Retailers in the aquatics segment report that customer education on the latest approaches to maintenance and tank chemistry, as well as having the right assortment of products, is a must. Stocking the maintenance products that hobbyists are seeking, including natural products or products that can help them create the most natural tank conditions possible, is particularly vital today.
Filter media products designed to remove and control chemical compounds in aquariums are in high demand, industry participants report.
"For us, media reactors are popular," said Arthur Frayler, co-owner of Aquatropics in Gainesville, Fla. "We use Seachem’s Purigen filter media in pretty much all our filters. We use a lot of their bio media as well. … We’ve reached the point now where we actually have the science and the facts behind what a lot of these products do. It’s not a guessing game anymore."
Consumers in general respond strongly to the term "natural" in many product categories, but it takes on a different meaning in the aquarium trade.
"We know other pet segments are growing with natural products," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "I’d love to see more offerings in the natural category. … We do have some customers asking for natural products in the fish supply category, and we do have some betta treatments that are all natural, and those do well for us."
The differences between what "natural" means in other segments and what it means in the aquarium hobby can create confusion.
"I think the term ‘natural’ can lead to misconceptions sometimes," Frayler said. "When a lot of people say they want a natural tank, they’re usually talking about the actual species and décor in the tank. … For us at least, it’s a matter of asking, what do you want out of your system? Do you want a live aquascaped environment and a habitat for the species, or do you want to have it artificially done and use chemicals and mechanical filtration and things like that to filter out the water for you? That’s the fine line we deal with, more than customers who say they want a natural product."
Some retailers find that customers are asking for natural products specifically, and often they emphasize that the goal is to re-create natural conditions, rather than worry about whether a given product is actually found in a fish’s natural habitat.
"Natural products are getting a little more popular now," said Glenn Laborda, manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "We have a whole section dedicated to natural products."
Still, the need to explain the difference between natural products and maintaining natural water chemistry is important to ensure customers understand how products work.
"We often hear from customers wanting more natural products," said Rachel Torrence, marketing specialist for Seachem Laboratories in Madison, Wis. "It occasionally does become difficult to explain to a customer the difference between natural in terms of what is a natural supplement versus something that would actually be in a fish’s natural environment. Sometimes this is a topic of particular frustration. It’s very important to us as a company that, when we are creating products to add into an aquarium, that we are replicating what would naturally be in the water."
On the Market
Under the Right Conditions
New chemical additives, filter media and other maintenance products are constantly appearing on the market.
Fluval, a brand of the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass., recently released three resin-infused filter pads. The line includes an ammonia remover, phosphate remover and a nitrite remover that are designed to work with the company’s new X07 line of canister filters.
"All three of our new filter pads help trap small particles and debris, and help improve water quality," said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the company. "They are [designed to be] very easy to use."
Test kits are the most popular chemistry-related aquarium products, and need to include ammonia, pH, nitrite and nitrate tests, he added.
Maintenance equipment is also an important part of the hobby, and new offerings are available in this segment as well. Seachem Laboratories, based in Madison, Wis., is known for many chemical products, but it also produces scrapers, filter socks and several different types of filter accessories.
"The most recent thing we’ve done in terms of additives is our shrimp line for AquaVitro," said Rachel Torrence, marketing specialist for Seachem Laboratories. "We released a line of five products for maintaining freshwater shrimp aquariums. The line is designed to cover the full range of aquarium maintenance. It includes dechlorination, restoration of mineral content, maintenance of pH, dosing of trace elements and nutrients, and iodide dosing, which is very important."
Some products designed to address very specific conditions in tanks are also popular, with additives targeting types of biological control appearing on the market.
"One of the most popular products is always aiptasia anemone killers," said Glenn Laborda, manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "There’s a new one out, but honestly, I just got it. I haven’t tried it yet. It’s by a company called Frank’s Tanks, and it’s called F-Aiptasia Killer. It works a lot differently than the ones that are out there now. It seals them up so they can’t release planula larvae. That’s supposed to be an amazing product."
Chemical additives continue to be in demand, particularly with new aquarists looking to help balance out advanced systems.
