Business in the aquatic segment of the pet trade has been very strong since the COVID-19 virus showed up. If people must stay home to protect themselves from a deadly pandemic, an aquarium is something that can connect them to the natural world without actually being outside. Now that the COVID vaccines are starting to become more readily available, people will most certainly start to venture out. This will be a critical inflection point for the entire pet industry, but especially for stores that specialize in aquatics. As a retailer, there are many things you might do to bolster sales as people rediscover the great outdoors. My best recommendation is not to panic; after all, we are moving into the slow season.
While many items have been in short supply during the past year, no category has been more affected than aquatic livestock. High demand and low supply has created a seller’s market and the escalation of prices may continue for sometime. Even the availability of hard goods has been sporadic in some product areas. The lighting segment—which has been notoriously quixotic in the aquarium hobby—is presently under intense scrutiny by researchers. Studies have shown that blue spectrum LED bulbs can cause damage to the retina if a person is exposed for too long a period of time. The question of whether this affects fish in any way has not yet been addressed.
The Right Lights
Certainly, pet shop owners are familiar with the popularity of LED lighting in the aquarium hobby. In particular, the blue spectrum has proven to be very important in maintaining and growing stony (hard) corals. In fact, two wavelengths of blue seem to be critical for success. Even in general lighting for freshwater environments, there is a trend toward LED’s. They rarely burn out, they have lower power consumption than fluorescent fixtures and they do not heat up the water to any appreciable extent. Now, however, just to be safe, it might be judicious to be certain any LED light fixtures in your store are positioned so that people cannot look directly at them for any extended period of time. Frankly, this level of care should be applied to any light fixture. Looking directly at a light bulb emitting light is never a good idea.
Now, if your shop is marine-oriented, you undoubtedly sell a lot of LED fixtures. These can range in price (depending on what size environment they are supposed to illuminate) from a few dollars for a Betta or shrimp tank to several thousand for a large and/or deep marine setup. Unfortunately, online retailers can almost always undercut your prices, as they have virtually none of the costs you must absorb as a brick-and-mortar business. For this reason, your best opportunity to sell high-end LED lighting will be as part of a set-up package. When you advertise this, it might be best not to break down costs, item by item. Making sure to include brand names is important—just don’t delineate the costs.
While fluorescent lighting is quite sufficient for fish, freshwater or marine, you want to use LED’s for coral tanks. I still have a few customers who prefer the old-fashioned metal halides, but the problem with these is removing the excess heat they produce. It’s going to require some powerful fans. Still, let’s not forget, the initial research on growing stony corals in captivity was done with metal halides. They worked, even though using them was not without an element of danger—not to mention some heavy-duty electric bills.
I recommend you have several tanks around your shop that display a variety of lighting options. Don’t forget to include “aquatic garden” displays in this group. But, in reality, the newest lighting innovation is underwater LED lights. These are spectacular and if combined with synchronized aeration, you can make a display reminiscent of the famous water fountain shows in Las Vegas. The difference is that everything in your tank is underwater.
While underwater lighting is pleasing by itself, you should still emphasis the regular lighting fixtures to your customers. It is not recommended to run underwater lighting for extended periods of time, especially at night. Fish need to sleep much like other animals, and that would be hard to do with a light shining in your eyes.
You should do some research and study the types of underwater lighting that is made specifically for the aquarium trade. Pond lighting is another category altogether, so avoid it unless you have a pond department.
Everyone who has a fish tank needs a dedicated light fixture. While most fish can live in a tank without a light, the fish will respond in kind when that light is on or off.
A light fixture on top of an aquarium should never be positioned so that the bulbs are visible from the front—only the light that the bulbs emit. For non-coral environments, the light should appear to be natural, mimicking the sun. With the new LED fixtures, you can set many of them to deliver light much like the fish would experience if they were in a natural environment. First, at dawn, the light is soft, but it becomes progressively more prominent. During the day, the light is at maximum intensity, but then it reduces gradually until you reach dusk, when the sun has just set below the horizon. At night, you can choose to leave on some blue light, but never enough to keep the fish awake.
If a room in a home has light all night long, it is not a good environment for an aquarium. The fish’s health and welfare should be of optimum importance. Place tanks in low traffic areas, if you wish the fish to behave naturally.
It is critical that light fixtures be a sufficient distance from the water’s surface. Otherwise, they may become wet and that can short them out and potentially cause a fire. Glass tops are highly recommended to protect fixtures and keep the fish from jumping out. Unfortunately, you should not use glass between the water’s surface and the light in an aquarium where you are keeping or growing coral. The glass changes the light spectrum that reaches the coral. In this case, the fixtures must be positioned some distance above the water, meaning the lighting needs to be even stronger.
If you sell pre-packaged tank starter kits, be aware that few people actually understand the value of lighting in the aquarium. You should take the time to explain the intricate interactions that occur in this captive environment.
LED fixtures are all the rage, but each of those individual bulbs can fail and then you are stuck with a fixture that has areas of darkness. Only a very small percentage of LED fixtures have replaceable bulbs. If you wish to sell LED’s in aquarium set-ups, please be honest with customers concerning this drawback.
As a retailer, I am sold on LED’s, but you should not stop carrying the tried and true fixtures that use fluorescent bulbs. There are a number of these still available, primarily using the T-5 and T-8 bulb sizes. The bulbs still come in a variety of lengths, wattages and expressions (cool white, warm white, blue, pink and plant). Always carry replacement bulbs to keep your customers from buying on-line or visiting your competitors.
Hopefully, with COVID going away, the future of the aquatic hobby will continue to be bright—just like the lighting equipment you sell. PB