Reef Tank Essentials

Retailers can hone in on the most profitable and customer-friendly assortment of reef-tank supplies by understanding the marine consumer's needs.


Many people believe a reef tank is strictly about the coral. But, while it is true that coral is the main interest of most enthusiasts, some hobbyists try hard to recreate an environment that encompasses all the elements of a reef. Either way, a reef tank should look like a living reef, and this may include such elements as sponges, gorgonians, tunicates, corals, snails, crabs, shrimp, macro-algae—and last, but not least, fish.

Still, each tank—and reef tank owner—is different. Ultimately, it is up to each retailer to ask the questions: What do my customers need to set up, maintain and/or upgrade a reef tank, and what do I need to sell in order to be successful in the reef tank arena?

A retailer could certainly fill its entire sales floor with reef products, and many businesses have done just that. If you are not strictly a marine shop, however, you must be judicious in your use of space. This means you have some difficult decisions to make when it comes to product selection. There is one fact that is certain—you can’t stock everything.

Start with the basics, the trinity of reef care: water quality, water circulation and lighting. If you are strong in these areas, you will be able to supply most customers with what they need.

The need for lights is obvious, but deciding which ones to carry can be complicated. Next, filters and pumps fall under the category of water circulation. Finally, water quality will depend on what salt and other chemicals are used. And keep in mind, that filtration also greatly affects water quality.

At the top of my list for reef tank essentials is some type of treated water, preferably RO or DI. You must sell fresh and salt water to customers because it is the biggest repeat-sales item in the category. Next, of course, is food, and this too requires some very careful consideration. Retailers need to remember that customers can make their own water if they buy a treatment unit, and they can also buy some fish food at the grocery store. A pet or marine specialty retailer’s goal is to become the go-to destination for all reef-tank-related needs, offering both convenience and essential products. Stores need to offer these products—such as treated water and food items—at reasonable prices and with customer-friendly conveniences, such as providing containers to cart away water or plastic bags next to the fish-food freezers, so people don’t have to handle cold packages with their bare hands.

The way I see it, there are three levels within the reef hobby. The first is the entry level, where customers simply learn by doing. The second is the “involved” plateau, where people get into the more detailed aspects of reef husbandry. Finally, enthusiasts who don’t drop out or merely run out of money move into the last phase, known as “reef mania.” Here, it’s all about having the latest and the best equipment or livestock.

My guess is that 90 percent of your customers will fall into the first two categories. Truly dedicated reefers stay up all night trying to feed their nocturnal corals, chatting with their friends online, and trading stuff back and forth. You probably will not make a lot of money on the so-called experts. You need to concentrate your efforts on the first two groups and let their needs determine what products you stock. It is certainly possible to sell a $1,200 light fixture to a beginner, for example, but perhaps it would be more prudent to sell a $600 unit instead. After all, six months later, that customer, after deciding the hobby is not for them, may sell the equipment through an online sales company, which then sells it to someone who would have bought the items in your store.

Selling an assortment of entry- and advanced-level equipment is a sound strategy. Consider segregating equipment into two areas: one for starter tanks and one for more advanced hobbyists. Your signage can say it all: “Start a Reef Tank on a Budget.” These items will get people involved and not bleed them dry. An important element for the novice is a good book that will guide them through the steps of setting up and maintaining a reef aquarium.

I suggest a package setup at a reasonable price—and the book comes free. Also, entry-level customers who are successful are likely to buy newer and better products at your store to upgrade their setups. In this way, you will sell them twice, not just once.

For the advanced hobbyist, you may need to customize each package, since everyone will have different needs. Experienced hobbyists are more likely to have preconceived notions about the products they seek. You need to guide them through the process and help them pick products that will work well together.

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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