Posted: October 22, 2013, 11:45 a.m. EDT
Retailers and manufacturers offer insight into what they believe is the key to the future of the aquatics hobby: winning younger generations’ hearts.
By David A. Lass
The aquatics sector is performing quite well for some, yet other industry experts report that the fishkeeping segment could use a shot in the arm.
"Revitalizing the aquatics industry sounds like a great idea, but has it actually become ‘devitalized’?” asked Steve Oberg, fish room manager for Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. "We are not noticing any downturn at all.”
Many stores that are either fish only or have large fish departments reported the same thing—for them, the fish biz is very good.
"Now there are so many varieties of bread-and-butter fish,” said Arie DeZwart, president of Ruinemans Aquarium in Miami. "The big-box stores are big players in the pet industry, but aquatics is only a minor part of most of their operations.”
Some industry insiders believe that any problems inherent in the aquatics industry lie in two areas: introducing younger generations to a hobby other than a handheld electronic device and simplifying "Our most pressing issue is the continued push of parents using electronic media to babysit and entertain children and the digital age in general’s impact on all potential hobbyists,” said Greg Sowers, owner of Fintastic, a fish-only superstore in Charlotte, N.C. "The industry needs to put serious thought into how we are going to compete.”
Sherri L. Collins/i-5 Publishing at Nature Pet Centre
Other aquatics professionals noted that electronic screens require no parental involvement and provide instant gratification.
"Kids today need to be able to turn off things without requiring any more attention,” said Jim Gentile, owner of The Pet Shop in Allston, Mass.
"We need to make the hobby easier by introducing and marketing products that make aquarium keeping easier,” said Jeffrey Turner, president of Coconut Creek, Fla.-based Boyd Enterprises, which has been manufacturing aquarium products for more than 50 years. "This would help to rejuvenate existing aquarists and draw new ones to the hobby.”
Getting Kids into the Hobby
"Kids today are as excited about fish as they were 30 years ago,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc. in Hayward, Calif. "We just have to convert that excitement to the parents giving their OK to get an aquarium.”
The industry is delving more into using electronics to monitor and manage aquatics—which might appeal to the social media-connected generation.
The first all-aquatics trade show in the U.S. aims to increase exposure to and interest in the hobby of fishkeeping.
The World Pet Association (WPA) is leading the effort to revitalize the aquatics industry by holding Aquatic Experience, the first all-aquatics trade show in the U.S., November 15 and 16.
Hikari Sales USA Inc. in Hayward, Calif., is one of the exhibitors and organizers, and Chris Clevers, president, made the following points about why this show is important.
"As with anything, exposure makes a difference,” he said. "I think too many of the dollars flowing through the pet industry trade organizations have been committed to dog- and cat-related issues, and aquatics has been lost in the shuffle.”
According to Clevers, parents are the stumbling block to that first aquarium because they think aquariumkeeping is just too tough.
"All we need is the strong support of the retailers and manufacturers in our business to buy in to the idea, support the show and help us develop a funding mechanism that can only be used for aquariumkeeping initiatives,” he said. "Retailers should view it as an easy way to do a small part to help the hobby; manufacturers should view it as the best way to channel money that would normally be used for other purposes toward aquariumkeeping only.
For more information about Aquatic Experience, visit /redirect.aspx?location=http%3a%2f%2faquaticexperience.org
"In recent years, an entire industry has risen dedicated to making life’s tasks easier using the power of Internet-enabled computers and handheld smart devices,” said Turner.
One manufacturer that is connecting hobbyists to aquariums via electronic handheld devices is EcoTech Marine, which introduced its new ReefLink at the last Marine Aquarium Conference North America.
"ReefLink is a way to wirelessly connect our Radion LED lights and soon our ForTech pumps through EcoSmart Live, our web platform,” said Pat Clasen, director of finance for the Bethlehem, Pa., company.
"It connects through ‘the cloud’ to monitor and control both functions of lighting and water circulation.”
Industry insiders said the best way to get kids involved always comes down to getting them to keep the fish happy and healthy in their aquariums.
"Nemo was a tremendous shot in the arm and still has impact today,” said Howie Berkowitz, owner of Aquaridise in East Brunswick, N.J. "Donating 10-gallon kits to local schools is a great way to get the ball rolling.”
In addition to giving tanks to schools, encouraging groups to bring their kids into the store also works.
"We do tours for schools, scout troops, etc., and always try to be as involved with kids as possible,” said Preuss Pets’ Oberg.
"We teach our staff that when a family is setting up a tank, they need to talk with both the parents and especially the kids,” he continued. "We stress that fishkeeping is not just a hobby; it is the appreciation of all living things.”
EcoTech Marine is targeted for the higher end of the reef hobby, but it is also developing new products with kids in mind, realizing that there is a much better chance of getting kids involved in aquariums if their parents are involved.
"Kids expect everything to be on a mobile device, and they are very comfortable with our ReefLink technology—probably more so than their parents,” Clasen said. "The kids will probably show the parents what to do, which is great in that it involves kids and parents in the hobby.”
