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2:44 AM   July 25, 2014
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Icing on the Cake

Add loyal customers and profits with pond winterization products.
By Tom Barthel

The case of the ‘fish soup’ illustrates the perils of winterization when retailers and their customers are ill-prepared to handle the products in this technical category.

“A customer called me up and said, ‘Is it normal for your pond to be putting off steam in the middle of winter?’” said Tom Oprendek, owner of Totally Pets! in Philadelphia, Pa. “I had her repeat that back to me. Unfortunately, the fish all died. It was a case of a non-thermostatically controlled pond heater.”

Disasters like this one are easy to avoid with the right information at hand. It’s never to early to arm yourself and your customers for the big chill ahead.

Choosing Your Lineup
The pond winterization products you choose to stock may be determined by several complex factors, including local changes in air and ground temperatures, and median depth of your customers’ ponds and the size and quantities of fish they contain. Or, you could take a no-brainer approach. Listen to your customers and local pond club members or try a few out in a display pond.

“I’m very practical,” said Deb Ryan, Owner of Fish and Pet Center in Richfield, Minn. “What works for me is what I recommend to my customers: Talk to people that have ponds, and find out what works for them. I go from there and get the products I need.”

Listening to customer feedback ranks top among strategies used by retailers in determining which products to stock for the big chill – especially when considering the wide variety of sizes and shapes of ponds likely installed in your area.

“Customer feedback for me is something that permeates the whole store,” Oprendek said. “Keep your ears open and find out what people are looking for, what works for them. With ponds, more than anything, each scenario is different for each customer.”

The relative novelty of the hobby and frequency of new product introductions makes product selection especially challenging.

“There’s always something new coming out,” said Jon Weaver, president of Martin Pet and Garden Center in Elkhart, Ind. “There are new products on the market and you continually have to read the publications. I’m always looking for new products. When I go to the shows I always stop at the water gardening booths to see what’s new.”

Three basic types of products are likely to find their way to your shelf in preparation for the winter, said Ryan, who stocks: sludge digesting beneficial bacteria additives, thermostatically controlled pond heaters and water pumps for circulation and oxygen introduction.

Winter on Display
Though displaying three core winterization products may not seem like a challenge, there is a right way and a wrong way to catch the consumer’s attention.

“I will set up an end cap or table that I’ll put the products on,” Ryan said. “I’ll put up a board that will tell [people] exactly what they need to do. You’ve got to promote for the season in your displays.”

End caps that create the sense of a one-stop winterization product center make a strong impact on the pond customer looking for convenience.

“I usually set up an end cap,” Weaver said. “I put everything on that end cap – everything from the pond netting to prevent leaves from going into the pond to your heaters, aerators, whatever they need for winter.”

Beyond Basics

Winter Fish Health 
Pond keepers often become very attached to their fish. Their wintertime health is of great concern to many consumers. Make sure you ask the key questions and make the right recommendations for pond fish health, to avoid needless and heartbreaking losses.

“The number-one question is, ‘How deep is your pond?’” said Jon Weaver, president of Martin Pet and Garden Center in Elkhart, Ind. “They definitely need to have a pond that’s deep enough in order for those fish to survive. If they don’t, there’s no question that they need to have an aquarium to bring them inside.”

How deep is deep enough? It depends on your USDA hardiness zone and the average depth to which water usually freezes in your area. Typically, in zones five and below, ponds need to be at least three feet or greater in depth for good winter health of medium to large-sized koi.

If your customers plan on maintaining outdoor fish habitats beneath the ice, make sure they have proper equipment to ensure optimum health. “You need a deicer or aerator – something that will keep oxygen in the water,” Weaver said.

The pond winterization category doesn’t stop with eye catching displays. Since many consumers are begging pond keepers, they need to be fully educated on the basics – something you and your staff need to be ready for.

“The majority of [customers] need to be educated. In our case it’s typically a one-on-one scenario,” Oprendek said. “It might be difficult to create a blanket pamphlet for every customer because every pond is so different – everything from a 30-gallon pond to a 6,000 gallon pond.”

The key to recommending products on a case-by-case basis lies in knowing which specific questions to ask each customer, Oprendek said.

“Size and depth are the primary criteria,” he said. “I have a few customers with ponds that are so large winterization requires turning the filter off. Others are so small and shallow I recommend they shut it down and take the fish in. The majority of them fit into the category in between – moderate sized, needing an air-driven deicer, to a little bit larger, needing an electric deicer.”

A staff of pond experts is your greatest tool for ensuring robust sales of winterization products. Keeping them trained and ready for any question a customer can throw at them presents a steep challenge.

“I think our biggest problem is keeping our employees educated on all the new products and just on water gardening in general,” Weaver said. “Being a full-line pet shop and garden center there is so much to know. And you get so busy in the springtime that we try to have educational seminars in the winter. But to get really excited about it when there is a foot of snow on the ground is really hard to do.”

Never Too Early
Spring may seem early to bring up winterization products, but if employees are prepared to prep customers for the year ahead, they’re likely to return after the first frost hits.

9 Months Out
Sending educational winterization flyers with promotional coupons to your pond clients as early as March may seem premature, but often results in repeat business.

“Every spring I send a [mailer] out,” Ryan says. “It tells [customers] what they have to do in the spring, informs them of seminars and gives them a discount when they’re ready for winterization. Through the years, I’ve done very well with the response of customers coming in.”

5 Months Out
Independence day marks the occasion for ordering winterization products, said Weaver. By the end of July he’s sure to have everything his customers might need for the long winter ahead.

4 Months Out
Pond winterization workshops as early as the dog days of August can help ensure your clients are well-prepared for fall and winter chores. Ryan’s workshops and recommended fall bacterial inoculations help everyone succeed.

“I’ve got to have at least a two-month leeway for my customers to get the proper dosage into their ponds. I do have to start a little early on that,” Ryan said.

2 Months Out
Shallow ponds containing goldfish or other smaller ornamental fish may not be suitable for outdoor over wintering. Ryan recommends setting up indoor aquariums well in advance of cold weather to allow the tanks to cycle and stabilize.

“I have to inform people that if we bring our fish in, tanks have to be up and seasoned in our households at least a month ahead of time,” she said. “People make the major mistake of bringing in their fish to over winter them and the calls come in because they’re losing fish to high ammonia and nitrites.”

Planning for the season and stocking up well in advance of the first freeze can give you a much-needed edge in this category. But true success comes from networking with the experts.

“Be prepared,” Oprendek said. “Seek out the advice of professionals – either other retail stores, pond installers or pond owners, who can be an excellent source of feedback as far as products they’ve been happy with in the past. The customer may be the slowest way to build up information, but it’s often your most valuable feedback on which products work best.” <HOME>

Tom Barthel is a Lansing-Mich. based freelance writer specializing in pet and water gardening topics.


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