Aquarium lighting sales are holding up, even as the hobby shifts away from larger setups and marine systems in favor of smaller, freshwater tanks. The competitive landscape for dry goods has changed, retailers reported, and the segment is showing resilience, despite inflation and shifting consumer demand.
Near the end of 2021, the aquarium industry—and the aquatics lighting segment—thrived coming off of the growth spurred by new hobbyists. Now, sales remain strong, though the rate of growth has slowed, industry insiders reported.
“We definitely had a big spike in business during COVID,” said Steve Chapman, manager for Aquatek Tropical Fish, an aquarium shop in Austin, Texas. “Lighting sales have come down some, but we are still higher than we were pre-COVID. It has definitely become a little bit more predictable. … We’re still seeing lots of new hobbyists, which is a relief. When the new people aren’t popping up, that’s when I get nervous.”
In general, sales of lighting products and aquarium dry goods are moderate but not declining, retailers reported.
“We experienced quite a boost during the pandemic, but it’s starting to trickle off right now,” said Mike Mender, owner of Tiki Corals, a pet store in Glen Allen, Va. “We had a slow summer. People are traveling a whole lot more. Sales are not in decline—business has just corrected itself.”
In recent years, lighting has been a tough sell for independent aquatics retailers as online competition won out, but the surge in interest during the pandemic made aquarium lighting sales viable for retailers again.
“We are definitely seeing growth compared to pre-pandemic numbers, for sure,” said Tony Nista, regional sales manager, Southeast, for Aquatop, a manufacturer in Brea, Calif. “We looked at the two-year pandemic period as something of an outlier, and really compare sales back to 2019. Most of the retailers and distributors we have spoken to agree and are having a similar experience.”
Brick-and-mortar stores’ ability to compete with large online competitors is often attributable the quality customer service local independent retailers can offer customers.
“Just being able to talk to folks and help them through setting up the lighting makes us more competitive,” said Rhett Garring, general manager of Aquatropics, a tropical fish store in Gainesville, Fla. “When customers have to start dealing with programming, learning how quickly to increase output, how to deal with algae issues and things like that, they come to us. Just having the ability to provide customer service helps a ton.”
Manufacturers that level the playing field on prices also help the brick-and-mortars compete.
“The companies that we work with do a pretty good job protecting their [minimum advertised price] MAP prices,” Garring said. “We’re able to be pretty competitive. We don’t lose too much, especially on some of the more technical lighting.”
Innovation During Inflation
Aquarium lighting options are increasingly specialized, and manufacturers are introducing products to meet every niche need in the hobby.
“Our SkyAqua Blue series, available in 12- and 18-inch fixtures, are actinic blue-only LED strip lights [designed to] work great on soft coral marine tanks or on any freshwater aquariums,” Nista said. “We also launched our SkyAqua Pro series of LED strip lights. These lights can be used for fresh or saltwater aquariums, and come with an infrared remote that allows users to preprogram the lights, adjusting spectrum and intensity.”
Aquarists can adjust the color of the output manually with the remote to better suit their specific needs, Nista added. The units are UL listed and have an IP67 submersion rating, which indicates the light is tested to be safe in the event of accidental submersion or splashing.
The brand’s products also aim to be easy to use—a key feature that aquarists often seek—Nista said.
“Consumers want to be able to take [their light] out of the package and plug it in without having to read a manual or watch a video,” he said. “We strive to offer lighting products that are inherently easy to use but still offer some features that consumers are looking for.”
The ability to program lighting using an app is another feature that’s often in demand, particularly for those who are new to the hobby.
“The younger crowd is definitely looking for app integration with their fixtures,” said Zachary Swope, sales associate for Aquarium Center, a tropical fish store in Clementon, N.J. “They’re looking for ease of use and programmability. A lot of [people] who’ve been in the business for a while, or just people who aren’t really that technologically focused, generally don’t really mind or care. It’s a cool feature to have for some people, but a lot of people don’t really shoot for it.”
While sales in the category have been steady, price is becoming an issue for some customers, insiders reported.
“Recently, we are seeing cost being more of a factor than features,” Nista said. “Consumers are really being more cost conscious about their aquarium purchases.”
