Depending on your perspective, aquarium lighting can be complex or rather simple. For the person setting up a freshwater community environment, it is as simple as one, two, three—a single- or double-lamp fixture with standard white bulbs should suffice, nine times out of 10. On the other hand, a reef hobbyist might require an exotic combination of numerous lighting types.
Either way, these customers look to retailers to help meet those needs. Retailers that can assemble an appropriate assortment of lighting products, supported by helpful signage and a well-trained staff, will be best positioned to tap the sales potential the category offers.
One of the first things a retailer needs to determine is how much money and space the business can afford to devote to fixtures and bulbs. Fixtures are relatively high-ticket items that take up a good deal of space. Bulbs, on the other hand, can be crammed into a fairly compact area.
Aquarium bulbs are important items to carry. I actually consider them more important than fixtures. Many people buy fixtures online or used so that they don’t have to pay full retail. Virtually no one, however, buys replacement bulbs online and has them shipped, because the freight is expensive, and there is also a chance they will break during their journey. Besides, most people need a bulb right now, not a week later. The average bulb customer is rarely concerned with cost—just replacement.
When it comes to fixtures, there is certainly a limit as to how many you can stock. In particular, a good reef fixture can be well over $1,000 retail. Unfortunately, the concept of ordering a fixture for someone is not great because these items are frequently impulse purchases or even emergency replacements. In the freshwater field, I recommend always having the following items available for sale: 10-gal. (single bulb), 20-gal. high (single), 20-gal. long (single), 30-gal. (single and double bulb), 55-gal. (48-in. single and two 24-in. single), 75-gal. (48-in. double) and 125-gal. (two 36-in. double).
Any other fixtures, such as those that fit hexes, columns, flat-back hexes or odd-shaped tanks, should only be kept in stock as part of an actual setup. For these specialty items, customers will just have to be comfortable waiting, because it does not pay to tie up your cash with inventory that goes out the door so infrequently.
Keep in mind that both fixtures and bulbs can be damaged if they are mishandled, and I am certain this will occur frequently in the case of bulbs. Frankly, no customer should ever be allowed to lay hands on a bulb for sale in your store. There are multiple reasons for these precautions. Bulbs can be broken, they are frequently returned to improper locations, and bulbs are—believe it or not—easy to steal. Unless you have an employee stationed at the exit checking all goods and receipts, do not permit customers to access aquarium bulbs.
Protect your investment with a little security. All your aquarium bulbs should be behind glass—no self-serve. If a customer wants to see a bulb work, simply throw it on a test fixture so he can observe light color and functionality. If a customer wants to buy the bulb, offer a pre-printed SKU and take the bulb to a cashier yourself. The customer can pay for it on the way out, so there is no need to walk around the shop with a bulb that might get broken—or even mysteriously disappear.
The Sea Side
Marine reef lighting is an entirely different proposition. If you can’t show someone a working example of a fixture and its bulbs, you are very unlikely to sell it. In this case, I prefer to use a wide variety of lights and lighting techniques throughout the marine department. This is particularly true for reef tanks or for aquariums with a mix of fish and invertebrates. There are a lot of companies making fixtures for the marine experience. You cannot stock items from every one. Nor should you carry fixtures just because they are marketed by the larger, more well-known companies. Make it a point to learn which fixtures and lights are superior to the others.
Most reefers will patronize marine reef stores exclusively, so if you are a full-line pet shop or even an aquarium store, you are working at a disadvantage. Your best bet is to have an ace up your sleeve—your staff. Find the best
independent reef hobbyist who needs a job or, better yet, has industry experience, and let that employee work magic with the customers. It’s a personality-cult thing when it comes to this part of the trade. People will flock to your store just to talk with the right person about their tanks. There may be a little more social interaction than you would normally be comfortable with, but that’s a major part of the reef experience.
The variety of needs a retailer has to meet in this category can create havoc in the lighting department. If you want to simplify your approach and save a lot of man-hours you would otherwise waste explaining lighting to customers, you must undertake a complete revamping of how you display these products.
There are several critical things you must do. First, you must separate freshwater and marine lighting—both the fixtures and bulbs. Second, you must create informative and compelling signage that will essentially serve as surrogate sales associates. No two people will have the same ideas when it comes to tank illumination. You can teach your theories to every employee, but each one is going to give that information a personal twist. You can’t always avoid this, but you can explain to your customers your philosophy by using signage to help avoid miscommunication between customers and staff.
One day I was speaking with a customer and the subject of lighting came up. He was converting a freshwater tank to a marine environment, and an employee had assured him that the lighting he had was perfectly satisfactory for use in a saltwater setup. After extracting a little more information, I was nonplussed to learn what the salesperson had told him. The lighting fixture in question was one of the newer LED units with bulbs spread about one-inch apart. According to this employee, that was sufficient light to support the growth of corals. After all, LEDs are the newest, greatest lighting innovation, and they are rapidly taking the place of other types of illumination when it comes to reef tanks.
Unfortunately, to many people—even those who work in the industry—one LED is just as good as the next. Now, it was up to me to explain to this customer that his light was basically worthless if he wanted to maintain corals. He had already sunk a lot of money into the renovation of his tank. Another $600 or more was not going to sit well with him.
These are the types of mistakes that you must avoid in your store, since incidents like this will only alienate people and cause them to lose faith in your business acumen. You might never see this customer again. At the very least, he is likely to question the information you have given him. He will certainly seek out opinions from other stores, websites and hobbyists to verify what you have told him. After all, it may sound like you are merely trying to sell him an expensive light in order to make more money. You need to gain the trust of your customers. If they hear different things from different sales people, what are they to believe?
A Word on LED
When it comes to LED lights, they may be the wave of the future, but what are they going to do for your bottom line? You can sell replacement bulbs for fluorescent fixtures all day long. Can the same be said for LED bulbs? At this point, certainly not. If, for example, a customer has one or two LEDs go out over an entire light board of, say, 50 bulbs, neither you nor the customer can replace them. Some people really get upset when even one bulb goes out, especially if it is a moonlight bulb. You can’t replace the fixture or give them their money back, so that leaves both you and the customers in a bind.
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.