"One thing we’re excited about for reef tanks is Tropic Marin’s product called Carbo-Calcium," said Arthur Frayler, co-owner of Aquatropics in Gainesville, Fla. "It’s actually an all-in-one additive for small tanks, so you don’t actually have to dose four, five or six separate bottles. You can do a one-and-all dose. For a beginner reef keeper, it’s a great product to have."
Automation On the Horizon
Maintenance tasks and chemical dosing are increasingly becoming automated, industry experts stated.
"We will continue to see more technology-focused products entering this space," Hester said. "These allow aquarists to monitor tank conditions on their phone from anywhere in the world."
Aquarium controllers, and testing and dosing systems are growing in popularity in the hobby, especially among advanced aquarists.
"Neptune Systems’ new Trident system that’s out actually tests calcium, alkalinity and magnesium for you, and then calibrates your dosing pumps to keep your system maintained," Frayler said. "I already have a couple of customers running it, and the results are incredible. … We’re now at a point where we have technology where we can do a lot of the maintenance and checking up and testing and dosing automatically so it’s done the right way consistently."
This aspect of the hobby is the most important part of tank maintenance and chemistry, industry experts stated, and products that help customers improve stability are gaining market share.
"What we tell our customers is: Consistency is key," Frayler said. "If you’re going to forget about the tank for six months and it starts getting gnarly and you have to play catch up, you have to put some elbow grease behind it. But if you can do a little bit consistently, the tank typically maintains itself."
Maintenance and chemistry products are all about supporting customers and keeping them in the hobby. The greater their success, the greater the success of the hobby and industry as a whole, experts assert.
"Without a doubt, I believe this is one of the single most important aspects of getting a customer on the right path from the start," said John Pailthorp, vice president of marketing for Spectrum Brands Pet, a subsidiary of Spectrum Brands Holdings in St. Louis. "It not only helps ensure their success, but it is also a great way to create a long-term, repeat loyal customer. Water chemistry products are the foundation for continued success, which equates to continued sales of livestock and hard goods as the customer grows in the hobby."
When it comes to the aquarium hobby, one of the least understood aspects is tank and water chemistry. For retailers promoting stability in their customers’ tanks, it is vital to offer educational services to encourage and promote their success.
"Ensuring that customers have a good foundation for understanding tank chemistry is a way to ensure that your customer keeps coming back," said Rachel Torrence, marketing specialist for Seachem Laboratories in Madison, Wis. "This is not only because they view the store owner and the store employees as being an authority, but also because customers [with] a good basis in the chemistry of the aquarium [will be] successful. So they likely won’t exit the hobby because they had a disastrous tank breakdown. … The best approach for brand-new customers is making tank chemistry digestible."
Education is an area where the industry has room for improvement as a whole, industry insiders reported.
"The industry could do a better job at educating consumers on why they need certain products," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "We meet so many customers who do not understand even basic cycling, nor do they know what the pH levels are in their water and why that’s important."
Providing a superior educational experience is especially effective in getting new hobbyists off to a good start, as well as promoting customer retention, industry participants said.
"Ensuring the consumer is successful in maintaining their aquarium from the start is key," said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group, in Mansfield, Mass. "The first steps of education should be done when the consumer is purchasing their first aquarium. This will result in a positive experience for the new hobbyist and keep the livestock in the tank happy and healthy."
Outreach can come in many forms and can set local fish stores apart from the competition.
"We try to offer a lot of education," said Glenn Laborda, manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "Our website is full of all the papers we’ve written, public blogs and a private blog. We try to get as much info out there as we can. But the one-on-one is always amazing. Having 20-something employees helps tremendously. We also do roundtables through the course of the year. We’ll have Dr. Tim [of DrTim’s Aquatics] come in and talk to the people, or we’ll have a saltwater guy from Red Sea or Tropic Marin come in and talk to customers."
Supporting customers with education is a vital aspect helping to keep local fish stores relevant and competitive within the industry.
"Education is what this is all about," said Arthur Frayler, co-owner of Aquatropics in Gainesville, Fla. "We don’t want to tell customers what to throw in their system to fix their problem. We want them to understand why it fixes the problem. If everybody can understand that, then everybody can balance their systems."