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Riding the Reefkeeping Wave

Innovation is the watch word in the reef aquarium hobby, for consumers and retailers alike.
By Steven Bitter

As retailers of aquatic products know, reef aquarium hobbyists tend to be fickle. Trying to meet the most current demands for livestock and equipment can sometimes be a frustrating and expensive endeavor for retailers.

Many retailers find in-store coral fragging and sales to be a profitable endeavor. Photo By Ethan Mizer/BowTie Inc.
Nevertheless, to capture market share for reef hobbyists, it is necessary to create the perception of being on the cutting edge of modern technique, and to offer a selection of animals that gets customers’ attention. As the fall buying season approaches, some reef aquarium trends are showing potential to drive sales through the holidays.

“The industry in general is becoming more modern and digital with the times,” said Tim Marks, president of EcoTech Marine in Bethlehem Pa. “There’s a lot more controllable products, and a lot more controller products. You’re seeing lighting technology like LEDs; the lights are bright and efficient, but they can also be easily controlled. And I think the consumer wants that in all aspects of their aquarium products.”

Coral Fragging to Increase

“We definitely sell a lot of coral frags at under a $40 price point,” said Scott Key, owner of Sandlapper Aquatics in Clemson, S.C.

For producing stony coral frags, Key recommended the DFS 100 Reefkeeper Saw from Inland Craft Products of Madison Heights, Mich.

“The trick to successful coral fragmentation is to cause as little damage to the animals as possible,” said Dan Waber, sales and marketing manager with the company.

Key suggested that buying larger coral pieces and dividing them into smaller pieces might translate to both higher volume and higher margin.

“If we cut a $100 brain coral [in half] and sell both pieces for $60, we sell them faster and make more profit,” he said.  —SB

EcoTech released a new controller in the spring to accompany its VorTech pumps. The new Eco Smart controller features a digital interface to improve controllability.

“The volume of people upgrading [from first generation controllers] really blew us away,” Marks said. “If there’s anything that we’ve learned from this, [it’s] that we have a large customer base and they’re staying current with the industry.”

Light emitting diode (LED) lighting has been lurking on the fringes of the reef marketplace for several years. However, most retailers have been reluctant to truly get behind the technology, in part because it is so new.

Reef aquarium innovations, such as LED lighting, are gaining market share. Photo By Ethan Mizer/BowTie Inc.
“At this point, LED lighting has not had enough market exposure to become mainstream,” said Chris Sims, owner of Aquatic Central, a local fish store in San Francisco. “I am confident that it will cause metal halide lighting to become obsolete in a short matter or time. For nonphotosynthetic systems, it’s a great lighting choice. But for systems requiring more PAR [photosynthetically active radiation] value, there is still a lack of credibility.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding LED technology, the interest continues to grow. This year has seen numerous LED reef lighting product releases, including some from companies such as AquaMedic, JBJ and Marineland.

Many retailers are warming up to LED technology in a number of different ways.

Current Stocking Trends

Smaller corals and fish, as well as niche species are a common request at the wholesale level.

“Nano-size corals and fish are very popular,” said Eric Cohen of Los Angeles-based wholesaler Sea Dwelling Creatures. “All reef-safe fish are in demand as well as pest-control livestock items.”

He noted the importance of stocking up on livestock in the fall to attract customers during holiday shopping months.

“The fall is a great time to encourage aquarists back into the hobby,” he said. “I always encourage retailers to bring new shipments of livestock into their stores as often as possible. How many times have we all heard the phrase, ‘When is your next livestock shipment coming?’ even when you are fully loaded with livestock?”

New and interesting species are an important part of the reef hobby, and the beginning of marine ornamental collection in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has opened up the potential for some unique livestock availability.

“PNG has the potential to become a world leader in supplying sustainably collected marine aquarium life to the trade,” said David Vosseler, president of EcoEZ, an environmental consultancy body located in Alexandria, Va. “We are already seeing many uncommon species and morphs. We think the so-called bread-and-butter species will also capture the hobbyist’s attention.

Several L.A. wholesalers have been buying [PNG animals] for many months now.”

While wild collection is expanding, companies, retailers and aquarists are tank-raising more species as well. Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums (ORA) of Ft. Pierce, Fla., is releasing aquacultured mandarin dragonets onto the market this fall.

“We’ve really been putting a lot of effort into these mandarins,” said Dustin Dorton, president and CEO of ORA. “Initial availability will be somewhat limited, mainly because the demand is expected to be so high.”

