Reef Aquarium Report

Retailers should determine whether they have the knowledge, time, space and money to stock the products that play an integral role in the reef trade.


The reef aquarium segment of the industry is booming. How much of the boom translates into profits for a store is another matter. There are a great many forces in action that can significantly boost or erode reef sales, so it is imperative that retailers evaluate their store’s position in the spectrum of suppliers selling to the reef community and make decisions accordingly.

One of the best things retailers can do to boost sales is to concentrate on selling items that people can’t produce on their own or that they use up and need to replenish. Offering these so-called “expendable” items will lead to repeat sales. A store looking to profit in the reef aquarium segment should be a place where reef hobbyists come to buy what they need.

For example, selling items like chillers or protein skimmers may not be beneficial for retailers. Though a chiller may play an important role in the maintenance of corals, it is expensive and stocking these items will tie up a lot of capital. Plus, in many instances, chillers can be purchased online for prices as low the retailer can buy them. Frankly, if a retailer feels he or she can’t sell chillers, it is not a good idea to use them in the store. If the store does use them, the retailer must figure out a way to compete with local and Internet competitors.

The protein skimmer is an item everyone considers essential, but there is also a lot of competition for sales. Like most reef equipment, protein skimmers are rated for a specific range of tank sizes. They can also be positioned in a variety of locations–hanging on the tank, sitting next to the sump or sitting in the sump. Therefore retailers will need protein skimmers of different sizes for different applications and with or without dedicated pumps and associated connectors. That means a lot of money tied up in a wide variety of skimmers.

Wet/dry sumps also come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Typically, these are selected according to the size of the aquarium they are going to service. There are other considerations, however, such as refugium versus no refugium; filter socks versus no filter socks; bio-balls versus refugium; bio-wheels versus refugium; in-sump protein skimmer versus external skimmer; single-drain plate versus double-drain plates; acrylic versus glass; internal return pump versus external return pump; automatic refill versus manual refill and reverse refugium operation versus normal operation. All of these options require a slightly or vastly different wet/dry design. Can a retailer afford to stock this many types of sumps in a variety of sizes?

So is it worth it for retailers to stock chillers, protein skimmers or sumps? Not carrying these items will result in no impulse or emergency sales, but stocking them can be expensive. It is up to each retailer to weight the costs and make a decision whether to sell these items.

Product Selection
Logically, retailers want to sell the best products, but going head-to-head with local stores is probably counterproductive. Instead, try to stock brands that other stores don’t have. As long as quality isn’t sacrificed for exclusivity, this approach should pay dividends. No matter what product lines are selected, they should be ones the retailer knows and believes in. Don’t carry products you wouldn’t use in your store. Saving a few dollars may end up costing customers if the products are inferior. It’s also very important to sell items that can be ordered or replaced quickly. Maximum turn around time should be two weeks.

Bulbs and fixtures are hot ticket items, so stock up with a wide variety of these. Put money in bulbs, not fixtures. Every hobbyist will need new bulbs on a regular basis, but they will not buy fixtures often. In addition, many people will buy their fixtures online, but not their bulbs.

As important as lighting is, it takes a back seat to water quality. A healthy aquatic environment requires good husbandry practices. This means changing a good deal of water and keeping a constant vigil on chemical parameters. The only way to accomplish this is by means of test kits. Prices for these products are quite variable–some brands cost twice as much as others. Stores should carry at least two major lines to offer customers different price points.

Water circulation is also important. In reality, it is a cornerstone of proper reef husbandry, right next to water quality and lighting. Every reef tank needs water to be moving in a manner consistent with maximum benefit to corals. There are many types of water movement devices, the most common being power heads. Another more sophisticated approach is to use a dump tray that mimics the ebb and flow of water across a reef. New developments include equipment that can actually oscillate the entire water column within an aquarium.

Most hobbyists will stick with power heads, but they will always be looking to upgrade or replace older units that are inadequate or worn out. A typical reef tank can use one power head for every 20 gallons of water, so that adds up pretty fast with today’s larger setups. Retailers should definitely carry these items, and display tanks should emphasize the positioning of power heads and the crucial role they play in a successful reef tank.

There are plenty of products that play an integral role in the reef trade, but it is up to retailers to determine whether they have the knowledge, time, space and money for each of these items.

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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