advantages to an aquarium-specific product.

“You don’t need a hazmat suit to use it like muriatic acid, and it doesn’t smell bad like vinegar,” he said. “It’s convenient, predosed and there’s no more guessing on concentrations. It’s safe to use on all the plastic and rubber components on your equipment. It’s a product that retailers can carry on their shelves, and not have to point customers to the grocery store.”

Hydor USA also plans to launch a new aquarium level sensor in the fall for aquarium topoff automation, Magaletti added.

As technology evolves, many retailers are seeing automation go mainstream in their customer base. Hobbyists can now automate dosing, mixing of makeup water, carbon dioxide supplementation, pH and salinity control, water topoff and a host of other chores. Removing the need to perform these tasks can simplify maintenance, and lead customers to more ambitious setups.

“We’ve definitely gotten a lot more higher-end customers that will come in and say, ‘I don’t want to do anything myself.’” Nick Evans, owner of Reef Culture in Tempe, Ariz. “So they’re either going for weekly service, or they’re getting auto topoffs, dosing pumps, reverse osmosis systems, and there’s even people that are asking about automatic water-change systems.”

The automation trend can lead to strong sales, Faszl noted.
“One of our strong points is that we carry check valves, automatic shutoffs, float valves and a lot of the DIY people come in looking for that,” he said. “Auto topoffs are probably our best-selling and most profitable DIY product line.

“A lot of people will come in and build things, but it seems to be spilling over because of the convenience factor,” Faszl continued. “It used to be just reef clubs, and that kind of hardcore hobbyist. Now, more and more people are willing to learn that because we have the knowledge to help them, and it’s also really convenient.”

Overcoming Fears
While product innovation is designed to make maintenance tasks simpler, it can still be a daunting task to many potential aquatic customers.

“Maintenance is the No. 1 barrier to entry, and the number one reason for exit,” said Jeff Senske, owner of Aquarium Design Group in Houston. “The reason people don’t get a tank is they’re afraid of the maintenance, and they often leave because the maintenance was too difficult. No aquarium survives and looks great without proper, routine maintenance.”

Overcoming customers’ fears about maintenance can be very important, and doing so provides independent retailers a real opportunity to shine in knowledge and customer service.

“There are so many products available today that the average consumer wouldn’t know where to start,” Living Art Aquarium’s Sindermann said. “It’s our job to simplify things and point them in the right direction.”

Success is critical for a hobbyist to stay engaged, Senske stated, adding that typical industry recommendations often fall short.

“For the average person, their notion of changing water is to have a bucket and a hose, and siphon 25 percent once a month, and then put some drops in the water they’re going to add and pour it back in there,” he said. “In more than most cases, it is going to be very limiting.

“When you connect people emotionally to what they’ve created in the tank, what they’re willing to do to care for it goes up dramatically,” Senske added. “You have to give people the right tools to maintain what they create.” <HOME>

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