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The aquatics industry is undergoing a period of change as customers increasingly seek help with aquarium maintenance. Retailers are seeing sales increase and have focused on offering maintenance and chemistry products and services as a result.

Many customers are stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic and are turning to the aquarium hobby for entertainment.

“We’ve probably doubled the amount of business we do in-store on a weekly basis,” said Jess Viscovich, manager of Diablo Corals, a retailer in Concord, Calif. “Weekly traffic has increased significantly. Our store hours are [a little] funky, because we only open from 12 to 6 p.m. during the week, but that hasn’t been a factor because most customers can come and go easily. So it’s worked really well for us.”

However, Viscovich reported a related drop-off in aquarium maintenance business.

“We’ve lost probably 20 to 30 percent of our maintenance accounts,” he said. “The only loss of offsite maintenance for us came from business clients located in a building that may or may not allow us to come in. … We’ve seen an increase with end users doing a lot more of their own maintenance, which has sort of been a blessing for us, because originally we were going to shut down the shop and cater to maintenance customers, but with the influx of customers that we had in the shop over the last six to seven months, it’s been a no-brainer to stay open.”

The ongoing shortage of glass aquariums is causing issues for some retailers.

“It’s pretty hard to get products right now,” said Siegfried “Ziggy” Gutekunst, owner of The Hidden Reef, a retailer in Levittown, Pa. “It’s down to supply and demand. Nobody has anything, and we’re scrambling all over the place trying to get product. … The glass shortage continues. We can’t find glass anywhere. Even with the whole COVID thing, we’ve increased our sales like crazy. Now it’s just a matter of trying to keep the products in stock.”

The demand for maintenance products and chemistry additives is tied closely to new aquarists making tank purchases.

“We’ve been selling a lot of tanks,” said Shane Billmyre, owner of Caye’s Aquarium, a retailer in Portland, Ore. “A lot of people are getting into the hobby. We’re really busy, and maintenance product sales goes with that. Eventually, customers need all their maintenance equipment. We carry tons of chemistry products, so we have anything customers might need.”

Product availability and livestock shortages have affected aquatics retailers differently, and while most reported some impact to their businesses, in general, business is still growing.

“To be honest, I’ve only set up one tank since shutdown,” Viscovich said. “I haven’t had a problem getting glass specifically, but I have seen it significantly affect others. For us, at the beginning of the shutdown, fish and corals were very hard to get. A lot of it has to do with the lack of shipping coming into the U.S., and having to pay higher freight fees, taxes and tariffs for livestock. There’s a lot that plays into it. It’s crazy right now.”

New Products

Making Maintenance Easy

Manufacturers are introducing new products to meet demand for easier solutions to tank maintenance.

DrTim’s Aquatics is launching several new lines this fall and winter to address consumer needs. The company is expanding its range of Waste-Away Time Release Gels to include gels for bettas, shrimp, planted tanks and amphibian systems, said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of the Moorpark, Calif.-based manufacturer.

“The gels are formulated to release good bacteria perpetually for up to 30 days, helping to keep tanks clean and reducing maintenance,” Dr. Hovanec said. “We are also introducing a complete line of filtration media that includes bio-filter media, activated carbon, ion exchange chemical filtration media, zeolite and phosphate removers.”

Quantum USA, the distributor for Quantum Aquarium Products, which is based in New South Wales, Australia, has made several of the manufacturer’s products available in the United States. The company has introduced Aragonite Enhancers, which are formulated to provide macro trace elements to corals, as well as Bio-Enhance, which contains amino acids, a complete protein, carbohydrates, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to serve as a complete supplement for corals.

“Our nitrate reduction system comes in two different formulas,” said William Harris, CEO of Quantum USA in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. “We offer a high-range version for 15ppm or higher, and a low-range version for below 15ppm. The reason we do this is to prevent aquarists from getting the white slime that is known to develop with nitrate reduction products. We also have a phosphate remover that is lanthanum based. We use only pharmaceutical-grade products in all of our products.”

Tetra, a brand under Spectrum Brands Pet, based in Blacksburg, Va., was slated, as of press time, to release a new siphon along with other maintenance items in November.

“The Tetra Siphon with priming bulb is designed with a shorter intake tube so it works in aquariums from 2 to 55 gallons,” said Catherine Langford, senior brand marketing manager for Tetra. “Also new to our product portfolio is the Tetra Sunlight Blocking Film, which [is designed to] block sunlight without blocking the view of aquarists’ fish. While we recommend that consumers place their aquarium away from direct sunlight, that isn’t always an option.”

Consumer Education

Start a Dialogue

The influx of new aquarists has encouraged pet specialty retailers to redouble their efforts and emphasize education to help support beginners and retain customers.

