Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif.; Jessica Brown, associate brand manager, Aquatics, at Central Specialty Pet in Franklin, Wis.; and Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass., answer PPN’s questions on the state of the aquatics industry.
Pet Product News: What market dynamics are impacting the aquatics category the most right now?
Chris Clevers: From all indications, COVID-19 lockdowns have people who were on the fence about an aquarium diving in and those already in the hobby spending time upgrading their tanks and spending lots of time tending to their fish as a welcomed diversion from the stress of being locked down. The lack of places to spend money combined with the stimulus money and tax refunds all coming together has provided a perfect storm for new aquarium keepers and that larger tank many have wanted for years. We see a big increase in consumer questions via our website, phone and email customer service areas, which means folks are engaged and eager to connect and talk about fish. It’s great!
Johnathan Hester: With consumers spending more time at home [due to the coronavirus pandemic], we have seen an increase in demand across the board, including nano fish tanks, LED lights and canister filters.
PPN: What trends are developing in the aquatics space right now? Is technology playing a big role?
Clevers: We see a continued transition from marine tanks to freshwater, although it is tougher to judge the overall migration. People seem to be very interested in the benefits of specific products and how they can offer their fish optimized nutrition with variety without impacting the benefits.
Definitely on the marine side, technology still reigns as people look for more efficient ways to handle the maintenance aspect of aquarium keeping so they can spend more time enjoying their aquarium. The bevy of smartphone apps appearing on the scene is a welcomed sign, but, unfortunately, some are more hype than benefit, so a watchful eye is required, and retailers should spend time confirming anything they recommend really improves the aquarium-keeping task list rather than creating more problems downstream.
Jessica Brown: With an increased focus on our nutrition and our pet’s nutrition, there is opportunity for advancement in the fish food category. Our Aqueon Pro Foods look at the different digestive systems of fish, rather than what family or group the fish fall into. This means fish can live happier, healthier lives because they’re able to get better nutrition. Along the same lines, focusing on the mental stimulation of fish is another focus. Consumers can be concerned their betta fish are lonely or bored, for example, since they live in such small environments alone. There is a biological reason for this, but the concern is there nonetheless. The Aqueon Betta Beads help keep the betta fish engaged by providing an interactive substrate that the fish can play in as well as [one that] encourages their natural foraging behaviors by allowing the betta to dive in and out of the beads.
Hester: It’s vital we continue to integrate tech in the aquatic segment; technology-infused products help attract a new generation of consumers to the hobby.
PPN: What types of livestock are the most popular with hobbyists? Has the easing of the Indonesian ban on coral exports had a positive impact on the hobby?
Brown: In the saltwater hobby, there’s a definite trend towards increasingly colorful live corals and “designer” clownfish. As was the case with goldfish, livebearers and other freshwater fish years ago, breeders continue to develop interesting color patterns of several clownfish species. On the coral side, growers continue to introduce strains of corals with brilliant, neon colors not commonly found in nature. Thanks to increased knowledge of coral propagation techniques and better technology in equipment, these new varieties can be kept and propagated by home aquarists.
Opening up the Indonesian coral mariculture industry has helped the hobby—we’re seeing a definite increase in variety and quantity of cultured corals since the ban was lifted. This is important in that it provides hobbyists with a better selection to buy from and gives domestic growers a much wider pool of parent specimens to work with.
Hester: Neon tetras are among the most popular fish in the hobby. They are a small, easy-to-care-for fish and add a nice pop of color to any community tank.
Clevers: Marine fish are a bit problematic during this COVID-19 period as flight costs have risen at a breakneck pace, leaving prices too high for many and supply too low for most. When the supply and demand metric is turned upside down … prices have to go up to offset these costs as retailers cannot cover them. We see larger markets handling the price increases relatively well, but smaller markets moving away from marine and transitioning to freshwater, where the store owners know they can generate enough profit to keep themselves moving in a positive direction.
Once the COVID -19 issues subside, it will be interesting to see if those who did bigger marine business before will return to offering saltwater or stay the course with freshwater, shrimp, goldfish or other options for the space. The Indo ban has definitely impacted availability and pricing, but many stores are finding other options to offer their customers with success.
