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The aquarium industry continues to grow as new hobbyists start setups, and technological developments have allowed a greater percentage to be successful. More technical setups are within the reach of beginners, and the need for advanced lighting is driving sales in the category.

Retailers reported that fledgling fish keepers continue to pour into the industry.

“We’re definitely seeing more new hobbyists,” said Nikhil Roy, sales associate for Diablo Corals, a pet supply store in Concord, Calif. “People are working from home or they need something to do. More people are entering the hobby, or they’re getting back into it.”

Customers want systems and lighting that fit with their home décor and are easy to use.

“The trend is to have aquariums that fit in with the rest of your home or your lifestyle,” said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine, an aquarium equipment manufacturer in Allentown, Pa. “We’ve always been very minimalistic with our equipment in terms of presentation, so as not to detract from the beauty of the aquariums. … Customers don’t want big, ugly stuff. They want lighting to look clean. They want it to look nice and to fit in their living room. There’s also a trend toward all-in-one systems. Part of that is driven by consumers, but part of it is driven by the industry.”

All-in-one systems are popular, but they have their limitations.

“Lighting’s a huge sale,” said Mike Mender, owner of Tiki Corals, a pet supply store in Glen Allen, Va. “We push them a lot. We’re big advocates of upgrading lighting. Customers buy these all-in-one systems from some of the larger chain stores, and they’re promised that these systems come with lights appropriate for corals, and they’re not. They’ll grow softies, but they’re not what most need. They’re not pushing the spectrum and the PAR [photosynthetically active radiation] that you need. Our lighting sales have increased since that has become a trend.”

Ike Eigenbrode, chief of operations for Current USA/Ecoxotic, a manufacturer in Vista, Calif., reported that marine, reef and freshwater planted lights all continue to perform well at retail, although thoughtful merchandising also helps drive sales.

“Dealers who set up stylish display tanks in their retail location using the lights they recommend definitely drive higher sales and demand on both lights and complete aquarium kit setups,” Eigenbrode added.

High-end lighting is particular is in demand among freshwater planted tank hobbyists, as that segment is expanding.

“We definitely get freshwater people coming in, even though I don’t carry freshwater supplies or fish at the storefront,” Roy said. “I have maintenance accounts that are freshwater, and on those accounts, they’re using Kessils on their setups. A lot of the aquascaping guys are going more high end, and they spend almost as much as some of the reef guys spend.”

Planted tank hobbyists will spend more than the average freshwater consumer on lighting setups, but they also purchase less technically advanced lighting at lower prices.

“It all comes down to price point,” Gum said. “Your average new reef customer, or even a freshwater customer, is [price sensitive]. We actually sell a lot of the freshwater AI Primes [ from AquaIllumination]. A lot of our customers are really big into aquascaping. … Our biggest seller on the more affordable end of the market are the Fluval strip lights. We actually use the normal fish lights over all our cichlid systems, and then the planted version over all our planted tanks. We have probably 12 to 15 fixtures running in the store to grow plants and everything else.”

Both the freshwater planted and reef segments of the hobby offer opportunities for retailers to drive lighting sales, but each market is different in terms of volume and the potential for repeat sales.

“Consumers are spending money on either a new setup or upgrading their existing lighting,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group, a manufacturer in Mansfield, Mass. “Since freshwater aquariums are more popular, we tend to see more sales within that category, but a reef hobbyist is more likely to upgrade lighting versus a freshwater consumer.”

On the Market

Innovations and Updates

Manufacturers are meeting demand for aquarium lighting with new product introductions, as several new and updated fixtures appear on the market.

“We recently released our new Orbit R24 LED light in August 2021,” said Ike Eigenbrode, chief of operations for Current USA/Ecoxotic, a manufacturer in Vista, Calif. “This includes the 52-watt version for reef aquariums. The 90-watt version will be released this December. This is a coral-specific spectrum LED light with Bluetooth app control.”

High-end reef lighting continues to see innovations and developments, manufacturers reported.

“We launched the Versa about a year and a half ago, followed by our Generation Five Radion lighting,” said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine, a manufacturer in Allentown, Pa. “Since then, we largely have been tangling with massive [demand] increases due to COVID, and then the resulting difficulties associated with manufacturing during COVID followed by a chip shortage, which involves pretty much all of our products. Internally, most of our development work in the short term has been around increasing the capability of our new control platform, which is largely software, meaning it’s all app based at this point. We have our new Mobius control platform that controls all of our products, and the intention is to get both of our brands up and running on it as quickly as possible.”

