Making Waves

Three successful aquatics-focused retailers discuss the unique opportunities and challenges they face in today’s marketplace.




If running any sort of small business can be an uncertain venture in the current economy, choosing to have a store that specializes in aquatics retail might seem downright crazy.


Catering to an expensive, luxury hobby that involves keeping animals you can’t even pet might look like a losing battle, especially when online retailers deliver fish to your doorstep at a lower cost and big-box stores provide a wider selection at cheaper prices. However, many aquatics retailers are proving they can not only survive, but thrive, by being sources of knowledge that provide personalized service and expert advice to loyal customers. They can also orchestrate real-world interactions through lectures and events, a distinct advantage over online retailers.


That’s not to say that aquatics retailers see the internet as an enemy. Most aquatics stores use it as an important tool for promoting their business. In addition to having informational websites with strong visual content, retailers have adapted their marketing strategies by supplementing word-of-mouth reputations with digital advertising through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.


They’ve also diversified the repertoire of services they provide to customers. Many aquatics retailers now offer on-site home and corporate aquarium installations, aquatics skill workshops and even fish care services when clients are away.


In order to learn more about these survival strategies, Pet Business interviewed three aquatics retailers to see how they have stayed afloat despite the many challenges they face.


Aquarium Zen

Seattle, Wash.

At a Glance

Size: 1,500 square feet of retail space

Years in Business: Five

Owner: Steven Waldron

Distinguishing Characteristics: Inspired by nature, Aquarium Zen focuses on aquascaping and promotes environmental conservation efforts.




Aquarium Zen is more than a store; it’s an experience. With stunning displays and an inviting atmosphere, the Seattle, Wash.-based store makes an impact on anyone who walks in.


“The store has a nice flow that slows people down,” says owner Steven Waldron. “There’s not a lot of linearity to the layout. Every aquarium is filled with something interesting and beautiful.”


It’s no surprise that such a strong emphasis is placed on the aquarium displays, since the store is known for its promotion of aquascaping. A subset within the aquatics hobby, aquascaping is essentially underwater gardening and involves arranging an aquarium’s plants and rocks in an artistic and visually pleasing manner.


Though Waldron’s current career focuses heavily on aquatic art, he originally concentrated on science. A trained fish geneticist, he eventually grew weary of the competitive nature of the research world and decided to open an aquatics retail store that specialized in aquascaping, his true passion.


“Aquascaping is an art form and allows people to express themselves,” Waldron explains. “It’s a creative act.”


He also sees aquascaping as a way to modernize the aquatics industry, which he sees as a bit outdated in terms of innovation. For Waldron, aquascaping has the potential to invigorate the aquatics hobby and make it appeal to new clients.


Waldron feels that focusing his store offerings on this niche helps Aquarium Zen stand out and attract customers. He says that this kind of experience can’t be offered online. While people can browse online forums and watch YouTube tutorials on aquascaping, nothing can replace the hands-on workshops and knowledgeable consultations that Aquarium Zen provides.


“Having that brick-and-mortar experience where people can have physical interactions with aquascaping creates, converts and adds to your clientele base,” says Waldron. “Having that physical space also provides a source of education and mentorship for my local clientele base.”


Aquarium Zen offers products designed to optimize the aquascaping experience, including rimless aquariums and special filters, as well as rare wood and stones imported from Asia. The retailer also offers more traditional aquatics supplies, as well as tropical fish and plants, many of which are bred in-store.



But even though Aquarium Zen is unique in its product offerings, it still faces some challenges typical of the aquatics industry.


“It’s not a really lucrative business,” admits Waldron, noting that it’s about promoting his passion, which he says is a necessary ingredient in any aquatics retailer’s success. “I think you need to have passion. I think you need to be genuine. You need to be honest with yourself that you’re doing this for the right reasons,” he says.


For Waldron, the right reasons include bringing people together and getting them interested in aquatics as a hobby. “It’s important for me to create a place that’s a source of inspiration for the community,” he explains.


Waldron uses social media in order to demonstrate this kind of passion. He regularly posts photos and videos of the tanks and fish to the store’s Facebook page. He says that the posts are fun in nature and provide a useful, more subtle form of advertising that’s not so in-your-face—the last thing he wants is to come off like a used car salesman. He also uses Facebook to announce events at the store.


In the future, Waldron looks forward to holding educational workshops and lectures on aquascaping, while continuing to grow the store’s success. He also wants to continue one of the store’s most important traditions: donating to environmental conservation efforts. The store previously raised funds for a cloud forest reserve in Ecuador. For Waldron, this kind of philanthropy is a no-brainer. He wants to give back to nature, the source of inspiration behind his store and passion.


Ocean Rift Aquatics

North Canton, Ohio

At a Glance

Size: 2,800 square feet of retail space

Years in Business: Four

Owner: Joe Ross

Distinguishing Characteristics: Ocean Rift Aquatics’ livestock offering is 95 percent saltwater-based. The store also sponsors the Canton Regional Saltwater Addicts Club.




Joe Ross, owner of Ocean Rift Aquatics in North Canton, Ohio, had his first foray into fishkeeping when he received a goldfish at 11 years old. After leaving a high-pressure career in restaurant management and taking time to decompress, Ross saw an aquarium shop for sale on Craigslist, and he decided to return to his childhood passion by purchasing the store.


Ross chose to focus primarily on offering saltwater fish and products, but sells freshwater fish and corals as well. Ocean Rift Aquatics features over 2,000 gallons worth of display tanks. His store is a hub of knowledge for people looking to enter the hobby—Ross is particularly passionate about teaching people the skills needed to embrace fishkeeping as a hobby.


