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Redbook: Providing the Works

Offering full aquatic services could do more than just keep retailers afloat.
By Steve Bitter

The past year’s economic focus has given aquatic retailers reason to re-evaluate every facet of their business strategies. Aquarium dealers must revise old habits that were working well enough in previous years to ensure they remain competitive in a more price-conscious environment and that their businesses genuinely stand out. Today’s economic realities are not entirely avoidable, but savvy retailers are realizing it is important to look to the future and cement strategies to make their stores unique from the competition.


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An important part of setting an aquarium business apart is the ability to cater to all of a customer’s needs and prevent them from needing to look elsewhere. Dry goods, livestock, product support, installatio n and maintenance can all be important individually, but striking a synergy between all of them is perhaps the most important strategy of all.

As every aquatic retailer knows, the key component of the aquarium hobby and business is the fish and other livestock that goes into an aquarium.

“I don’t want my customers to only come in when they need things,” said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. “People will need dry goods regularly, but to really keep them coming back, we feel it’s important to bring in new fish every week.”

Rob Bray, owner of House of Fins in Greenwich, Conn., also discussed the importance of livestock. He stressed the need to try to make a livestock selection stand out.

“When I look at my budget for ordering livestock, I always try to include something unique,” he said. “Not something that necessarily will sell right away (although sometimes it does), but will make people want to come in and see the store for the ‘eye candy.’ We always make sure to have something interesting and new in the store.”

Keeping new animals coming into the store can be challenging, Donston noted.

“It takes constant reinvestment in the store,” he said. “But if people come back every week to see the new fish, then they’ll ultimately spend their money with us on dry goods.”

Having the right animals may help bring in customers, but having the right products to keep them can be equally critical to keeping those customers from going elsewhere.

“Hardware and aquariums are a necessary part of the business, but we like to focus on how each product relates specifically to the livestock we sell,” said Erle Hoke, CEO of Aquatouch in Phoenix.

Identifying this relationship is important, according to Donston.

“If you carry cichlids, you’ll need cichlid products,” he said. “The same goes for marine fish.”

He also warned that “if the customer will need it, it needs to be in stock. ‘ I can order it for you’ doesn’t work, because a customer can just as easily go home and order it themselves. It sounds simple, but you still see a lot of retail stores that don’t have the products in stock,” he said.

Donston added it isn’t necessary to have multiple products to do the same thing; it is more important that the full product line meet all of a customer’s needs to successfully keep the livestock for sale.

To ensure the customer receives the right combination of interesting livestock and the necessary equipment, it is important to train employees to discern customers’ needs and to guide them appropriately.

“With the pressures of running the business, I can end up spending a lot of time doing work in the office.” Bray said. “So the employees are the ones in the trenches every day, talking to customers about what they like. They’re the ones on the web after work learning about what’s hot and what’s new. So I really count on them to discover and evaluate products.”

It may be easy to overlook, but developing employees can yield real benefits to a store.

“For example, this year I’m taking six of my employees to the MACNA conference,” Bray noted. “One of the conditions is that, every night, we meet for dinner and discuss what they saw and how it might fit into the existing product line.”

Aquatouch offers generous employee discounts on livestock, equipment and books to further staff education.

“We want our employees to have direct experience with the products we offer,” Hoke said. “We try to take an interest in our employees’ interest in the hobby.”

While professional and skilled employees are critical to the retail sales aspect of a business, they are also a key to successful installation and maintenance.

“These days, as much as 75 percent of our customers might inquire about delivery, set up or maintenance,” Donston said. “But service is a tall order for many stores; you have to find good, mature, reliable employees, and that can be really difficult for a smaller company.”

Although it’s a difficult component for many businesses, staffing need not always be a concern for meeting a customer’s request for installation and service. Hoke suggested that, instead of handling service or setup in-house, it might be favorable to partner with local service companies.

“We try to maintain a strong relationship with the service companies that frequent the store,” he said. “This way, we can refer business to them.

And because they have our customers as clients, they know what kind of setup to expect. It makes it easier for us to work together, and we can more easily help them serve their clients.”

Focusing on the importance of livestock, dry goods and services can elevate the overall presentation of a business and keep customers coming back. And in this economy, it can pay to focus on better serving the customer.

“People may turn to their aquariums this year instead of a big vacation,” Bray said. “After all, people engage in this hobby to relax.”

Being ready to capitalize on this trend may prove to be a very wise move to help aquatic retailers stay ahead of the competition. <HOME>

Steve Bitter, an aquarium industry professional for 10 years, is a regular contributor to aquarium magazines and has covered a variety of subjects.


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