When it comes to aquarium maintenance equipment, many retailers can benefit from offering hands-on service. This is especially true because many customers are leaving maintenance equipment selection to retailers when they set up their systems.
"We have clients that literally don’t want to do anything other than make the tank look pretty," said Jeff Picklesimer, co-owner of Fintastic Aquariums of Wake County in Cary, N.C. "They give us a livestock budget. They’ve seen what our display looks like and they want to go that route. … They’re basically giving us carte blanche on the tank."
Customers increasingly want complete systems, and retailers find they can drive sales of equipment through package deals.
"Customers are looking for a turnkey system," said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. "As far as tank maintenance goes, we’ve gone to a lot of automated maintenance."
This is part of an overall trend many retailers noted involving customers seeking easy-to-use equipment.
"Customers might be stepping back a little bit from more complicated equipment," said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "They’re simplifying a little more."
Some retailers have had success selling maintenance equipment in the course of providing maintenance services to customers.
"Offering maintenance services is an avenue for equipment sales," said Anthony Johnson, owner of Reef Life Aquatic of Palatka, Fla. "A lot of times what I’ll do is, in the price of a complete setup—let’s say, for example, a saltwater tank—I’ll go ahead and wrap in the first three months of in-home service along with that. … That usually tends to be a pretty good selling point [for equipment]."
There is a divide in the aquarium industry between freshwater and saltwater products when it comes to sales of maintenance equipment, retailers reported. Freshwater retailers find that equipment sales generally happen as part of kit sales.
"We’re probably 75 percent freshwater," said Kelley Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "So many more people have little nano tanks now. The barrier to entry financially is easy, and people think that [they] are easier tanks to take care of. A lot of those systems come with the filter already."
In contrast, tank sizes are trending larger for saltwater systems.
"We specialize in saltwater only and have for almost 31 years," said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. "When I say we do big tanks, we do big tanks. We’re not a nano store. This week, we have a 950 gallon that we’re installing, and we’ve got two 750 [gallon tanks] we’re putting in in Myrtle Beach. … Our trend has always been bigger, not smaller. Who the heck is doing nanos? I can’t give them away. At Christmas, we’ll sell three or four."
Making Maintenance Easy
Several new aquarium maintenance products have appeared on the market recently, or are eagerly anticipated in the hobby.
"We just released a new media reactor called the Sera Prefix Filter," said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. "It can be used for both fresh- and saltwater systems. It can be used in different ways—for example as a pre-filter, bio-filter and additional filter."
The maintenance services side of the industry is growing, Frenken noted.
"Most people are really concerned about the quality of their aquariums," he said. "That is why the maintenance side of the industry is still a growing business for many stores. … Many people would rather spend the money instead of taking care of the maintenance themselves."
Other manufacturers are also introducing new maintenance products to the market.
"I’m waiting for the Apex dosing system," said Anthony Johnson, owner of Reef Life Aquatic of Palatka, Fla. "That’s going to change things by leaps and bounds from a service standpoint."
Other retailers echoed the anticipation building up for Apex products.
"Right now, everybody’s holding their breath waiting for the Neptune system, the Trident testing kit," said Jeff Picklesimer, co-owner of Fintastic Aquariums of Wake County in Cary, N.C. "That’ll give you the ability to test alkalinity, magnesium and calcium on the fly."
Sophisticated sump systems are also increasing in popularity, he added.
"Trigger System’s Triton sump system is new," Picklesimer said. "It’s based on something we’ve been doing for years, but it finally seemed to take off. It involves using a huge refugium to offset some of these things. … The method isn’t new, but somebody is actually marketing a sump based off of that now. So somebody took advantage of a market that was untapped."
Merchandising and Service
Staying on Top of Sales
Driving aquarium maintenance equipment sales often means keeping a focused inventory and displaying maintenance products on working systems.
"Every product that I sell in the store I run in the store," said Anthony Johnson, owner of Reef Life Aquatic of Palatka, Fla. "I have a setup for every single product that I have, whether it be a pump, filter or whatever. So at any given point, I can open up my sump door and show customers a DC 6000 pump or an EcoTech Vectra."
Using fliers, email lists and social media can also help to drive sales.
"From the day we opened until today, we literally [have] run a weekend flier every Friday," said Jeff Picklesimer, co-owner of Fintastic Aquariums of Wake County in Cary, N.C. "We use Constant Contact. We built a flier with pictures of a selection of up to 100 items. … We do discounts on the stuff for the weekend. We list fish, coral and dry goods. We cover the gambit. So there’s a bit of everything. … It always brings people in, no matter what."
Reputation can have a huge impact on keeping customers coming back, and long-established retailers reported leveraging their authority in the hobby to help drive sales.
"We only do saltwater and nothing else," said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. "We were like the second store in the country 31 years ago to do that. We’ve been very blessed to have our name recognized. Most people come in here and they just listen."
Offering superior service is an excellent way to build customer loyalty and grow maintenance equipment sales.
"It helps having good people," said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "You want sales reps who are not only knowledgeable, but happy and smiling and who offer more than just a ‘Can I help you?’ Our customers’ success is our success. I mean, people aren’t going to continually have a bad time with the aquariums and keep coming back and buying fish."
Surveying the Competition
Keeping Sales in Brick-and-Mortars
Internet-based retailers have taken a very large portion of sales in the maintenance equipment segment, industry professionals reported.
"In terms of equipment, customer service is the only thing that keeps us viable, unfortunately," said Jeff Picklesimer, co-owner of Fintastic Aquariums of Wake County in Cary, N.C. "The internet is such a powerhouse now, even the Current E-Flux pumps that we sell, Amazon sells them at retail sometimes $40 to $50 cheaper than what we can get them for wholesale."
This trend has hit saltwater-focused retailers and high-end products harder than in other segments of the hobby.
"We’re probably 75 percent freshwater," said Kelley Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "Honestly, people tend to buy the expensive equipment online. … Because we have sales reps that have been here forever, customers want to buy it from us. We just don’t carry super-high-end stuff. There’s no point. It costs a lot to stock it and you just can’t make enough to make it worthwhile."
Keeping maintenance products in stock is a balancing act for retailers, as they have to weigh retaining customers against dedicating shelf space to high-cost items.
"It’s hard to get customers to buy," said Jeff Picklesimer, co-owner of Fintastic Aquariums of Wake County in Cary, N.C. "We try to keep a certain amount on hand, but a lot of times nowadays, with shipping the way it is and the way online is, if somebody can order something online and have it in their hand, that’s what they do."
Recent strength in the economy has helped, but online competition is still difficult to deal with.
"More customers are using online retailers," said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. "A lot of it is getting better because the economy is definitely improving, so people aren’t as concerned about saving $6 and free shipping and all that they were before. But it definitely affects us. A lot of manufacturers and distributors are backdooring products to the public, and we’re unable to compete with that. … Amazon has been a killer."
Focusing on the aspects of the hobby that are resistant to online competition, such as livestock sales and maintenance services, and concentrating on customer service, have been the tactics most retailers have used to successfully combat internet sales.
"Retailers can best compete by using their strength, which should be knowledge and outstanding customer service," said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. "If retailers offer outstanding customer service, this is already a big part of what is needed to be successful. Retailers have to
find ways to stand out in comparison to online stores. Offering some additional service is what separates them from online."