“Now more than ever, brick-and-mortar retailers need to adapt to consumer needs. Offer curbside pickup and stay active on social media. Keep your customers updated on new product and livestock deliveries.”
—Johnathan Hester of the Hagen Group
PPN: How are ingredient panels for fish diets evolving?
Hester: Fish food has started to catch up with the rest of the industry, offering healthier diets and cleaner ingredient panels. [Hagen’s] Fluval Bug Bites is sustainably harvested and contains no fillers, artificial colors or preservatives.
Clevers: There is lots of talk of all pet food labels duplicating the information provided on human food labels in the same format. This is a huge undertaking and will definitely create problems for fish-related foods. How this will all work out is unknown, but the cost and time required to develop something meaningful that the consumer can actually understand and use will be significant. Changes in the way guaranteed analysis numbers for some categories of products are developed and represented will also change the information people are used to seeing.
Retailers and consumers need to be more aware of novel wording on ingredient panels that appear to make one product better than another when in fact they are not. Recommending products that have been proven over time and [brands that] support brick-and-mortar retailers should be a focus.
Brown: Fish foods are at a peak for new development. The primary ingredient in fish foods has been fish meal for decades. The idea of farming fish to feed to other fish is not intuitive and is not as environmentally friendly as other options. Many companies are looking for alternatives to fish meal in the diets, such as black soldier fly larva. This poses a challenge from a formulation and dietary perspective because the omega-3 and omega-6 ratios are off from that of fish meal, which has the proper ratios.
Trying to develop a food that brings multiple ingredient sources was one of the main goals of our Pro Foods. For example, the Pro Carnivore Formula has seven different animal protein sources, and the Pro Herbivore Formula has eight different plant ingredients for nutritional variety. This means that consumers and retailers need to look at the ingredient list as a whole and not just the top five or so ingredients. Ingredient lists are done in order of overall percentage to the whole, so the there is more of the first ingredient than the fourth, but that could be a very small percent difference. Some ingredients are simply needed to make the pellet or flake structure. Think of it like baking a cookie; some ingredients are in the recipe because they are important to the cookie structure, not so much the taste.
PPN: What strategies can brick-and-mortar retailers employ to prevail against the online competition?
Clevers: During this COVID -19 period, I believe retailers have to stay engaged with their customer base period. If you are out of sight, you are out of mind, and it makes it much easier to head to the internet to buy something when you are trying to find toilet paper, paper towels or disinfectant wipes. Retailers have to give their customers a reason to stay engaged. Do a daily Facebook Live post talking about some new fish you just got in, or the newest product you found and love or some new idea to reduce maintenance tasks, or even some instructional Zoom classes that parents can join with their kids to learn about fish keeping from the retailer experts out there. Anything that can be done to be involved with consumers will pay off handsomely.
When we talk to consumers directly here at Hikari, they tell us they want to be sure their local store stays healthy. They want them to be there after all this COVID-19 stuff. They know they are hurting and feel bad for them. So retailers need to take advantage of that and find creative ways to connect. Call your better customers to check in. Ask them how their fish are doing. Ask them if they are seeing any issues they need help with. Don’t be afraid to sell them on something you have to offer as well. For your mid-level customers, send them an email once a week with some compelling reason to visit your store. If you don’t have a consumer database to work from, contact some local service providers and buy one. You want to stay visible and any spend to do that now you will be thankful for later. Everyone probably knows 10 high school kids in their family who are bored out of their mind being locked down with limited things they can do. Deputize them to be your social media person. Give them a task a day to work on and bring back to you. Make the necessary adjustments and roll with it. Pay them based on the number of likes they get or [find] some way to let them benefit from that viral post about your business. If they are a fish person, it’s even easier—just give them store credit, and you both win.
One other thing … during slower business periods, use this time to upgrade your store experience. Make your store a pleasant surprise when people do start migrating back. Paint that wall that was a bright color 10 years ago, fix that rack that isn’t looking too pretty any more, develop some eye-catching signage and endcap promotions, and work to upgrade your staff’s knowledge. All these things will help improve business as things move forward!
Hester: Now more than ever, brick-and-mortar retailers need to adapt to consumer needs. Offer curbside pickup and stay active on social media. Keep your customers updated on new product and livestock deliveries.