Keep it Simple
Engaging kids in the aquarium hobby is dependent on securing parental approval, and simplifying aquariumkeeping is the best way to get that approval.
"It’s easier than ever before to have a successful aquarium,” said The Pet Shop’s Gentile. "The kits, biocubes, nanotanks and such are affordable. It is the responsibility of the store to make sure the fish sold are appropriate—stay small and are fine at room temperatures.”
Additives are an important tool toward simplifying water quality maintenance.
"Chemi-pure and Chemi-pure Elite have been simplifying the process of aquarium filtration since their introduction to the market,” said Boyd Enterprises’ Turner. "Being successful with their first tank is most important; we do not want tanks ending up in garage sales after a short time because ‘the fish all died.’”
"Products like Seachem’s Stability and Tetra’s Safe Start or Aquarium Systems’ Bio Booster make the startup of aquariums much more successful right out of the gate,” said Fintastic’s Sowers.
Other store owners agreed.
"All of the new bacteria on the market are the number-one product for simplifying aquariumkeeping today,” said Aquaridise’s Berkowitz. "Fish foods have been greatly improved, and now it is possible to meet the nutritional needs of fish very simply.”
"All of our products have high utilization rates and less negative impact to the water quality,” said Hikari’s Clevers. "Both of these help the fish and their environment thrive.”
Industry insiders said the consensus seems fairly clear: The aquatics sector must spur kids’ interest by using, among other things, the lure of electronics, and by gaining parents’ buy-in.
"To do that, we have to make keeping a fish tank fool-proof,” said Ruinemans Aquarium’s DeZwart. "A whole generation with kids had fish when they were kids, and they have not gotten their kids into the hobby.”
Rolf C. Hagen Jr. shares his vision for a stronger, better aquatics industry.
Q: What do you think we can do to revitalize the aquatic segment of the pet industry?
A: I have had aquariums since I was about 5 years old. Things have evolved, but basically it is as it was: five plates of glass, a plastic frame, a light, a heater and a filter. Sure, the technology is better, but the marketing of the hobby probably has gotten worse. Or, at best, the aquatic hobby is losing out to other ways of spending our precious time and money. We need to remember why aquariums exist: beauty, health and time shared with parent and child. That is what we need to market—not necessarily the technology behind aquaria. We need to market less to the focused hobbyists and more to the masses. That is partly the job of our large national retailers as well as the manufacturers. In the end, we need to tell the "benefit” story far more effectively—not build another power filter.
Q: What products will simplify the hobby and make it easier for hobbyists (especially new ones) to be successful in keeping fish happy and healthy, and their aquariums looking great?
A: This is very easy. We must encourage water changes. Water changes are the key to a healthy aquarium. It is not LED lighting or Bluetooth-enabled circulating pumps or new fancy filters. Cool and important drivers for new sales, for sure, but at the end of the day, you need to change the water. Hagen has developed a new 25-gallon aquarium with an unobtrusive internal filter that has a water change device built into the cabinet. Five minutes once a month and 20 percent of the water is changed and the bulk mechanical filtration cleaned. A new filter cartridge, two 1-ounce water conditioners and two new buckets, and the maintenance is completed, without getting your hands wet. Healthy aquarium, happy owner, happy fish. We call it SmartTech, and it is painfully simple.
Q: It has been suggested that exploring the interface between a computer/smartphone and an aquarium via the Internet is an important direction to take, in that this has appeal to both kids and first-timers, and also to serious hobbyists.
A: Sure, if I have a 300-gallon marine aquarium, and I have had one, I would want sensors that connect to an app via Bluetooth that helps me manage salinity, redox, pH, temperature, etc. But again, this is not going to improve the penetration of aquatic ownership. In my mind, it will do the opposite. The television shows that show fantasy aquariums in the shape of a slot machine or a rock band logo are also not necessarily going to get people into the hobby either. Aquariums should be treated as living furniture, and the considerations here are much more pedestrian: Can I fit this thing into my car, does it match my home décor, and how hard is it to maintain? In short, we need to offer design, some customization, clear value and quality, and easy technology. This is a hobby. You cannot automate an aquarium as much as you can automate your lawn or garden.
Q: Any other thoughts on revitalizing the aquatics segment?
A: I will end up repeating myself: better merchandising at retail, including live setups, more exposure of the hobby and its health benefits, and aquariums that look like they were designed by Crate and Barrel in 2013 and not by Woolworths in 1955. Other ideas could include a manufacturer-funded campaign to promote the health benefits of aquariums. Or even the simple presentation of aquariums, in all their beauty, in public spaces like train stations or airports. You see this in Japan, Taiwan and some European countries. No coincidence that in all of those countries the penetration of the aquatic hobby is far higher. It also helps that their retail merchandising of aquariums, fish, plants and décor are embarrassingly superior to what we see here. I am an optimist and believe there will be a renaissance in aquatics as energy-efficient technology, modern product design and increased retail support come together and reintroduce the hobby to consumers.
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