Some industry participants report that the aquatics industry is seeing a shift away from marine systems and toward smaller freshwater systems, as livestock and non-lighting dry goods prices increase.
“Marine livestock prices are definitely up,” Mender said. “That’s not so much the case with lighting. Lighting has always been the most expensive product that we sell. Livestock prices have changed more than lighting, but everything else has gone up in price over the last two years … probably at least 35 percent.”
Prices for some marine species have pushed would-be saltwater aquarists away from entering the hobby entirely.
“We’re definitely seeing a slowdown because of the livestock price increases on the marine side, and more people are switching back to fresh at this point,” Chapman said.
Meanwhile, smaller setups have become increasingly popular.
“There’s a definitive push for smaller tanks,” Swope said. “We’ve had to keep the larger sizes on our shelves for longer, which generally did not used to happen. Our smaller tanks are now flying off the shelves. A lot of our 5- and 15-gallon tanks are sold just as soon as they’re in.”
Increasingly, aquarist social media influencers are driving interest in new products, types of setups and species.
“Social media is a huge factor in driving sales,” Swope said. “The age range of people engaging with [aquarium hobby influencers] is surprising to me. I have 60-year-old customers who come in and say that they saw something on TikTok and they want to try it. YouTube is huge, too.”
Because potential customers are responding to social media influencers and shopping with local independent aquatics retailers, competition in the lighting segment is not as pressing as it once was.
“Before, it was the little stores that were really pushing these new products,” Chapman said. “It’s not like there’s a lot of natural advertising for pet products. Manufacturers are relying on online word-of-mouth from social media influencers. Manufacturers have reeled it back in a little bit. They know where their bread and butter is. Independent stores are a big part of that. Even the big-box chains have their role. I don’t really consider PetSmart or Petco to be direct competition. I have no problem sending a customer to a big store if they have something that I don’t choose to stock.”
Social media has changed aquarist customers’ buying habits. Manufacturers have taken note, and while competition and inflation are still factors in the aquarium lighting segment, they are working to support local independent retailers.
“As always, competition from online retailers and off-brand imports are a huge challenge for dealers, especially given the price increases that everyone has endured during the pandemic,” Nista said. “The best advice I can give to retailers is to use the products they sell in their stores on their display aquariums so consumers can see how the light functions and looks. We actually offer double the length on warranties of our products if they are purchased at an independent retailer. Our 1+1 warranty … gives independent retailers an advantage over online businesses.”
All Aquatop products are warranted for one year after the original purchase; however, through Aquatop’s 1+1 extended warranty, customers who buy products from authorized Aquatop resellers can receive repairs or replacements of goods for an additional year.
Fixtures running LEDs are now unquestionably the industry standard, retailers reported.
“All our new customers are using LEDs at this point,” said Steve Chapman, manager for Aquatek Tropical Fish, a pet store in Austin, Texas. “Generally speaking, with a good LED, they don’t have to replace them as often. And we don’t have the replacement bulb sales. So it has an impact. That’s just inevitable, at this point. The LEDs aren’t going away. Getting used to the idea of not selling replacement bulbs and stuff like that was just part of the transition.”
Most LED fixtures were originally marketed around promises of much longer service lifespans. Now that many LED lights have been in operation for 10 years or more, it is safe to say these products have lived up to manufacturer promises of longevity.
“From my experience, LED lights do live up to their expected longevity,” said Rhett Garring, general manager of Aquatropics, a tropical fish store in Gainesville, Fla. “They run a really long time and do really well, holding intensity in spectrum for a long time. I haven’t had issues with most brands as long as they are properly maintained.”
Of course, LED lighting does have its limits, but when properly used or maintained, these lights have a long lifespan.
“These fixtures need to be kept in well-ventilated, properly maintained conditions, and the fans need to be kept clean,” Garring said. “They do seem to last as long as they are advertised [to last], and some of these lights are marketed as having 30,000- to 50,000-hour lifespans. If you’re on a normal lighting schedule, we’re talking eight years. Some of these products haven’t even been out that long.”
Manufacturers of LED aquatic lighting may face some complications due to the longevity of these products.
“The ... threat now for a lot of these companies is that they maintain app presence for those people who have a light that’s five years old—that if they upgrade the online app, that it still works with the old lights,” Chapman said.