Aquarium hobbyists know they need to maintain their setups, and pet specialty retailers can become the go-to source for knowledge and products that will help them succeed in the long-term. What’s more, maintenance services have become a staple of the industry that helps differentiate local fish stores from their competitors and bolster their bottom line in a difficult but growing market.
Many retailers have put an emphasis on their maintenance services to help drive business.
"When we started, we were mostly focused on retail," said Matthew Catanese, co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark, Calif. "But now, since we’ve bought the store and taken it over, we’re trying to push more for maintenance services because it’s a consistent paycheck."
Catanese formerly worked for a tank-maintenance and installation company in Los Angeles, where he saw the success offering maintenance services can bring.
"I have around 20 maintenance clients right now," he said. "We just got a van yesterday, so now we’re going to start actually pushing it because we’d been doing services out of our personal cars, and it’s a nightmare."
In general, retailers reported that the maintenance services side of the business is on the rise.
"Maintenance services are always growing," said Janet Davis, co-owner of Mandarin SeaLife in Jacksonville, Fla. "New customers are always moving in, and business is pretty steady."
Still, she added, "Some new customers want to be educated where they can do it for themselves."
Customers who are committed to maintaining their tank setups on their own often seek products that simplify maintenance chores, retailers noted.
"The biggest trend is trying to add convenience," said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of DrTim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif. "Consumers don’t want to spend a lot of time carefully measuring this and that, and diligently adding this precisely at some specific time. They don’t want to be ‘tied’ to their tank. So more and more, it is about products that work in a wide range of conditions, that are easy to apply and don’t take a lot of time."
Helping customers figure out what they want and need can also help minimize maintenance problems down the road.
"When we have new customers, we try to start them out right," said Bill Ridgway, owner of Aquatic Creations in Ijamsville, Md. "When they ask about how easy or how big a tank they should get, we always base our recommendation upon the fish they can’t live without. Once we know what that is, then we can design the whole aquarium setup around that desire."
A Matter of Biology
Products to bolster biological filtration, such as probiotics, are increasingly popular with aquarists.
"Every aquarium needs a healthy level of good bacteria to counter and filter out pollutants such as ammonia that can harm, or even kill, fish," said John Pailthorp, vice president of marketing for Spectrum Brands Pet, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Spectrum Brands Holdings.
To address this need, Tetra recently introduced Cleaning Bacteria. The product contains a blend of beneficial microorganisms, Pailthorp said, and is formulated to replenish the bacterial supply and maintain biological filtration within an aquarium when used monthly.
Other manufacturers are also introducing novel products to help with tank maintenance and water chemistry.
Recently, DrTim’s Aquatics introduced its Time Release Waste-Away Gels.
"The gels are infused with our Waste-Away bacteria," said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of the Moorpark, Calif.-based company. "Being in gel form, the product is very simple for consumers to use. They simply unzip the wrapper, attach the suction cup and stick it anywhere in the tank, filter or sump. For the next 30 days or so, good bacteria are automatically released into the water."
Overall, hobbyists are more aware of the need for beneficial bacteria, industry participants noted.
"In recent years, we’ve noticed a much better understanding in the hobby of the role of beneficial bacteria in fish health, waste management and even nitrate reduction," said Rachel Torrence, marketing specialist for Seachem Laboratories in Madison, Ga. "A better understanding of the ways in which healthy biological filtration and bacteria supplementation can keep fish and aquariums in top condition leads to easier and more effective aquarium maintenance."
Maintenance Made Simple
Effective merchandising and promotion of aquarium maintenance products and services can not only boost sales, but also help hobbyists understand what it takes to have a successful, thriving tank, according to industry participants.
"Customers have to be aware of what they’re putting in their tank," said Janet Davis, co-owner of Mandarin SeaLife in Jacksonville, Fla. "Our biggest selling point is that we can provide that knowledge. Probably 80 percent of the time, they are so unaware that’s even an issue."
Product displays are an important part of reminding customers about their aquarium maintenance supply needs.
"The tactic we use in-store is to keep stuff that makes sense together," said Matthew Catanese, co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark, Calif. "We highlight the stuff that sells the best, such as the Chemi-Pure products. We also keep the testing [products] right by the counter."
It has become more difficult to compete on dry goods, retailers reported, but focusing on top-sellers can help cut down on carrying too many SKUs.
"We don’t really carry a ton of dry goods, like I guess old-school pet stores would," Catanese said. "We carry more of the stuff that we either use ourselves or that people ask for. It’s easy to sell something if you use it yourself."
Growing business might require thinking outside of the box. Because growth in the maintenance services segment is strong, retailers might do well if they focus on add-on sales of both maintenance products and even livestock to help drive sales overall.
"We offer a service to bring fish to customers and acclimate them," Davis said. "We offer full maintenance service. I don’t really believe in selling a lot of product. I would rather sell the best product I can as far as salt because that’s where it starts. And then you don’t need all of these other additives, which has been a big marketing campaign in itself. I would rather sell customers fish."
In general, offering livestock sales to maintenance customers is an excellent way to drive sales and retain customers in the long-term.
"Livestock is a bit more expensive for your maintenance clients, because at least for us, we quarantine our livestock that are going to our maintenance customers," Catanese said. "It works out, it keeps the customer happy, it makes them feel like we really care about their tank, and we’re just not trying to make a buck. Also, we have to deal with fewer issues and fewer angry customers."
Knowledge for Success
Being the expert that customers come to for information and guidance on caring for their aquariums is among the most effective ways for pet specialty retailers to bolster their maintenance product sales, according to industry participants.
"If customers don’t understand water parameters, they’re not going to do very well with their aquarium," said Samuel McCall, co-owner of Exotics and Aquatics in Reno, Nev. "People may only have a general idea of maintenance. Some customers don’t know anything about water quality or any form of chemistry. But once you get the gist across, it’s easier to work with customers."
Carrying and promoting water testing products is often the first step toward helping customers understand their aquarium’s care requirements.
"It starts with water testing and teaching them how to do that," said Janet Davis, co-owner of Mandarin SeaLife in Jacksonville, Fla. "Then we move on to helping them understand the water parameters and what they should be, and how to achieve them. If you educate your customers, then there’s a good chance that you can sell them on higher-quality products, but results aren’t something they’ll always see immediately."
While several types of additives are popular and useful, it’s important to keep in mind that these aren’t a substitute for proper education and husbandry practices, participants report.
"Using additives to address water chemistry issues and aquarium maintenance in general—particularly in freshwater aquariums—should never be considered a substitute for or alternative to basic aquarium husbandry practices, such as regular water exchanges, efficient filtration and a sound feeding regimen," said Scott Rabe, director of marketing for Franklin, Wis.-based Central Aquatics, manufacturer of the Aqueon and Kent Marine brands.
In addition, Rabe recommended offering customers a high-quality water conditioner and other beneficial products to help promote adequate water-change practices.
"By spending time helping them with their aquariums, you and your staff will build customer confidence, demonstrate your high level of expertise, and show you care about them and their pets," he added. "You’ll also help make them successful at aquarium keeping, which, in turn, will keep them engaged in the hobby."
Retaining customers and making sure they are successful is what education is all about, and it is the cornerstone of a successful fish retail business.
"Our job has always been to keep customers in the hobby and to not let them fail," said Bill Ridgway, owner of Aquatic Creations in Ijamsville, Md. "I think that in the long-term, if all stores would do that, the hobby would get back to growing again."