The Bright Side of Sales
Lighting can be a tricky component of aquarium keeping to get right, but well-informed retailers can make this department of their aquatics section really shine.
While in my last semester of college, I got the bright idea to buy a fish tank for my room. I was renting a room off-campus and my best friend had bought a tank a few months before. I was jealous, but I started small with a 10-gallon. One weekend, I was going away for three days. I was worried about the fish needing light, but I already knew that leaving the light on the entire time would overheat the tank. This was the mid-1960s, and timers had not come into the picture. My bright idea was to leave the light on but turn the hood sideways, so the lamps were aimed at the wall instead of down into the tank.
As luck would have it, I found it necessary to return the very next day to retrieve something I needed, so I was gone only about 16 hours. When I got to my room, I smelled something funny, and I discovered that the aquarium bulbs were beginning to burn the wallpaper on the wall behind the aquarium. They were at least 18 inches away. Another hour or two and there might have been a major fire. Ever since then, aquarium lighting has been a very important topic on my aquatic agenda.
Lighting done right is not a simple matter of throwing any fixture with any bulbs on any aquarium. Luckily for the industry, there has been a rapid change in lighting technology that has resulted in an evolution from basic incandescent to T-12 fluorescent, T-8 to T-5 and now to LEDs. This has greatly reduced the heat output of the bulbs, although if you ever touched a cluster of LEDs you would beg to differ. They can give you a pretty good burn, but nothing like the old metal halide lamps used in the early days of reef tanks. Bulbs of up to 1,200 watts were being employed to deliver enough light in deep display tanks, and they are still in use today but almost exclusively in public aquaria across the world.
Lighting fixtures generate heat, and too much heat is a major problem in reef tanks. When halide fixtures are employed, it is almost a necessity to use chillers to moderate the water temperature and prevent it from rising rapidly in a short period of time. Oceans are vast, and it takes a long time to heat them up or cool them down—as witnessed by the El Niño the world is experiencing now. Fish tanks need stable temperatures just like the ocean. Every aquarium should have a heater to offset a drop in room temperature. You can’t depend on lighting to do this job. Tell your customers to place their tanks in rooms that are warm and have stable temperatures. If people turn down their heat when they go to bed, they must have heaters in their tanks.
Lighting is obviously a very important part of the aquatic package. Proper in-store merchandising of these products, both on your display aquariums and in your product aisles, is crucial. People react favorably to good lighting—that’s why they call it “mood” lighting. Recently, I visited a pet shop that was using a technique for lighting I first saw back in the late 60s and early 70s. All the tanks housing fish were in a room where the only light was that directly on the tanks. This really makes the fish pop, and it also adds to the general ambiance of the experience. You almost feel as though you are under water, perhaps in a submarine, looking at the fish through an illuminated porthole.
If your display tanks for fish are located in a separate room with doors or at least plastic flaps, you can easily maintain whatever temperature you wish and not impact the rest of your space. In this environment, your tank lighting is critical because it is the only light that will illuminate the fish. Keep the bulbs in the fixtures up to date so they all look the same. Old bulbs will start to change color spectrum and produce an unnatural appearance that is very unappealing.
There are numerous brands and styles of fixtures containing a variety of bulb types and sizes. While LEDs are all the rage, if you stock these, be prepared to sell a good deal fewer replacement bulbs, since the bulbs in most LED fixtures cannot be replaced.
Along these lines, there are many fixture brands that make their own proprietary bulbs. This seems a bit restrictive, and perhaps your decision should be based on three major criteria. First and foremost, are the fixtures reliable and easily obtained? Second, are the bulbs of top quality and available whenever you need them? Finally, is the fixture brand and bulb brand exclusive to your shop in your area? If you are the only game in town and the product is excellent, there could be no better position for you to be in.
There is little doubt that lighting for reef tanks versus all other types of aquarium lighting is a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. Be certain to segregate reef lighting well away from the basic fixtures and bulbs, and protect the assortments from excessive handling and thievery.
As far as advertising the reef lighting you carry, nothing speaks more to its quality than active displays. Many shops prefer to set up one mega reef tank, but I call this overcompensation. I prefer a series of smaller tanks, each with their own particular theme: soft corals, clams, gorgonians, SPS stony corals, LPS corals, etc. This permits you to show the flexibility of a lighting system that can handle anything customers may wish to do. It also makes it easier to take down an exhibit and make the space available for something else. (Try taking down a 300-gallon reef tank.) Being able to adapt to change is extremely important in retailing products in the lighting category.
With this in mind, you must keep up with developments in the lighting field. They seem to be changing almost as fast as prices on the stock exchange. One moment a fixture/bulb combination is all the rage; the next minute, it’s old and outdated. You don’t want to find your inventory behind the times. Being over-stocked with yesterday’s equipment means you will have to put things on sale, and that makes you less money. It’s always better to be a pioneer in the lighting field. There is no room for the status quo. Leave that to the chain and big-box stores.
Finally, it does not make any sense to stock great fixtures if you don’t have the bulbs to go in those units. When people need a bulb or a fixture, they need it right away and not next week. They can order it online and probably get it faster than you can. You need to have bulbs on hand so you don’t miss these spontaneous sales. Customers will remember you in a good way if you stay on top of your bulb inventory.
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.