The Innovations that Are Transforming the Aquatic Lighting Category

Aquatic lighting sales are effectively split between entry-level and advanced hobbyist applications, but, with the right strategies, retailers are having success selling both.

The move toward LED lighting is widespread, and few retailers stock any other fixture or lamp formats anymore.

"Everyone is moving toward LEDs, mainly because they can’t get anything else," said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws, a pet store in Harleysville, Pa. "I don’t carry saltwater products or species anymore. In that part of the hobby, lighting has always been a primo thing, because reef aquariums need high intensity. That’s what corals thrive on. I don’t sell standard fluorescent hoods and strip lights anymore. I just sell LEDs."

Jim Seidewand, owner of Pet World, a pet shop in Rochester, N.Y., and board member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), agreed that LEDs are dominating the market, but added that some hobbyists have yet to make the conversion.

"The fluorescent market died pretty suddenly a couple of years ago," Seidewand said. "We still do stock a couple of those fluorescent tube products. There are some old timers who want them, and we still stock some bulbs. But let’s face it, the market almost fully transitioned to LEDs several years ago."

Furthermore, Seidewand noted, the customer base is split when it comes to which fixtures they are buying.

"There are a couple of different levels of products," he added. "There’s the casual aquarium hobbyist who comes in and wants to light their aquarium. They’re not interested in paying a lot of money. … Then there are those mainstream customers who are starting out but who are still trying to keep more advanced aquariums, and they need brighter lights. That step-up customer is still looking at conventional strip light LEDs that offer brighter levels for plants and corals. Then there is an entirely different group of customers, who are the reef hobbyists and very upscale planted tank hobbyists who are buying much more expensive products, much more esoteric things that are admittedly largely sold over the internet and not as often in retail stores."

Some retailers have success with high-end lighting, but for non-reef specialty, it helps to have offerings for the entry-level and mid-tier markets.

"Some customers are willing to spend crazy amounts of money on lighting because they want the best technology," said Jose Garcia, owner of Living Reef Aquariums, a tropical fish store in Oakland Park, Fla. "Others just want something basic. We have to carry products for both."

Garcia recently expanded into freshwater offerings, he noted, though it is still too early to know if he will have success with lighting sales in the segment.

"I’m not too sure about lighting sales on the freshwater side," he said. "We started carrying freshwater products and species around eight months ago. We just opened a new location and expanded a little bit. It’s double the size of the previous storefront. Now we carry both fresh and salt. We’re still very new, and it’s too soon to tell how it is selling. It’s definitely growing, but sales are still very minimal."

Competition in Lighting

In some segments of aquarium lighting, brick-and-mortar retailers have a lot of difficulty staying competitive.

"It’s hard for brick-and-mortar stores to be competitive," Garcia said, adding that internet sellers often offer these products at half the price he can sell them for. "We can’t compete with that."

Controlling margins and staying competitive with online retailers appear to be key to succeeding in aquatic lighting. It may also be necessary to dial back margin expectations, some industry experts reported.

"We’re very sensitive that we have to compete with online pricing," Seidewand said. "Those products that we do sell, we sell at a much lower margin so that we’re out there pretty much at what the products [are] available for on the web. Many of those manufacturers are setting a MAP [minimum advertised price] at about 25 percent. The new reality is, we can sell a $400 to $600 light and make 25 percent. Gone are the days where you can make a conventional 50 percent margin on a product like that. On the lower-end products, we’re still able to get better margins, however."

Competition from online retailers is not as strong among entry-level and mid-tier lighting products, experts reported, and relying on MAP policies and education may be the way forward in the segment for many brick-and-mortar aquatics retailers.

"It’s no secret that online sales exist," said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Mansfield, Mass.-based Hagen Group, which manufactures the Fluval brand. "I would suggest supporting brands who enforce MAP pricing and ensuring staff are knowledge about the products offered in-store."

Industry insiders agree that offering sound advice and customer education continues to help drive sales.

"Stores can distinguish themselves through knowledge," said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquarium products. "If the staff knows what they sell and [understands] the requirements their customers have, it is easier to really sell the product and also to bring the customer back to the store."

Garcia added that, fortunately, the convenience and pricing offered by online retailers is not a lure for all hobbyists.

