Keeping dry goods in stock continued to present a problem for pet specialty retailers through the end of 2020, but both livestock and equipment sales showed strength leading into 2021. Now, in the first quarter of the new year, retailers report that they expect sales to grow as business conditions slowly return to normal.

Over the past few months, retailers reported struggling to keep lighting products in stock.

“From my understanding, it’s really the smaller stores that have suffered from the stock issues with lighting,” said Kevin Knudsen, manager of Aquatic Design & Development Group, a pond design and construction developer and provider in Ocala, Fla. “For example, with Radion and AI, Bulk Reef Supply and these other large online retailers, they put in massive orders. And that is why a lot of these lights were back ordered. So if I tried to order an AI light from the actual manufacturer, I’m on hold for three months, but if I order one through Reef Supply and pay a little bit more, I can get it almost immediately.”

This is exactly what Knudsen and other retailers reported doing, just to make sure they could meet rising demand for aquarium lights.

“We’ve had to do it just to try and please our customers,” Knudsen added.

New customers, as well as those expanding upon their existing aquarium hobby, are creating demand.

“Most of our sales on lighting seem to be coming from [aquarists who are] expanding their tanks or just starting out,” said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place, a pet store in Lancaster, Pa. “We’re not seeing as much demand in the way of those with existing lights upgrading their setups.”

Retailers also noted that more hobbyists prefer higher-end lighting setups and equipment, both for reef applications and planted tank systems.

“Everybody’s leaning towards getting into higher-end lighting as opposed to running basic setups,” said Wayne Sylvia, sales associate at Aquatic Treasures, a tropical fish store in Las Vegas. “A lot of customers are favoring lights with more blue-spectrum output more than full-spectrum output. … Reefers want to be able to adjust and tweak and change stuff up a little bit. That’s what’s nice with the higher-end lighting. You have that control.”

Reef-focused retailers are reporting that, in some areas, they are seeing demand for lighting products and other dry goods from more advanced planted tank aquarists. For a few, this has led to an expanded business focus.

“We are primarily reef,” said Jeff McCarty, manager for Barrier Reef Aquariums in Renton, Wash. “However, we do have a lot of people coming in asking for freshwater planted stuff, which is why starting [this year], I will be bringing freshwater planted products and species into the store.”

Planted tank lighting may not represent the same value proposition to retailers, but with more aquarists entering that segment of the hobby, and fewer full-line stores catering to advanced freshwater, there may be a niche for marine-centric retailers to serve.

“Marine hobbyists strive for high-end options and the latest technology with special features more so than freshwater hobbyists,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquatic products. “Marine hobbyists typically spend more money on new lighting than freshwater hobbyists. Freshwater hobbyists may even tend to buy budget options or at least options with fewer special features, whereas marine hobbyists look for high-end products.”

Still, demand is up in all aquarium lighting categories, and as both manufacturers and retailers figure out how to cope with the aftereffects of 2020, growth in equipment sales appears likely to continue accelerating higher.

“Pretty much everything has increased,” said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine, a manufacturer of aquarium equipment in Allenton, Pa. “All aquarium product sales—not just one category—are up. … We’ve seen a significant increase in hobbyist interest, and that combined with the periodic difficulties associated with shipping everything else related to our industry and every other industry means we’re having to balance that increase in demand with the slightly more difficult supply situation. We’ve been fighting that pretty much since the beginning of the pandemic just to try to maintain our product availability in the marketplace at the levels required to meet demand.”


Lighting Up Livestock

Aquatic livestock helps sell lighting in brick-and-mortar pet specialty retail stores, and lighting helps sell livestock, retailers reported.

“We have a display tank with about $30,000 worth of coral in it, which has two Kessil lights on it,” said Kevin Knudsen, manager of Aquatic Design & Development Group, a pond design and construction developer and provider in Ocala, Fla. “All of our frag tanks have AI 32s on them. Then we have another set of frag anemone tanks with Noopsyche lights on them. We try to show as much as we can. … We actually have every one of the lights we carry on display. So people have the option to go through and pick and choose what they may or may not like as far as coloration, size or spread.”

Setting up lights to emphasize the colors they can produce, and the visual appeal they bring out in livestock, is a fundamental selling tactic.

“I see the pop of color output to be one of the most-sought-after lighting features,” said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place, a pet store in Lancaster, Pa. “This is not to say that customers do not like the ability to program and control lights remotely. They do like those options, but they also want the light to produce what they need to keep their tank inhabitants happy and healthy.”

With attractive display aquariums set up, light fixtures end up driving sales almost by themselves.

“Basically, it comes down to having products in stock, and having a nice display set up,” Knudsen said. “When customers walk in to our store and see a really impressive reef aquarium lit with a Red Sea fixture, and it’s just absolutely packed with everything from softies [soft corals] to small polyp stony corals, it will stop them in their tracks. Customers stop and take a look at it when they walk in, and they end up asking what lights we’re running on that tank. That’s how these lights sell themselves. The results we have with our livestock sell them every time.” 