“We show customers what we are using in our tanks and make sure those tanks are well maintained,” said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place, a retailer in Lancaster, Pa. “We want to show customers systems they would want to keep in their own home or office. We also offer care sheets on all of our livestock, plus we do have sheets on cycling and maintaining a tank.”

Education often starts with open dialogue between store personnel and customers.

“We approach education with a lot of communication,” said Jess Viscovich, manager of Diablo Corals, pet supply store in Concord, Calif. “There’s a lot of one-on-one instruction. Most of our customers are more like family and friends. It’s like a barbershop more than it is a fish store. Everyone talks to everyone. The community is pretty close already. Most of the time when we have three or four customers in here, there are at least two customers that know each other.”

This approach of emphasizing conversation with customers often helps drive sales.

“Maintenance sales almost always come out of a conversation,” Viscovich said. “I like to figure out what the client’s situation is, give them a few tips, and then suggest an add-on sale. I always try to upsell at the end.”

Newer hobbyists are often confused about where to start or what is necessary for success, and some industry professionals suggested focusing on simpler messaging and product packaging.

“Most of the time, when customers come in [with problems], we have to educate them about caring for their water,” said Siegfried “Ziggy” Gutekunst, owner of The Hidden Reef, a retailer in Levittown, Pa. “For most of the [additives] packaging, manufacturers include too much stuff. It’s too complicated. People don’t want to read 40 paragraphs about the product.”

This can lead to confusion among beginners, and retailers often have to take extra steps to ensure they understand their system’s requirements.

“New fish keepers are often overwhelmed by the amount of information, which is many times contradictory, so they are confused,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of DrTim’s Aquatics, a manufacturer in Moorpark, Calif. “We hear this a lot. This is an opportunity for retailers. Take the time and explain setting up and cycling a tank in easy-to-understand, step-by-step language. We provide one-page recipe cards for cycling, fighting algae, getting rid of dinoflagellates, among other topics, presenting the process on a day-by-day basis to make it simple for the customer to understand.”

Direct support from manufacturers is increasingly common and helps fish keepers to be successful and remain a part of the hobby.

“We offer 24/7 retailer and customer support via social media or e-mail communications,” said William Harris, CEO of Quantum USA, the U.S. distributor for Quantum Aquarium Products, based in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. “We have a four-step maintenance program log book that details how to use our products, our dosing recommendations, and includes a parameter log book for aquarists to keep track of their levels.”

Online resources are increasingly important for aquarium education, and manufacturers are providing more options to help retailers and customers.

“Consumers rely on the internet more every year for information on aquarium keeping,” said Catherine Langford, senior brand marketing manager for Tetra, a brand of Spectrum Brands Pet, based in Blacksburg, Va. “We’ve recently made updates to the Tetra My Aquarium app to help consumers with tank maintenance. Customers can take a picture of a test strip, and the app will provide test results and recommendations based on the water parameters. The app also keeps track of past results so consumers can look for trends and adjust their maintenance routine to meet the needs of their aquarium.”

Social media and app-based support are increasingly common in the aquarium hobby, and retailers are using these tools in conjunction with time-tested approaches to help customers succeed with aquarium maintenance.

“The most important aspect of water chemistry a retailer can impart on a customer is the necessity for consistency,” said Philip Edwards, MS, program manager for Seachem Laboratories, a manufacturer in Madison, Ga. “We have a number of short webinars on our Facebook page that explain the use of products the general consumer will be using that are helpful to the retailer as both an educational tool for store staff and the customer. … With so much conflicting information available online, end users get impatient and start a cycle of changing parameters quickly trying to achieve the ‘magic number.’ Emphasizing the need for patience and consistency in supplementation will help customers avoid the myriad problems related to frequent changes in water chemistry.”

Merchandising

Drawing Attention to Maintenance

Maintenance products are not necessarily the most interesting items hobbyists are looking to purchase. To help drive sales and emphasize what customers need to be successful, pet specialty retailers put equipment and chemistry products front and center.

Along with positioning products well, communication is essential to identify ways to help customers.

“If you’re a communication-based retailer, and customers know you for that, it’s a huge selling point in this industry right now,” said Jess Viscovich, manager of Diablo Corals, a pet supply store in Concord, Calif. “We keep most of our dry goods, our glue, frag plugs and refrigerated food near the register. So that way we can make those last-minute sales. On our fish wall, we have a 12-foot, three-tier shelf that has all of our dry goods, test kits, filters, socks and other stuff like that. On the opposite shelf, we keep all of our dry rock and our live rock station. I keep most maintenance stuff centralized around that location. Some is located near the register as well.”

Easy-to-peruse displays help drive sales.

“We brand-block our chemistry and maintenance products in the aisles, but we also feature a smaller off-shelf display near our display tanks that are currently using those products,” said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place, a retailer in Lancaster, Pa. “This off-shelf display makes it easier for our sales staff to get the products into the hands of the customers.”