Marine foods are following the path of the rest of the pet food market in several ways, according to industry insiders.
"When the public starts caring about their health and what they put in their bodies, then they will begin to care about what their animals are eating as well," said Vanessa Glass, president of Glass Aquatics, a fish store in Hurst, Texas.
In the aquatic diets market, this consumer trend translates to a focus on individual ingredients and their quality, insiders said.
"We are seeing probiotics in fish food, lower ash levels for better metabolism of food and absorption, reducing the undigested food that can contribute to poor water quality," said Heidi Buratti, store manager at Extreme Marine in Ventura, Calif. "We are also seeing an uptick in ‘natural foods.’"
Customers seek out "good-quality and environmentally friendly foods for their fish, like for their own diet," said Claus Frenken, director of sales for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquatic products.
Freeze-dried foods are seeing an uptick as well, thanks to the wide variety available and their versatility, according to Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand/Ocean Nutrition, a Newark, Calif.-based fish and reptile food manufacturer.
"The foods can be fed to aquariums dry, the same as flake or pellet, soaked in water or supplements, and then poured into the aquarium for broadcast feeding or used to target feed corals and other invertebrates," he said.
Another trend in marine diets is "a migration away from formulated foods toward frozen or fresh foods," said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, a premium aquatics and reptile diets manufacturer in Hayward, Calif.
Marine hobbyists’ desire for healthier, more colorful fish is driving the newest offerings, according to Adam Marietta, owner of Aquatic Environments, a store with a focus on aquatics and reptiles in Davenport, Iowa.
"Aquarists like easy-to-use products that provide a visible result in a timely manner, at an affordable price," he said. "There are now more options for foods that include vitamins, medications and/or color-enhancing ingredients. These options are arising due to customer demand."
Social Tricks of the Trade
Social media is a powerful tool that manufacturers and specialty retailers in the aquatics market can employ to market themselves, as well as their products and services. Of the major platforms available, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube were reported as the most used by aquatics companies.
"Social media definitely helps a lot to boost awareness and sales, but also education," said Claus Frenken, director of sales for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquatic products. "We just launched our own Instagram account for Sera Worldwide. That way, our customers and partners can not only see what is new in the USA, but they also can see all the news and trends all over the world."
Interaction is crucial in using social media effectively for marketing purposes. Aquatics companies offered four effective ways to use social media to boost awareness, sales and education in this category.
1. Personal Experience and Influencers
"By far the best promotion on social media for any product are the people using them showing positive results that the products produce, aka the ‘influencers,’" said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand/Ocean Nutrition, a Newark, Calif.-based fish and reptile food manufacturer. "Aquarists respond better to the individual experiences of other hobbyists than they do a message from the brands whose main goal it is to sell product."
"We post educational, and sometimes just absurdly funny, videos on our YouTube channel every month," said Vanessa Glass, president of Glass Aquatics, a fish store in Hurst, Texas. "Several times per week, we post at least a little something on Facebook and Instagram."
"We use all sorts of direct consumer interaction opportunities," said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, a premium aquatics and reptile diets manufacturer in Hayward, Calif. "We feel that we can help the retailer by driving consumers into their stores to ask for the products they feel they need to find success."
Oneppo agreed that social media can be instrumental in getting hobbyists to visit local specialty shops.
"A store can use social media to their advantage by offering advice—something hobbyists react well to—and interacting with their customers and potential new ones," he said. "There are a lot of opinions online, and for an aquarist it can sometimes be overwhelming, so if they have a reliable, trusted source that also happens to be a brick-and-mortar store, and has helped them achieve success, they will want to visit that store. And once those people are in the store, it is the perfect time to engage with them face-to-face and discuss aquatic nutrition."
4. Products and Education
"When new products are released and available in our store, we announce them on Facebook and showcase their features," said Adam Marietta, owner of Aquatic Environments, a store with a focus on aquatics and reptiles in Davenport, Iowa.
Extreme Marine, a store in Ventura, Calif., not only promotes new offerings through social media, but also cultivates the hobby.
