The Glamorous Side of Pumps and Filters

When viewed from the perspective of untapped sales revenue, pumps and filters are sexy products that deserve a retailer's keen attention.


In pet specialty retail, pumps are boring, and filters are sexy. Let me explain.

Pumps hide in the dark—under a tank in a sump, behind a stack of rocks in a tank, or even behind the tank on a shelf hanger. Filters, on the other hand, are frequently in plain sight, where tank owners can monitor them to check the flow rate. But this is not the only distinction.

When a customer buys a pump, the only time he or she returns to the store is if that pump stops working—there is nothing sexy about that. However, when a customer buys a filter, he or she comes back on a regular basis to buy filter media. All those return trips will generate additional revenue from non-related merchandise. That is pretty sexy.

The more retailers understand about these products, the hotter sales are likely to be in both categories. For starters, I recommend that retailers stock only brands of pumps that they can endorse. This means the retailer uses them in various applications around the store, using brands that value reliability and durability over cost. As simple as water pumps may seem to be, there are still things that can go wrong. Typically, impellers will be the point of vulnerability, and it is always a good idea to stock replacement impellers for every brand and size of motor that you carry. These must be kept in a locked cabinet, or they will vanish.

Many pumps are intended for use in outdoor ponds. These typically have longer cords, so they can reach remote outlets. I prefer to sell pumps with longer cord because they are more versatile. Pumps can draw quite a bit of power, and it is a good idea to have large units on dedicated circuits, whenever possible. Outlets to these circuits may not be close to the tank location, so a long cord can really come in handy.

For pumps that will be used in sumps or wet/dry filters, it doesn’t hurt to employ a brand that can run both in water or out of water. There are several pumps that fill this bill, so retailers just need to find one they are most comfortable with.

Remember, pumps in sumps can add significantly to the temperature in an aquarium. Some brands run hotter than others. If you choose to use an external pump, the heat transfer is minimal, since only the impeller chamber is in the water. In reef tanks, it is frequently necessary to use a chiller because of all the equipment needed to perform various functions—UV sterilizers, protein skimmers, media reactors, reef lights and, of course, power heads. And, believe it or not, if you have a chiller, you also need a heater to help balance the temperature. Due to all these heat concerns, some people prefer the coolest-running pump they can find.

The size of the pump is another critically important factor to consider. Pumps are usually rated in GPH (gallons per hour), and a good turnover rate for a large aquarium—75-gallons or more—is four times an hour. So, in a 125-gallon tank, you would need a pump that can push water—over a minimal four- to five-foot head—at the rate of 500 GPH. That is a fairly small pump.

If your sump is large and you have two overflows, each having a bifurcated return, you would want to kick up that size a bit—probably to 850 GPH. The point is that every system is unique, and sometimes, it is not simple to determine which size pump will work the best, and miscalculations may lead to returns. Customers need to know that they should not worry about returning a pump if it is the wrong size—too large or too small. But, retailers must be protected, so set a return deadline of a week, a month or whatever seems reasonable.

Every device that requires a pump—from a protein skimmer to a media reactor to a UV-sterilizer—can be run from a central pump, if you are knowledgeable enough when it comes to plumbing. When you do it this way, you don’t have nearly as much trouble with heat production. What you do have is a plumbing nightmare. If that single pump goes down, all the apparatuses grind to a halt. That is not good for bio-media reactors or protein skimmers, which need to keep running at a time of stress. I highly recommend that every piece of equipment has its own dedicated pump. This will enable you to sell more pumps, for more purposes, and you can make more money—and more money is always sexy.

The use of multiple pumps in a sump usually brings on the need for a larger sump to accommodate all the paraphernalia. Tell customers to try to keep equipment in sumps from touching each other, and do not place one item on top of another. If space is that tight, a larger sump is definitely needed.

When merchandising the pump department, aim to arrange the selection by brand and size. Don’t stick all 500 GPH pumps together. Instead, put all “Brand X” pumps together, displayed from smallest to largest. Do this for each brand. Don’t forget, not all pumps are created equal. A power head is a pump that can drive a small sump or provide a current when it is placed directly in the aquarium. There are fancy water circulation pumps that can be remotely connected to a control device and programmed to turn on and off whenever you choose. This simulates the changing tides in the ocean, and it can be tied to light cycles as well. Now we are talking about pumps in the $500-plus range—perhaps pumps can be sexy after all.

Well, I have been trying to highlight the sexy side of pumps, but now it is time to talk about filters. Before I do that, however, I want to remind you that aeration is an important element of every tank, and the thing that delivers air is, indeed, a pump. We call it an air pump, but it does not have an impeller like a water pump. Most air pumps generate air by use of a diaphragm. You might think of the air pump as the poor cousin of the water pump, but that would be a mistake. When you take into consideration all the auxiliary equipment you can sell with an air pump, it’s more like a “rich uncle.” In today’s market, air pump sales are highly under-valued. A few tanks that showcase all the décor opportunities offered by aeration will go a long way to increase sales in this area.

Filters generate high-dollar secondary purchases as customers come back repeatedly for media replacements, with only fish food guaranteeing a higher rate of return sales. But is there a way to make filter sales even better? Well, I think there is. For some reason, the ratings on filters always seem too high for me, regardless of brand. If a filter says it is adequate for a 20 to 30 gallon tank, I believe it might work on a 20—but not a 30. As the filters get bigger, the ratings get further skewed. A filter rated for 100 gallons will be lucky to adequately handle 75 gallons.

It does not seem to matter if the filter is a power filter (hang-on) or a canister filter. My personal preference between these two is the power filter because you can tell at a glance how well it is working. Canister models are a bit more cryptic, and its only if their outputs are above the water line that you can tell how fast they are running. Also, since canister filters are typically hidden in a cabinet under the tank, they are more difficult to clean. They can also leak, so I never set up a canister filter without placing it in a plastic container to catch any small drips that might occur. The container should be low—maybe three to four inches in height. Just enough to ensure that small leaks will be contained.

A cardinal sin of the aquatics retailer is not having the proper filter media when a customer comes in to buy it. That sends the person to another store, and who knows if they will ever come back? Buy enough for two weeks, if you have deliveries every week. Eventually, you will accumulate a nice stockpile of these expendables, and then it is time for a stock-up sale. People will flock to your store if you advertise this properly.

Not all filters are created equal. I have seen some crazy concepts out there lately, and I am not convinced they work that well. If a filter requires a customer to do anything exotic, you might as well cross it off your list. There are people who can never remember which direction a cartridge goes, even after years of having the same filter. Customers will come in without knowing the brand or size of their filter or the number of the filter media it takes. Then they ask an employee and blame your store if he guesses wrong. So, yes, filters do have their downsides, but, all in all, they are still pretty sexy for your bottom line.

One last word, try your best to stock quality brands of pumps and filters that the big-box stores do not carry. At least, this way, you are not competing directly with them.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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