Aquarium lighting has come a long way, industry experts noted, and while the LED trend has cemented itself firmly, the newest innovations center on app integration and streamlined lighting control.
Many new light fixtures feature smartphone integration, and, in some cases, this is even a requirement to run the light.
"Controllability is moving toward integrated applications, whether it’s over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi," said Michael Hunter, owner of Wet World in Eagan, Minn. "That, to me, is where everything is at. Having to touch a button on your light is becoming a thing of the past."
While this might not be ideal for all hobbyists, especially if they don’t have access to smartphones, there are ways to make the technology work for most of today’s customers.
"There are customers that come in and still have a flip phone and are upset because they can’t run the lights," said Clayton Burton, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "There are downfalls to it. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives. You can run your light from anywhere. If you’re out of town, you can still adjust your lighting if you need to."
For example, Hunter had a 75-year-old man come in for a lighting upgrade, he reported, but the customer did not have a smartphone. He was able to use a tablet to control the light, however, and is now happy with the purchase, Hunter noted.
Integrating control directly into the fixtures themselves is increasingly popular and has helped streamline light operation as well.
"One aspect of lighting that has changed dramatically for some of those companies is software," said Glenn Laborda, manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "With EcoTech Radions, for example, in the past, hobbyists basically had to buy a ReefLink, [which provides wireless access to EcoSmart Live, the web-based aquarium command center from EcoTech Marine]. Now, hobbyists don’t need that part and can control lights directly from their phone. This removes the need to buy a $200 piece of equipment."
Integration and usability are top selling points, retailers reported, and manufacturers have designed products that are meant to provide customers with a variety of options and easy access for controllability.
"This is the age of connectivity," said Sean Raines, director of aquatic marketing product development for the pet, home and garden division of Spectrum Brands, headquartered in Blacksburg, Va. "To capitalize on current trends, retailers can appeal to the ease of customization, from remotely changing light settings to using apps on smart devices to manage water care or feeding."
Innovations and Merchandising
The quality of aquatic tank lighting has improved across the board, experts reported, and many options offer a lot of functionality to customers.
"Competition is tight in the segment," said Mike Calli, president of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif. "Smaller lighting units are coming out that are better and more competitive for these smaller tanks."
Prices are coming down as a result of the competition in the segment; however, because aquarium lighting tends to be on the expensive side, it helps to offer services and prominently display offerings for customers.
"I demonstrate a lot of lighting items in the store," Hunter said. "When customers walk through the front door, they can see that my aquariums look the way they do for a reason. They’re set up properly and they’re maintained properly. I like to show off the lights that I use."
It is also beneficial for retailers to know their customer base, industry insiders reported.
"New customers or existing customers looking to upgrade are where we’re making sales," Laborda said. "Every LED we sell is on display somewhere in the store. Customers can see all the differences, and I walk them through it. We show them how the apps work."
In-store lighting can inspire customers by highlighting what is possible at home, Raines concurred.
"As consumers incorporate aquatics as a soothing design element in their homes and offices, the lighting and design of the tank work together in creating the right custom look," Raines said. "Staying current with products … that appeal to the design senses and offer modern conveniences can help retailers remain competitive in their product offerings."
Competition and Sales
Still, as with most dry goods, lighting does present some challenges for many brick-and-mortar retailers in that the competition—particularly online—is strong.
"Sales have plateaued, honestly," Hunter said.
Price matching is one way to compete, Hunter noted, and he tries to accommodate customers’ needs as much as he can. Offering additional services and pointing out the benefits of buying locally helps to close the sale, as well.
At Denny’s Pet World, Burton said sometimes it is necessary to negotiate with internet-savvy shoppers.
"We get customers that come in and want to buy a certain light, and then pull it up on Amazon and ask us if we can match that price," Burton said. "I can usually get relatively close without losing money. I have to explain that I can’t match that price, but I can get close to it and they get to take it home today."
Manufacturers back their minimum advertising pricing (MAP) policies effectively, Burton added, which helps level the playing field.
"A lot of the lighting companies do a good job of policing their MAP," he said.
Offering the lowest possible price helps drive sales, and, in most cases, brick-and-mortar retailers stated that they can get very close to online prices, while promising superior service at the same time.
"Whether we’re selling lighting in-store for customers or for service applications, we like to be as competitive as possible," Hunter said. "We can often offer the same prices customers will find online. There’s still margin left for us. That’s one of the areas [in which] we can stand up to competition. I provide a service where I come out and map a customer’s light’s photosynthetically active radiation [PAR] readings. I take a digital picture of their tank and fill in the gaps."
Providing knowledge and superior service is where retailers have the biggest advantage.
"Retailers can stay competitive through knowledge and good merchandising," said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. "If retailers know what they sell and how to sell it and also display the products properly, it definitely helps."
Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass.
Clearly, smart technology is a game changer in the lighting category. How is this development impacting retail sales? Plus, what other product attributes are hobbyists clamoring for in the lighting category, and how is Hagen responding to this trend?
Lighting that incorporates smart technology is outselling those without, especially at retail, and it is helping to bring a new generation of hobbyists into the store. Almost everyone has a smartphone nowadays, and, here at Hagen Group, we have responded to this high demand with our FluvalSmart App.
All Fluval LEDs feature the FluvalSmart Bluetooth-enabled App and offer a variety of customizable features all controlled by a mobile device. We recently released our app/firmware update V1.03, which allows users more flexibility, including a programmable 24-hour light cycle that gradually goes through new timepoint settings—sunrise, daylight, sunset, night and sleep—for a natural effect. Our FluvalSmart App-enabled lighting options include our Fluval Planted, Marine and AquaSky LEDs. Fluval Full Spectrum LEDs are designed for hobbyists who want to maintain a thriving aquarium. Whether a customer is growing live freshwater plants, maintaining a reef aquarium or just keeping fish, Fluval has them covered. Our lights are engineered in Germany and are backed with a generous warranty offering incredible quality and value.
In a New Light
Some aquatics hobbyists still recommend T5 and T8 fluorescents and other types of lighting, but, for the most part, LEDs have completely taken over the segment, industry experts reported.
Sera recently launched its LED lighting system, which is designed to replace T5 and T8 fluorescent bulbs, said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa.
"The LEDs can fit in T5 or T8 fixtures," Frenken said. "A triple cable is available as well that allows users to connect several LEDs to one ballast. This LED exchange system also includes a dimmer. With this, you can create a sunrise and sunset scenario and even clouds throughout the day."
Most local fish stores do not sell any other type of lighting besides LEDs, retailers reported.
"We’ve lost the market on almost all other kinds of lighting now," said Mike Calli, president of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif. "All that really sells anymore are LEDs. I don’t believe it’s the best lighting for the reef or photosynthetic organisms. ... But on the same token, the benefits outweigh the cons. We’re not cooking the tanks, which is a big plus. In the past, dealing with the heat was very expensive and hard to do. The LEDs have been an improvement in that sense, no doubt about it."
Several brands do well for retailers, with high-end lighting offering several advantages for local fish stores.
"The top dogs in the LED market include Kessil, EcoTech, AquaIllumination and Red Sea that just came out," said Glenn Laborda, manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "The new Red Sea LEDs are fantastic. The color on them is more of a purple than a blue. Those lights are amazing. AquaIllumination is still one of my top choices, just because I think they’re the best by far when it comes to app-driven controllability."
Laborda also likes Fluval’s Sea Marine and Reef LED fixtures, he noted, especially as an entry-level option for customers.
"If somebody is getting into that SPS upper level, then I recommend the EcoTech lights," he added.