Aquarium maintenance products are the backbone of both the fish keeping hobby and industry. Historically, the term "maintenance" has had a very restricted definition. Most professionals and hobbyists alike believe it refers only to items such as gravel washers, water changers, chemicals used to prepare new water, brushes, pads, etc. In reality, almost every piece of hardware has something to do with maintaining a safe aquatic environment, and they’re all necessary.
"Fish are basically living in their own pollution," explains Dr. Tim Hovanec, founder/CEO of Dr. Tim’s Aquatics. "If you don’t maintain it, it basically just gets more and more polluted, and they can’t live like that. You couldn’t live in a house that’s dirty."
Aquarium filters and heaters are a couple products that enhance aquatic parameters. Few hobbyists realize how crucial temperature stability is in keeping a fish tank healthy. If we are to expand this term to include a wide variety of products, how can we use it to sell more of the pertinent items? Perhaps a multi-pronged approach is what will work best.
The concept of an aquarium maintenance kit has been used so often that it does not engender much enthusiasm. A more modern approach would be to offer a display of products from which people could pick and choose. Maybe one customer needs a water-changing kit, but the next one only requires a gravel washer. Another person wants a longer hose, while someone else is looking for a good thermometer to measure the temperature of tap water going into a tank after a water change. Variations on this theme are endless, so they don’t all need to be presented at once. I recommend a perpetual end cap—in a high traffic area of your store—that showcases aquarium care items, such as water changing kits, gravel cleaning devices, stable temperature products, filtration aids, essential aquatic chemicals and proper illumination providers. Take each of these concepts and keep them front and center for six to eight weeks.
Some of these lend themselves better to certain times of year. For example, during the summer, people tend to run their air conditioners non-stop, which lowers the water temperature in aquariums. Without a functioning heater, this drop will stress the fish and possibly reduce their ability to fight off skin and gill infections. Remember, tropical fish are from the tropics, so they prefer their water temperature to be higher than you prefer the temperature in your home. No tank should ever be without a heater, and that applies double to bettas. Keep them strictly at 80-82 degrees—I will bet none of you have a house that warm.
While your customers are shopping this section, make sure that they’re aware of how often they should be cleaning their tanks.
"It really depends on the amount of food, but [tanks should be cleaned] once a month, once every two weeks," says Dr. Hovanec. "For a crowded tank, you want to siphon the gravel and do a water change."
Chemicals are essential parts of maintaining aquatic environments. As aquarium water ages, it becomes filled with various by-products from the fish. These tend to pollute the water and must be removed by water changes or items that can trap, bind or convert noxious compounds to environmentally-friendly ones. Filter pads, sponges, activated charcoal, bio balls, protein skimmers, UV-sterilization, exotic resins and a vast array of bio-media can all be used to achieve this goal. Then again, you might decide just to make frequent partial water changes to accomplish almost the same thing.
Raw water, or tap water, if you will, is not too friendly to aquatic life. When you do large water changes, you must reconstitute that new water by adding some of what you took out. You add back the "good" chemicals—the ones that promote fish health—and take out the "bad" chemicals that formed as a result of metabolic processes, leading to a buildup of ammonia. Ammonia, nitrites and even nitrates (especially in saltwater) are extremely dangerous to aquatic life. Your test kits are a lifeline to monitoring the level of these potentially deadly compounds.
In the case of marine reef tanks, the importance of proper maintenance is greatly magnified. Even a slight imbalance in the chemical composition of the water can result in disaster. Not only does the aquarist need to worry about by-products from metabolism, he must also keep a constant eye on the consumption of essential elements used by reef-building corals as they grow. Calcium, magnesium, strontium and iodine levels should be checked on a regular basis.
The reef hobby is so specialized that aquarium maintenance products for this category must be given their own section. In particular, marine test kits are essential items to carry. They are also small and expensive, so they’re best kept under lock and key, but visible enough so customers know you have them.
In the marine hobby, water changes are mandatory and your customers will consume large quantities of marine salt. You should offer several choices, from basic maintenance to premier reef salts. Price them accordingly, but remember, your main competition will probably be online sellers. Try to match their pricing as best you can.
For those customers who require RO/DI water, either fresh or salt, you can turn your best profit on any products by selling processed water by the gallon. This will require a good deal of space, because commercial-sized holding barrels are not small. I would not use anything less than 500 gal. in size. Ultimately, the volume you select should depend on your available space and the demand for the product. You will also need a foolproof delivery system for the water. This part of the equation is always a challenge. You can offer self-serve, but you must have a way to monitor how much water a customer is taking. There is good money to be made in selling 5-gal. plastic containers to those people who do not bring their own from home. Per-gallon pricing will vary for unsalted water, basic saltwater and premium saltwater. Here is where mistakes can be made if you do not have an attendant on hand to monitor consumption.
Of course, the ultimate aquarium maintenance product is you. If you offer a service for cleaning and/or setting up tanks at customer’s residences or offices, you will truly be a full-service aquatic store. In this case, do not farm out the maintenance jobs to anyone—do them within your own organization. The people you send out to perform maintenance or set up aquariums must be the very best you have. Putting employees in customers’ homes implies you trust them implicitly. These people should be given a percentage of the income generated from the work they do. It is always a mistake to pay them by the hour. Instead, pay them by the job.
Many successful aquatic stores started out as nothing more than professional fish tank cleaners. Today, we call them aquarium maintenance personnel, a title that implies they are experts at not only cleaning aquariums, but also setting them up. What’s the sense of making money from only one end of the aquatic business when you can do it from both ends?
Plenty of your customers will wish to employ your maintenance services. The best advertising for this part of your business is your retail space. Be certain to keep it clean, well-organized, well-stocked and consumer-friendly. Your sales associates must be affable, knowledgeable and dressed presentably. It’s also extremely important to keep a manager on the floor at all times. He or she can quickly spot problems.
The ultimate product for setting up a new aquarium is live bacteria. Without a sufficient amount of this, a new tank will not cycle. An un-cycled tank is a time bomb. If you are selling tank setups, you must put this item in the kits. Likewise, when a customer performs fairly large water changes (which include gravel washing), live bacteria additions are recommended. Now remember, this is beneficial bacteria—not the kind that cause bacterial infections in fish. In fact, any time it is necessary to treat fish for problems with most medications or chemicals, you kill off or greatly reduce the amount of beneficial bacteria. Once the fish are cured, it’s time for a water change, including a healthy dose of live bacteria.
What would you consider the most important aquarium maintenance product? Well, from my viewpoint, it is the food you feed your fish. If you feed a high quality food, your fish are guaranteed not to suffer from an improper diet. Believe it or not, there are now fish foods which offer probiotics as a constituent of the food.
We’ve come so far in promoting fish health that it makes you wonder what’s next… PB
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.