Integration is important to customers, industry insiders reported, and new fixtures seek to meet this demand.

“The Neptune Systems Sky came out recently,” said Jason Gum, manager of Premier Aquatics, a tropical fish store in Marietta, Ga. “Basically, you can use it on their own controller or standalone with their new apps. It’s kind of a big deal. I haven’t personally got to mess with one, but for the price point, compared to the Radion, it’s going to be a big competitor, just because of the spread and everything on it.”

Neptune Systems recently merged with Bulk Reef Supply, an online retailer focused on the marine and reef hobby.

“Time will tell with Bulk Reef Supply buying Neptune,” Gum said. “That’s the big news right now. We haven’t seen any issues yet, so maybe it’s going to be a good thing, but I don’t know.”

The Sky fixtures are popular, retailers reported, though some are concerned about how the merger will play out.

“The Skys are new, and they have some hype behind them, especially with the whole Bulk Reef Supply acquisition and merger [with Neptune],” said Mike Mender, owner of Tiki Corals in Glen Allen, Va. “I love Radions because they’re tried and tested. They’re just great lights. I never have any issues with them. I haven’t demoed any of the Skys yet, but I’ve got some customers who have them, and they’re speaking volumes about how well their corals have done just over a month of running with them. The jury’s still out, but we’ll see.”

Staying Competitive

Stocking Issues Hurt, MAP Helps

Lighting has been a difficult segment for independent aquatics retailers to compete in as online retailers increasingly take market share.

“Dry goods are tough,” said Mike Mender, owner of Tiki Corals, a pet supply store in Glen Allen, Va. “We don’t make a lot of money on them anyway. … When you’re going against big retailers, and they have everything, a warehouse full of stuff, it’s tough. I’m limited. If I keep four Radions [in stock], two XR15s and two XR30s, that’s tying up a ton of money sitting on the shelf.”

Manufacturers that offer minimum advertised pricing (MAP) help support independent retailers, and many find these programs beneficial.

“Yes, MAP pricing definitely helps us,” said Jason Gum, manager of Premier Aquatics, a tropical fish store in Marietta, Ga. “For example, if we hear some local store is carrying something cheaper, below MAP, we’ll call them out on it. If a customer were to have an issue with the item and send it in for a warranty and they want a receipt, they very well might not cover it.”

Aquarium lighting sales are still up, retailers reported, and add-on sales help.

“We’re definitely seeing lighting sales grow,” Gum said. “When customers are buying a light, they’re also getting a mount, a hanging kit and all the accessories, so they’re spending more money on average.”

Shortages

Customers are more aware of their purchasing options, and many come into independent aquatics retailers prepared with information.

“Light fixtures sell themselves in a lot of cases,” Gum said. “Customers often come in knowing what they want. The internet has definitely changed that dynamic. I’d say 50 percent of our big lighting sales are to new customers. We have every single one of them on display. We have AI [AquaIllumination], Red Sea and Radion fixtures on our tanks currently, along with the Fluval fixtures.”

It is essential to have lighting products in stock to help drive sales, retailers reported.

“You have to carry lighting,” Gum said. “If you don’t have what your customers want, they’re going to order it online.”

Some retailers are finding they have problems dealing with lighting products not being easy to source.

“We’re absolutely having issues with availability,” said Nikhil Roy, sales associate for Diablo Corals, a pet supply store in Concord, Calif. “We’ve had supply shortages, which are mostly just delays in shipping. Especially with COVID, that really became an issue. It’s still a problem.”

Keeping lighting in stock has been difficult at Tiki Corals, too.

“Getting anything is an ongoing problem,” Mender said. “COVID has really pushed this industry to a new forefront. People were home, people were bored, they needed a hobby, and the new hobbyists are great for business. But on the back end, you can’t get anything because people aren’t working in the warehouses. Lighting is one area where we’ve had a hard time. That’s just an ongoing problem with anything retail right now.”

Yet lighting availability may have eased somewhat, some retailers reported.

“There have been issues getting stuff in,” Gum said. “When we need stuff, it’s there for us. We do large orders, and we’re already paying for a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of stuff. Availability when COVID first started out was kind of iffy. It’s gotten better. It’s really mainly [a problem with] the cabinetry and tanks.”