It’s this ability to mentor people and forge connections that helps Ocean Rift Aquatics have an advantage over online retailers, which can draw customers with lower prices and greater convenience. “All brick-and-mortar stores face that challenge,” says Ross, explaining that there’s no point in trying to compete with online retailers in terms of product prices. “It’s a race to the bottom for pricing. People sacrifice service for value.”


Instead, he feels that retailers should focus on providing personalized service and knowledge in order to build customer loyalty and increase store traffic.


“Don’t chase internet pricing. Support yourself. Sell yourself and make people spend a few extra dollars coming in,” says Ross. “Make people realize the value of a local store. Find vendors that will support you and then support them.”



Ross has expanded his store services to include tank installation and maintenance for both homes and offices, further increasing his value as a local business. He also engages with the community through sponsorship of a local club, the Canton Regional Saltwater Addicts. Club members receive discounts at the store.


Ross also holds exciting events at the store, including a Holiday Glow Party, in which the tanks were decorated with Christmas lights. He also held a Summer Frag Swap Raffle that raised over $3,000 for charity. The retailer also engages in year-round fundraising for a North Canton-based nonprofit called Wishes Can Happen, which provides fun experiences for children with life-threatening illnesses. There’s a Wish Tank where customers can donate their lose change to benefit the organization.


This kind of philanthropy is a matter of civic responsibility as well as a way to build an invaluable connection between Ocean Rift Aquatics and the community.


“If you can ask a local community to support you, you have to support the local community,” Ross says.


By being so embedded within the community, it’s no surprise that Ross counts many of his loyal customers as friends. Though much of his business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations, he does invest time in online marketing and advertising efforts.


“I spend a lot of time branding the store,” says Ross. His marketing strategy includes ensuring that the Ocean Rift Aquatics logo is recognizable and consistent across all platforms—from the store’s website to its Facebook page. He also does a twice-weekly email blast to a listserv that includes several thousand people in order to announce product arrivals and store news. Ocean Rift Aquatics also has an active presence on Facebook, with daily posts that promote store specials and photos of aquariums and fish.



By devoting such time and energy to marketing, Ross treats Ocean Rift Aquatics like his business, not his hobby, which he says is essential to an aquatics retailer’s success. Not taking your store seriously and only spending time on it when it’s convenient is one of the many ways in which an aquatics retailer can fail, he says.


Ocean Rift Aquatics is doing just the opposite of failing. Current plans include hiring more staff and steady growth. Down the line, Ross hopes to open a second or third store, showing that optimism can still be found in aquatics retail.


Exotic Aquatics

Lake in the Hills, Ill.

At a Glance

Size: 1,500 square feet of retail space

Years in Business: 22

Owner: Jeff Renfroe

Distinguishing Characteristics: A family business, Exotic Aquatics also offers tank installation and maintenance services, as well as fish care for out-of-town customers.




Exotic Aquatics is, first and foremost, a family business. Owned by Jeff Renfroe and managed by his daughter, Elise Marsh, the store has seen its ups and downs over the past 22 years, including moves between multiple locations.


Some of the struggles have been constant, including the difficulty of convincing people that aquatics is worth the time, cost and effort as a hobby.


“Our challenge is making people realize that they need this and need to spend money on it,” says Marsh. “[A fish] is not a necessity. It’s a luxury pet.”


The ways in which Exotic Aquatics proves its value to its clientele is by providing excellent customer service. The staff stays on top of the latest research and trends in aquatics, ensuring they can cater to customers who come in with questions.


“We’re a family business. We really strive to listen to the customers and what they want and need,” Marsh says.



Staff members are always ready to answer questions on fish health, which the store considers to be very important. Keeping aquatic livestock healthy is one of the many challenges facing retailers, and Exotic Aquatics takes it in stride.


“We take a lot of pride in the fish and in their health and wellbeing,” says Marsh.


Exotic Aquatics looks to help customers achieve this level of health for their own fish. When a customer comes in complaining of sick or dying fish in their home aquariums, the staff is quick to ask questions in order to determine the problem and will even conduct water tests. It’s this kind of personalized assistance that can’t be found online or in big-box stores.


This emphasis on customer care has allowed the retailer to build strong interpersonal connections with its clientele. Marsh considers the bonds she has with her customers to be one of the greatest benefits of aquatics retail. “Getting to know people that have been with you over the years is rewarding,” she says. “The success of the customers makes you proud.”


Paired with this kind of customer service is a promotion of education. The store conducts coral fragging workshops in order to get people interested in aquatics as a hobby and plans to hold more educational lectures and workshops in the future. By hosting these kinds of events, the store hopes to inspire more people to get into the aquatics hobby and expand its customer base.


In its many years of business, the store has also seen the rise of internet retail and adapted its business model accordingly. In order to compete with the convenience the internet offers, Exotic Aquatics has an online store that sells coral and aquarium equipment.



The retailer also uses the internet to promote the business. Marsh affirmed that having an up-to-date, accessible and visually appealing website is essential to store success. She also uses social media to advertise store specials, like its annual anniversary sale. In addition to an official Facebook page, Exotic Aquatics also manages an Instagram account.


Though Exotic Aquatics has a strong online presence, the retailer also ensures that its physical location is just as appealing to customers. “By taking pride in our store, keeping everything clean, we make people actually want to buy stuff from us,” says Marsh.



A well-organized store, a burgeoning web presence and a staff that’s both knowledgeable and personable all seem to be a recipe for success for Exotic Aquatics. After  all, the store’s been in business for over two decades, proving that an aquatics retailer can experience profit and longevity. PB


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