Last year, it wasn’t just the economic climate giving pond product manufacturers and retailers something to fret over. Mother Nature herself seemed to be conspiring against the category, as inclement weather throughout much of the country dampened consumers’ plans to build or upgrade home ponds.
While this year is still too young to predict how market conditions will play out in the pond category, manufacturers are doing what they can to increase the odds of a good year. For example, the latest innovations in filters and pumps are making pond owning easier and more energy efficient. Manufacturers are also using creative marketing and product packaging to simplify the process for customers, in the hopes of attracting new hobbyists and keeping old ones.
Pet specialty shops are in a prime position to benefit from these efforts. According to manufacturers, all these retailers have to do is tap into the category’s potential with a combination of clever marketing, dazzling demonstrations and good old-fashioned salesmanship.
Last year, even the best employee on a retailer’s sales floor probably struggled in the pond department, as several factors collided to flatten product sales. Retailers and manufacturers can usually count on the predictability of seasonal pond sales—depending on local climate—but the weather didn’t cooperate in 2011.
“The pond market is a very fickle animal,” says Les Wilson, a co-owner of Cobalt International, who also handles marketing, product development and sourcing. “If the weather is bad, so is the pond market, and the 2011 season was dramatically affected by the weather. Late and heavy snowfalls in the northeast, and thunderstorms and floods in the south and southeast all made the 2011 season tough for pond companies and dealers.”
Naturally, the category is always vulnerable to weather, but in recent years, the economy has added fuel to the fire, says Wilson, citing the nation’s housing crisis as a particular sticking point.
Neal Dulaney, who–along with business partner Sadiq Mehdi–owns Lifegard Aquatics, adds that the market is losing its share of the American consumer’s discretionary income to other product categories that carry more popular appeal.
“We would rather spend money on a smart phone and laptops and iPads, and not invest that money somewhere else,” Dulaney says. “I think that’s why we’re suffering. The little discretionary income everyone has is going to the tech industry.”
These market dynamics have upped the ante for manufacturers, which are all now contending for a share of a smaller pie.
Jose Torres, associate product manager-equipment for Tetra Pond, says the market is particularly competitive right now. “Manufacturers offer a wide array of solutions depending on pond size and filtration options,” he says. “Everyone is competing for shelf space and increase in market share.”
Pet specialty retailers, meanwhile, are looking to stock products that are going to give them the most return on investment. “There is a lot of push for high-end filtration products and systems to achieve higher margins,” Torres says.
With hopes that the economy will march toward recovery and the weather will hold up, pond product manufacturers are cautiously optimistic that this year will be better than the last. New and improved product options, they say, should help keep the market on track toward increased sales and a potentially larger customer base.
The latest generation of pumps, says Wilson, feature improved designs that save on energy, providing retailers with an opportunity to get pond owners thinking about upgrading their ponds this spring. He explains that the daily energy consumption of many pumps on the market is equivalent to the energy required to run three to four 60-watt bulbs all day, every day. More recent introductions on the market are more efficient and can save pond-keepers hundreds of dollars on their yearly electric bill, he says.
“Newer pump designs have advanced magnetic rotors and impeller blades, and the flow of the water through the pump have been maximized to increase flow and reduce drag and turbulence,” Wilson says. “Some pumps feature ‘smart’ technology that senses the impellers direction and automatically resets the pump to proper rotation and maximum performance. This all means that you can have a pump that will pump similar amounts of water as an older design pump for half the power.”
Manufacturers will also be concentrating on making the process of building and maintain a pond more intuitive and accessible to a broader range of consumers. Torres predicts, for example, that more kits that bundle a number of pond components together in one package will find their way into the market. He adds that this kind of solution-focused product design and packaging will make the hobby easier to understand.
As manufacturers do their part by infusing the category with attractive product options, they are also counting on savvy retailers to give the category a boost by employing some eye-catching strategies to lure newcomers to the hobby or reignite extinguished passions in those who have abandoned pond keeping in tough times.
Dulaney says it is crucial that pet specialty stores stay well stocked on items such as water treatments, decorations and livestock. “The consumer doesn’t care what the pump looks like,” he says. “The consumer cares what the pond looks like, so the retailer needs to have the livestock.”
Wilson adds that the best way to sell the category is to show customers the possibilities. “For attracting new customers, nothing is better than displaying at a local home and garden show or expo,” he says. “And not just setting up a table with some brochures, the retailer needs to set up an inspirational, fully landscaped and running pond with fish.”
Perhaps the only strategy that might top that would be to have a pond on the sales floor year round, if possible. Torres points out, however, that no matter how retailers merchandise the section, they need to be able to act as a resource to pond owners. “A lot of people want to add joy and movement to their backyard, but are overwhelmed by the different things they need to consider to enter the hobby, as well as, the investment,” he says. “If your business is able to provide help and guidance, you’ll be ahead of your competition and drive recurring sales.”