Into the Light

Guiding customers through the ever-changing market of aquatic lighting sets them on the right track, while boosting a retailer’s bottom line.


Do sales of bulbs and fixtures light up your balance sheet or do they cast a shadow on your profits? Lighting can be a major contributor to a pet store’s sales, but retailers must be willing to spend time studying the rapid evolution of lighting technology and what it means for the aquatics trade. There are also many things to consider when putting together an assortment of products to satisfy customers’ aquatic lighting needs.

When looking at a typical freshwater community tank, among the first questions customers will ask is:  How many bulbs should a fixture have to properly light an aquarium? Well, it depends on a variety of factors. Of primary importance is the width of the tank. A 12-inch-wide tank might be satisfactorily lit by a single fluorescent bulb. A wider tank, such as a 75-gallon tank, requires two bulbs. The wattage of the bulbs depends, for the most part, on their length, with longer ones having higher values.

A planted aquarium requires more or brighter bulbs. High-output (HO) bulbs generate more light than traditional options and are popular with both aquatic gardeners and coral-reef enthusiasts.

It is possible to have an aquarium with no dedicated light, but few people are satisfied with a tank lit strictly by ambient light. In a room with at least one window, the amount of light a tank receives is probably sufficient to keep the fish healthy. Still, placing a fixture on a tank certainly appeals to most fishkeepers–but what about the fish? What’s their preference?

Most people don’t realize that fish need to rest and sleep just like us. The light cycle for aquarium fish should probably be similar to what they would experience in nature. When lighting goes from dark to bright in an instant, it cannot be good for the fish. It would be better if the tank lights gradually intensify from dim to bright over a period of time. This requires special equipment with incandescent bulbs. The alternative is to have a tank in a room that is gradually illuminated by natural light. At the appropriate time, the first of two fixtures comes on. Later, a second, probably brighter light, will come on. The process is reversed in the evening, undoubtedly extending well beyond the fall of night.

In reality, most fish are quite forgiving. The average tank owner merely turns the tank light on in the morning and off at night. For years, I bred African Rift Lake cichlids with no direct lighting, just eight-foot fluorescents in the ceiling. Lighting is, therefore, mainly a décor choice; tanks just look better with a somewhat even distribution of light.

Photo Op
Everything changes, however, when you throw photosynthetic organisms into the mix. These need specific types of illumination for varying lengths of time. Plants are photosynthetic, meaning they use light to grow chlorophyll, which is a critical nutrient source. Many corals are also photosynthetic, but with a twist. These corals have photosynthetic flagellate protozoa, called zooxanthellae, living inside of them–it appears to scientists to be a symbiotic relationship in which each party provides nutrients, energy or other benefits to the other. The point is that reef-building corals depend on the right lighting to thrive.Without proper lighting, most stony corals will quickly die.

A store owner’s job is to stock and sell the fixtures and bulbs that reef enthusiasts need to keep their corals alive. The biggest challenge is selling to hobbyists who can probably purchase the same items on the Internet for less, so it’s critical that retailers have the right products in stock.

The reef lighting market is driven by technology. Newer technology is almost certain to be better, and hobbyists must have the latest and the greatest. It’s acceptable to stock two levels of reef lights: economy and high-end. Be certain to communicate to customers the differences between the two, both in price and performance.

 There are currently two approaches to lighting battling it out in the market: halide versus T-5 lighting. Should retailers go with one or the other or a combination of both? There is no simple answer. My feeling is that since fixtures are expensive and bulbs are cheaper, a retailer’s best course of action is to be well stocked with bulbs and not so heavily invested in fixtures.  As for fixtures, stock items that fit the most common tank sizes and that offer the most flexibility for the consumer. I prefer fixtures that come ready to use; bulbs and mounting kits should be included, not extra. Some fixtures even come with timers.

It’s also important for retailers to be well stocked to meet the most common–and often the most pressing–needs. When a reef hobbyist has a lighting emergency, it really is an emergency. That customer can’t wait a few days to replace a non-functioning bulb or fixture. A retailer that has what the customer needs will make an automatic sale. If the retailer has to order it, the odds are the customer can get it faster on the Internet.

Balanced Assortment

It would be financial suicide to carry every brand of fixture and bulb, so retailers  have some difficult choices to make. The most important consideration is whether a certain brand of lighting is better than the others. If so, retailers should carry that brand without hesitation. Secondarily, however, retailers must look at profitability and availability. A store must make a reasonable return on the dollar and be able to get the items quickly. If a store’s lighting supplier is overseas, for example, there could be quite a delay when it needs to restock an item.

Finally, if local competitors stock X,Y and Z, a retailer should make an effort to carry W. The goal is to have something the other stores don’t.

There are some other things retailers should consider as it relates to aquatics lighting. For example, it’s best to keep coral bulbs under lock and key to prevent theft. Regular aquarium bulbs can probably be stocked for self-shopping, but retailers shouldn’t be surprised if, every so often, they find an old bulb in a new carton, broken bulbs or empty sleeves with no bulbs at all.

 My main complaint when it comes to selling bulbs to customers is their lack of planning. People come in all the time and say, “My aquarium bulb burned out, I need a new one.” They usually don’t bring in the old bulb, making my job more difficult. I always hesitate to sell a bulb to someone who can’t supply essential information, such as the length, wattage, type and brand of the bulb. The percentage of returns on these uninformed sales is quite high. When possible, retailers should encourage customers to either bring in the bulb or all of the necessary information before purchasing a replacement bulb.

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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