On the Market

Fixture Features

Opportunities for aquatic product launches were muted in 2020, and issues with supply held pet specialty retailers back somewhat, but new aquatic lighting products nevertheless have gained hobbyist attention.

EcoTech’s introduction of the Generation 5 (Gen5) Radions featured a new lens design, an active cooling design to operate quietly and integrated control through the company’s Mobius app, said Jay Sperandio, sales director for the Allenton, Pa.-based manufacturer.

Controller features built into lighting fixtures are very popular, and manufacturers are seeking to further integrate and streamline their functionality. For example, Fluval LEDs now all come with a relatively new feature called Pro Mode.

“This new feature allows for 10 time point settings, which provide additional controllability of the color spectrum and light intensity throughout the 24-hour programmable cycle,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Mansfield, Mass.-based Hagen Group, which manufactures the Fluval brand. “We are always looking to add additional features and ways to improve the overall user experience of the FluvalSmart app.”

Red Sea’s new lights have also gained retailer attention, with several retailers noting that they are selling well, along with EcoTech, Fluval, AI and Kessil fixtures.

“Red Sea came out with the ReefLED 160S, which is basically a souped-up version of their 90,” said Jeff McCarty, manager for Barrier Reef Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Renton, Wash. “They are really good lights. We’ve opened up a couple of them. I have a whole bunch of small polyp stony corals growing under them, and the corals are doing awesome. They came in and colored up instantly. We carry Red Sea, EcoTech, Aqua Illumination, Kessil and Tunze fixtures. Our best-sellers are the Kessils, Red Sea, EcoTech and AI lights.”

Though some retailers reported that older lighting formats, such as T5s and metal halide bulbs, still have a small niche in the hobby, nearly all aquarists have turned to LED fixtures.

“We can’t even sell T5s anymore,” said Kevin Knudsen, manager of Aquatic Design & Development Group, a pond design and construction developer and provider in Ocala, Fla. “We just don’t have a market for them. Everybody’s going to LEDs. You really can’t compare them, in terms of longevity and price point.”

The shift to LED lighting is no longer a trend in the hobby, but the industry standard.

“I’ve seen a very small amount of brand-new hobbyists that are purchasing anything that they can get their hands on,” McCarty said. “I’ve had a small amount of people that are actually setting up halides again. At one time, halides were definitely the best. I think that there are a lot of other things now that have surpassed halide setups. Those fixtures obviously have a lot of drawbacks that makes them less attractive compared to energy-efficient, cool-running LEDs.”

Fewer alternatives to LEDs are even available on the market, and manufacturers have almost switched completely to the newer format.

“LEDs are absolutely the industry standard and will continue to make up the bulk of sales in this segment,” Hester said. “Fluorescent and incandescent lamps are fading from existence now that pretty much every aquarium kit comes with LEDs. The demand continues to decline each year.”

Bluetooth or Wi-Fi?

Most new aquatic light fixtures feature the ability to interact with and control the lamps remotely, either via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

“Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-capable products are currently driving the majority of the aquatic lighting market,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Mansfield, Mass.-based the Hagen Group, which manufactures the Fluval brand. “Consumers are looking for products with app integration that allow for customization in output as well as color spectrum.”

One or two product generations ago, Wi-Fi connectivity was more common in lighting controller systems. Now, however, more manufacturers are integrating or outright switching to Bluetooth connectivity for their systems.

“In my experience, Bluetooth has been much easier to connect with, as opposed to the Wi-Fi configurations,” said Kevin Knudsen, manager of Aquatic Design & Development Group, a pond design and construction developer and provider in Ocala, Fla. “Based on the way the technology has developed, I would have thought that Wi-Fi is an easier method to connect through. So it’s interesting that all these [manufacturers] are switching over to Bluetooth. For example, the AI light. We just got a whole bunch of them, and it’s almost instantaneously that you can log in to it and program it compared to the Wi-Fi ones. It’s always an ordeal trying to connect with Wi-Fi and everything along those lines. … The AI fixtures have been really good as far as connectivity. The same is true with the Radions.”

Different types of connectivity still have a place in the hobby, however.

“Our focus is largely on integration,” said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine, a manufacturer of aquarium equipment in Allenton, Pa. “We continue to develop more products and build our control platform. We launched our new control platform this year, which moved from what was previously our proprietary setup with a Wi-Fi bridge to now RF [radio frequency] Wi-Fi, which we’re about to enable shortly, and Bluetooth, which is already enabled on the devices themselves. That offers a higher level and greater flexibility and control in terms of seamless user connectivity and reliability over the long run for on- and off-site connection. … We’re aiming for less direct controller input—a controller being a separate computer unit. … Each platform has its pros and cons, and each communication medium has its pros and cons, which is why we use all three at this point.”

Although app-based lighting control is popular, some believe aquarists miss the inclusion of a more analog method of interacting with their fixtures.

“I feel like a lot of manufacturers have gone to fully app-controlled setups, and few fixtures have manual controls anymore,” said Jeff McCarty, manager for Barrier Reef Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Renton, Wash. “There are actually a lot of customers out there that would appreciate having a manual control along with app control.”