Just Add Water
by Ed Taylor
August 1, 2011
The market is brimming with water treatment products that many customers just donít understand. Retailers can help turn the tide, while generating sales.



If I had to pick the category of products that most baffles consumers, it would be water treatment products. After chloramine removers, which are the tip of the iceberg, no one seems to have a clue what any of these mystical treatments are good for. What this means for retailers is that employees must be knowledgeable when it comes to the different functions of these products. Retailers will not sell many water conditioning items if their clerks don’t recommend them to people.

If you are blowing dust off the shelves on this aisle, it is time to upgrade your approach to selling these products and to make sure you have a comprehensive assortment that meets customers’ various needs.

There are many water treatment products on the market these days that perform a variety of  functions. Retailers have two choices when shelving these items: merchandise them by brand or by function. I recommend grouping water treatment items by function. This approach simplifies the selection process for customers and allows employees to easily demonstrate the various choices. 

Medications are an important segment of the water-treatment product category and selling them requires that retailers understand these products. Stores should have at least one employee who is the “go-to” person for advice on these products. This person should be actively keeping fish and have a thorough knowledge of fish types, and their care and maintenance.

There are only two types of ailments customers generally have to treat: parasitic infections and bacterial (fungal) infections. Most products are geared at treating one or the other of these problems. Still, people seeking treatment for their fish must accept the fact that diagnosing health problems is an inexact science, and there is no guarantee of a cure. If you encourage water changes, the chances for success should be greatly increased.

I have always been an enthusiastic supporter of frequent partial water changess (FPWC). As long as the water you are putting in the aquarium is better than the water already present, how can you go wrong? I advise customers to perform a FPWC before adding medications and suggest they do a follow-up water change 48 hours later to remove any toxic byproducts generated by the treatment. Many customers are willing to spend money on water treatments but don’t want to be bothered with critical maintenance procedures, but there are plenty of products to recommend to people who are willing. However, there is some information these customers need to be armed with first.

If you live in an area serviced by numerous municipal water systems, you should be aware that no two water resources are identical. Water from a township, county, city or state next to you can be very different, chemically, from yours. This presents challenges when dealing with customers. I frequently ask people where they live. Once I explain my query, they are surprised that water can vary so much in a metro area. It always pays to ask your water provider for a complete analysis of the water it treats and distributes. The picture is even more complicated for customers living in rural areas where there is no public water company and  water resources can differ significantly even between next-door neighbors.

In the northeast, the most common problem is a tendency for the pH of the water to drop dramatically after a few days. This is due to a lack of buffering minerals in the water. In other words, the water is too soft for most fish. It will need to be buffered with a product that can raise the pH and the general hardness. Often, the best solution is an item intended for use in marine tanks. Otherwise, the consumer may be constantly adding chemicals that only provide a temporary remedy.

Once you head south, the water changes a good deal. By the time you reach Florida, the ground water is hard and alkaline, which is great for African cichlids, many livebearers and brackish-water species, but not so good for many others. Customers here need a product that can soften the water and drop the pH at least a little. This is a totally different problem, so you must recommend a totally different solution to these water woes.

To determine the parameters of a customer’s aquarium, it’s often helpful to have the customer bring in a water sample for analysis. This is a service retailers should perform for free, but not without educating consumers on the importance of water testing at home. That gives the retailer the opportunity to sell the customer a test kit that contains all the various tests they should be running on their own. The idea is that they bring in their water sample only when they have a problem, not just to get a free regular checkup.


Marine Matters
The marine segment of the trade has many more water treatment products than its freshwater counterpart. Unless you are fortunate enough to live in one of the few areas of the country where natural seawater is available, you and your customers have to create your own ocean. This will require a synthetic seawater mix—a product that is easily the second-largest water treatment item, next to chloramine remover. You can’t have a marine tank without using a marine salt mix, and it is extremely important to stock an ample supply of this product. Give people a choice between “reef” salt and “fish” salt.

Next on the list of must-have products for treating water are the trace elements necessary to keep a coral reef tank healthy. There are many of these, and leaving out just one critical piece of the puzzle can cause a biological “meltdown.” Leaving one out is like leaving baking powder out of a biscuit recipe. The biscuits are going to be flat and taste awful—in other words, a total failure.

You must stock the following supplements: calcium, magnesium, potassium, strontium, molybdenum, iodine, iron and complex amino acids. These all contribute to a successful reef aquarium and the ratio of one to the other is critical.

A pet shop with a strong marine department can make a lot of money just from the sale of water treatment products. I would not have a store where marine and freshwater dry goods were rung-up on the same key. You need to know how much each department is bringing in. All it takes is proper SKU markings if your registers are programmed with adequate software.

An emerging group of water treatment products include those that inoculate a new tank or system with beneficial bacteria. It is important to use live bacteria to seed filters, gravel, rocks and virtually all surfaces. Without supplementing bacteria, the “break-in” time for new tanks or systems will be unacceptably long. Fish will suffer, coral will die and you will lose a great deal of livestock if biological filtration is not adequate. Retailers have to convince people to spend the extra money on products that enhance the cycling of their tanks, both freshwater and saltwater.

The so-called nitrogen cycle is a natural phenomenon that occurs in microcosm in the aquarium, but reef tanks need help to reduce nitrate levels. There are only two ways to reduce its concentration: change water or introduce something that consumes nitrate. Changing water is always good, but sometimes even this is not enough. There are water treatment products that can reduce nitrate levels, and there are even bacteria that will feed primarily on nitrates. These are important items to carry in your store.

Finally, I don’t want to neglect the many products that enhance the maintenance and growing of live aquatic plants, including water additives, proprietary substrates and even systems that deliver carbon dioxide into the water, a compound that plants use in respiration. Stores specializing in live plants will need a large variety of water treatment products to meet those needs.


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.