He said the development of feeding techniques used to raise mandarin dragonets will likely open doors to raising other difficult species as well. —SB

Doris Olsen, manager of Blue Sierra Exotics in Issaquah, Wash., said supplemental LED products are popular in her store.

“When [LED lighting] came out, we were really interested to see what would happen,” she said. “A few years down the line, I’m not totally convinced. But for supplemental, it’s great. We sell a lot of the [Ecoxotic] Stunner LEDs for supplemental lighting, and everyone so far has really liked those.”

Lighting isn’t the only area of the hobby seeing innovation right now. Automating many basic processes is popular among reef hobbyists, and one product on the horizon seeks to eliminate the tedious task of algae wiping.

San Diego-based Aquagenesis International reported it will begin taking preorders this fall for the Robo Snail, a motorized magnetic algae cleaner. Company president and CEO, Milan Rafailovich, described the concept.

“It isn’t a scrubber,” he said. “It’s more of a preventative product. Every 24 hours it undocks from its charging station, and then goes around and cleans the aquarium.”

The company plans to release the Robo Snail in both the U.S. and Europe by February 2011.

Another new trend that has sparked several new products is carbon dosing. The technique was popularized on the Internet and involves adding ethyl alcohol (usually vodka) to an aquarium system, but several companies are now marketing biodegradable polymers to replicate this effect.

“[The addition of biodegradable polymers] helps reduce both nitrate and phosphate in marine aquariums by promoting the development of bacteria that assimilate nitrate and phosphate,” said Julian Sprung, president of Two Little Fishies in Miami Gardens, Fla. “The bacteria are removed from the water by protein skimming.”

Livestock is still the main draw for marine aquarists, according to various retailers, and species suited to nano aquariums are especially popular at the moment. Photo By Ethan Mizer/BowTie Inc.
This year has seen the release of Two Little Fishies’ biomedia NPX Bioplastic, along with similar products from Warner Marine, Tetra and Red Sea, among others.

Although the carbon dosing method isn’t well established, retailers are taking notice.

“I haven’t started [stocking the products] yet, but I definitely see that’s the way things are going,” said Scott Key, owner of Sandlapper Aquatics in Clemson, S.C. “Now with companies like Two Little Fishies and some of the more widely known brands coming out, I have a feeling I’ll be putting some on display and seeing how they do.”

While there is a trend toward modern and innovative technology in the reef hobby, many retailers feel the main attraction for most aquatics customers is livestock. Demand in this area of the hobby is evolving quickly as well, and professionals at every level of the supply chain are taking notice.

Industry Voices

What are your experiences and expectations for LED lighting technology?

“For general lighting we’re using it; Marineland has fixtures that will replace the fluorescent tube. The LEDs are still pretty expensive for our customer base. In this economy particularly, they’ll really have to come down in price for our customers to buy them.”
—John Stanclift, owner of Neptune’s Reef in Torrance, Calif.

“We’re not actively selling them yet, and we’re still watching them. We get a lot of questions, and a lot of requests. We do have people experimenting with them, but it’s a big concern that it may not be all it’s cracked up to be for the price we’re going to pay.”
—Scott Key, owner of Sandlapper Aquatics in Clemson, S.C.

“The Marineland fixture has been great, because it gives a shimmer that the halides do. I’m still not 100-percent convinced to use just an LED [fixture] on a reef tank.”
—Doris Olsen, manager of Blue Sierra Exotics in Issaquah, Wash.

“We don’t have any of our tanks currently running on LED lighting. However, we have had the opportunity to test the par readings and the residual heat and we are very excited about the capabilities of these lighting systems. We are very confident in recommending them. The biggest hurdle as far as selling them is the up-front price tag.”
—Greg and Donna Harris, co-owners of Blue Reef Aquatics in Las Vegas

Greg and Donna Harris, owners of Blue Reef Aquatics in Las Vegas, said smaller aquarium items seem to be a popular trend in the reef hobby.

“Lots of nano stuff [is popular],” Greg said. “Small fish, small tanks, small skimmers ... Just about anything nano [is doing well]. We are making sure to take advantage of our wholesalers’ specials every week.”

Key agreed, echoing Greg’s statement that smaller livestock is selling well.

 “We still sell a lot of the bread and butter, like flame angels and yellow tangs, but now we have people looking for small schooling fish and deeper water fish,” he said.

Key also emphasized that up-to-date knowledge of the local market is important with both fish and corals.

“There are crazes that go on the Internet that don’t seem to ring true here in the store,” he said. “The most popular corals for us seem to still be the leathers, Euphyllia and zoanthids.” <HOME>

 This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Pet Product News International. Click here to become a subscriber.

 

 

 

 


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