"There are customers who don’t like to buy online, and they want to come in to the store and see what they’re buying," he said. "They’ll still pay the price no matter what."

On the Market

Taking Control

Integrated controllability and app features are driving sales in the aquarium lighting category at retail, especially for advanced applications with premium prices, retailers report.

"High-end customers are techies," said Jim Seidewand, owner of Pet World, a pet shop in Rochester, N.Y., and board member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). "They like to play with the products. The apps, starting with the mid-level lights, certainly are a selling point. As soon as we show customers the app, it makes selling the light easier. A few of our employees are adept at using the apps and are able to sell a lot more because of that."

Manufacturers are stepping up to meet this demand, offering increasingly innovative interfaces and controllability options.

"We just launched our new newest generation of lighting on the EcoTech side," said Jay Sperandio, sales director for EcoTech Marine, an Allenton, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquarium equipment. "We also just launched our new control platform, which right now is software and only controls the new lighting. … It’s all current generation. It’s a network of smart devices rather than devices being controlled by a hub."

The new control platform is named Mobius, Sperandio said, and is app based and uses Bluetooth LE, designed to offer higher ease-of-use. Customers no longer need an internet connection to operate equipment using the platform, he added, yet still have access to all the device controllability. The app works without having to enter credentials, and all compatible equipment appears in-app after it is opened, where users can begin programming and working with it.

The initial objective is to control new equipment, Sperandio said, but the company plans to expand the platform to include legacy equipment. Eventually, new products will make the whole system automated, with external controller hardware required. Equipment will be operated with on-board controller functionality via software, Sperandio added.

Other manufacturers are also working to integrate controllability and expand ease-of-use. The move toward controllability supported natively in equipment is also increasing.

"We are continuously working to integrate new features on the Fluval Smart App, which controls all Fluval Smart LEDs," said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Mansfield, Mass.-based Hagen Group, which manufactures the Fluval brand. "The most recent firmware update allows users to have additional control of the light spectrum, intensity and several other newly added features including scheduled weather effects."

These latest developments reflect today’s consumer habits and product expectations, he noted.

"Nowadays, consumers are spending more time on their smart devices than ever before, and app integration is the wave of the future," Hester said. "By incorporating key features such as color spectrum and light intensity within the Fluval Smart App, we offer customers a light that they can tailor to their specific needs." 

The nano lighting segment continues to grow, Hester added, which is what led Hagen to release its new 15- to 22-inch LED. It is available in three lighting options, including the AquaSky 2.0, Plant 3.0 and Marine 3.0. The company also offers its Nano Plant and Nano Marine lights.

Each segment within the hobby attracts a lot of interest, with lighting filling nearly every potential niche application that exists.

"There is a huge variety of lights with different features for each segment available in the hobby," said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a Montgomeryville, Pa.-based manufacturer of aquarium products. "Reef keepers, especially, like to spend a decent amount of money on lighting. At the moment, they look for hybrid setups. But also in freshwater we see a larger number of people really caring for good lighting, including aquascapers and plant keepers, who need special lighting in their tanks."

Merchandising

Setting the Example

Showing what lights can do, and how they make aquariums look, helps drive sales in aquatic specialty stores, industry insiders report.

"The best way to display lighting is out of the box," said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for Mansfield, Mass.-based Hagen Group, which manufactures the Fluval brand. "Set one up on an aquarium in the store; this allows employees to show consumers features and benefits of the light before they make the purchase. This sort of in-person experience is invaluable and will result in driving more sales."

Retailers concur.

"It’s very hard to see what [lighting products] can do by reading the box," said Jim Seidewand, owner of Pet World, a pet shop in Rochester, N.Y., and board member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). "You really need to put a light over a tank where you can see the light spread [as well as] the brightness and the color temperature of the light. There’s nothing like trying it on a tank with some fish and plants in it to see what it might look like at home. Keep an open box, and let customers try fixtures over a real tank to see if they like it."

Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws, a pet store in Harleysville, Pa., also emphasized the importance of in-store displays as they relate to sales.

"When we’re talking about lighting, I have 14 planted display tanks, and I’ve got several different lights on them," Herron said. "I just flip [a fixture] up, and when the [Fluval] AquaSky blinds them, customers realize that it’s much brighter than the others."