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Taking the Plunge

Offering water garden accessories requires commitment to the category.
By Lori Luechtefeld

With space at a premium, pet specialty retailers who decide to diversify their product mixes must ensure that new categories fill a demand among their customers. For certain retailers, water garden and pond accessories provide a great opportunity for a sales boost—but it’s not a category to enter lightly.

Jason Blake, owner of The Pond Guy Inc. and Airmax Eco-Systems Inc. in Marine City, Mich., said water garden and pond supplies represent a great fit for some pet retailers, particularly those who specialize in aquariums. While aquarium sales tend to be strongest in the winter, pond and water garden sales balance the category out nicely during the summer.

According to Blake, retailers need to decide how deep they want to go when it comes to the water garden category.

“Unless people really want to get into the water garden business, they should focus on consumables,” he said. “Keep it simple, don’t go too deep—fish food, simple water treatments, natural products. That would cover about 80 percent of the retailers out there.”

If, on the other hand, a retailer decides to really dive into the category, a commitment must be made, Blake said. Filters, pumps, pond liners, plants, stone for pond building—all these items can be included in a complete pond section.

“That requires some dedication, and I would suggest having a champion for that department,” Blake said. “Retailers should focus on committing one way or the other. The in-between guys are the ones who fail.”

Scott Rhodes, director of product marketing at Aquascape Inc. in St. Charles, Ill., said pet specialty retailers have a distinct advantage over most non-specialized garden centers when it comes to carrying livestock, such as fish and aquatic plants. Because consumers often look to pet specialty retailers for livestock, it makes sense to start with this core competency and supply consumers with consumables, such as fish food and water treatments, Rhodes said.

When delving into pond plants, pet retailers should look for simple programs, Blake said. He noted that companies such as Aquascape and Complete Aquatics, based in Plain City, Ohio, offer convenient systems with self-bagging table-top plant displays. While in the retail store, such systems are all about the plant roots, rather than foliage. It’s not until the plants are taken home and submerged in water that the plants really thrive and spread out—meaning retailers don’t have to dedicate excessive room to such plant displays, Blake said.

For pet-specialty retailers that want to go beyond consumables to offer full pond kits, Rhodes suggested they specialize in one or two smaller do-it-yourself kits. A display in store that shows the installed kit can help customers envision the end result of what they’re considering purchasing.

Display and Promotion Tips

As with other product categories, display and promotion are key to success in pond and water garden accessory sales. If space permits, Christine Scholes, marketing operations manager for Rolf C. Hagen Inc. in Baie d’Urfé, Québec, Canada, said retailers should set up at least one display showcasing the different water garden accessories they are selling. Simple water feature or container garden displays help consumers visualize how the product would look in their homes.

“Place products used to create the display nearby, or create signage to direct the consumer to where the product is located in the store,” Scholes said.

For retailers that are tight on space, inexpensive flip charts and frames can be used to display finished beauty shots of ponds and water features, Scholes added. Digital photo frames are especially useful in this regard. Retailers can turn such photo displays into a promotion by encouraging customers to submit their pond and water garden photos for a chance to be included in the slide show.

Hosting water garden–themed events is another way to get new customers interested in the hobby. Representatives of local gardening clubs or manufacturer representatives can help point pet retailers to guest speakers, or can hold seminars on topics such as pond fish care, building water features or maintaining a container garden.

“Whatever the event, ensure that you offer coupons or instant rebates on the water garden accessories that are covered in the seminar to entice attendees to purchase,” Scholes said.

Jason Blake, owner of The Pond Guy Inc. and Airmax Eco-Systems Inc. in Marine City, Mich., agreed that it’s important to have standalone water features and pond kits on display, which requires dedicated space. In addition, he said pet retailers might want to consider teaming up with a local water garden professional who, in exchange for service and installation referrals, might agree to provide and set up a pond display within the pet store.  —LL

“Buying a box and a dream is often a difficult decision for most consumers,” Rhodes said. “Offering container water gardens is often easier and more successful than traditional boxed pond kits for pet retailers that don’t have the space to display the bigger kits properly.”

Christine Scholes, marketing operations manager for Rolf C. Hagen Inc. in Baie d’Urfé, Québec, Canada, said self-contained water features and container water gardens are growing in popularity. In selecting water garden accessories to carry, Scholes recommended that pet specialty retailers look for products that easily blend with the latest trends in home décor. Products that are easy to install and use are always popular, she added.

Although water garden décor and accessories can be a successful category for pet stores, buying must be done with care, Blake said. If décor trends shift or a nearby big-box store begins offering the same accessories at a lower price, sales in this category can dry up quickly.

“Décor is hit and miss,” Blake said. “If you get it right, it’s very successful. If you get it wrong, you’re stuck with a lot of stuff you can’t get rid of.”

Katie Westmorland, fish and reptile manager at Teske Pet & Garden in Moline, Ill., said her store has increasingly pulled away from decorative water garden accessories. As a pet specialty outlet retailer that offers a full line of pond supplies, including plants and fish, Westmorland said customers come to her store for economical essentials—not decorative touches and standalone fountains.

“We’ve offered floating lights for ponds, and they’re pretty—people love them. But they don’t want to spend $40 on a softball-sized light,” Westmorland said. “If a product makes their water feature less work in terms of maintenance, they will spend money on it. But if it’s a novelty, they won’t blow a bunch of money.”

Along these lines, pet specialty retailers who delve into the water garden business find themselves in new competitive territory. Those offering standalone features are up against the Costcos and Sam’s Clubs of the world, Blake noted. Thus, retailers might want to focus on offering higher-end specialty items that set them apart. The same goes for pond kits. With Lowe’s and Home Depot outlets offering basic starter pond kits, pet specialty retailers need to focus on professional kit lines if they want their offerings to stand out, Blake said.

Regardless, every pet specialty retailer’s experience with the water garden and outdoor category is unique. Multiple retailers interviewed for this article noted that they simply don’t have the room for a dedicated water garden section. Jack Niederpruem, owner and manager of Ark Pet & Supply in Carpinteria, Calif., said his store does offer pond food and treatments; however, he isn’t interested in expanding those offerings into decorative items or statuary for water gardens and ponds.

“Even if I had more room, there are other things I would pick before that—things that I could turn faster,” he said. “That category could get expensive, and there are plenty of nurseries filling that niche in our area.”

Sue Kriebel, owner of Perk Valley Pet Eatery in Trappe, Pa., also said she has found more-lucrative ways to use her space. Her store, which changed its name from Trappe Feed & Pet Supply last year, used to offer pumps and preformed ponds, as well as plants and pond fish.

However, the store has now phased out that category of products entirely. The sales just weren’t robust enough to merit the space. “We’re a cat and dog store now, and that’s much more valuable real estate,” she said.

However, Bob Carpenter, owner of Bob’s Pet & Pond in Lewiston, Idaho, has seen quite the opposite trend when it comes to offering water garden supplies in a pet retail setting. His store, which has been in business for more than 40 years, started as a focused pet supply operation. He began dabbling in pond supplies about 20 years ago, really dug into the category about 14 years ago, and today, the segment comprises about a third of his business. Seven years ago, the “& Pond” was added to the store’s name to reflect this added specialty.

Carpenter’s store offers everything from chemicals and pumps to pond liners and skimmers. His pond sales, which are strongest in the summer, are led by consumables, such as water treatments. He said he initially brought pond supplies into his stores as a means of diversifying his offerings when grocery stores and mass retailers first began offering pet supplies. Today, the category has taken on a life of its own. <HOME>


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