"We utilize Facebook and Instagram to highlight new food lines that are being introduced and to provide new information we learn at various trade shows and reading new publications," said Heidi Buratti, store manager. "We pride ourselves in education and offering a variety of options that are on the market, and social media is a great way to showcase that."
On the Market
A Plethora of Options
Fish food manufacturers are introducing a consistent stream of marine diets to the market. The result is plenty of choices for retailers and hobbyists.
Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif., reported that the company’s Reef Riot frozen food is performing well. Formulated specifically for reef tanks with a variety of fish and corals, the food comes in carnivore and herbivore versions and contains a mixture of multisized particles that are smaller than some "food blizzard" type foods and larger than some reef tank staples like cyclopods, rotifers, baby brine shrimp and smaller shrimp, Clevers said.
The company also recently introduced Vibra Bites, which is formulated to duplicate the shape and movement of frozen bloodworms in the water column, he added.
In response to consumer demand for natural products, Sera North America recently came out with Sera Marine GVG-Mix Nature, a blend of flakes and freeze-dried food animals like daphnia, krill and bloodworms.
"The food is rich in natural minerals and trace elements such as iodine, and thus supports health and fertility," said Claus Frenken, director of sales for the Montgomeryville, Pa.-based company.
The company also launched Sera Marine Granules Nature with natural ingredients such as iodine-rich marine algae, spirulina and krill. In addition, Sera modified its Marine O-nip Nature stick-on tablet so it contains no dyes or preservatives.
"All our other marine foods will be modified as well so that they all come out without dyes and preservatives, being all natural foods," Frenken said.
Also addressing demand for natural options during the first quarter of 2020, Ocean Nutrition released a reformulated Nano Reef Fish Food, with the synthetic dyes and preservatives replaced with natural alternatives. Now the small, slow-sinking pellet comes in two jar sizes.
Ocean Nutrition also introduced an XL size of Formula One and Formula Two soft and moist slow-sinking pellets. Intended for large fish such as Vlamingii tangs, they also can be used to feed anemones, corals and other invertebrates, said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager of the Newark, Calif.-based company. These, too, are undergoing minor reformulation to replace synthetic dyes and preservatives with natural ones, and Oneppo said the new formulations will enter the market later this year.
Finally, San Francisco Bay Brand launched Freeze-Dried Cyclops for marine filter-feeding invertebrates, corals, seahorses, pipefish and other fish with smaller mouths. Available in two sizes, the jars include scoops for easy dispensing.
A Focus on Quality
Reflecting the wide range of food available in the marine category, price tends to be spread out as well. According to Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, an aquatics and reptile diets manufacturer in Hayward, Calif., the price range depends completely on market and store experience.
"We see some retailers offering foods for multiple times the MSRP and others offering them for slightly less," he said.
Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand/Ocean Nutrition, a Newark, Calif.-based fish and reptile food manufacturer, said price range depends on food types.
"Flakes and pellets usually range from around $5 to $20 depending on the size of the package, frozen foods range from $5 to $25, and some powdered coral foods sell for as high as $40-plus," he said.
When comparing prices from a big-box store, customers might experience some sticker shock, said Vanessa Glass, president of Glass Aquatics, a fish store in Hurst, Texas, adding that education then enters the equation.
"Typically, if people know why they are paying more for a good-quality product, they will walk away pleased with their purchase," she said. While she reported an uptick in informed hobbyists looking for "crème de la crème" foods, "most hobbyists are pleased with a middle-of-the-road, good-quality food that has a good return on their investment."
Marine customers seem to understand that this hobby is an ongoing investment, Oneppo said.
"One thing to keep in mind is that the reef aquarium hobby requires money to get into, and the animals also cost more than most freshwater fish, so aquarists tend to spend more money on food items because they want to protect their investment by providing them with the best nutrition possible," he said.
Claus Frenken, director of sales for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquatic products, agreed, noting that, overall, consumers realize that quality costs more.
"The hobbyists also know and understand that quality has its price, thus they cannot expect a high-quality product to be very cheap," he said.