BY DAVID A. LASS
Water treatment for a fresh- water aquarium is no more difficult than water
treatment for a home swimming
pool. Weekly testing is sufficient,
and usually nothing needs to be
added to the tank.
“We like to teach patience,
not instant gratification,” said
Allen Fefferman, owner of Old
Orchard Aquarium in Skokie,
Ill. “It can be difficult to get new
hobbyists to understand the im-
portance of adding fish gradual-
ly, and testing and recording the
water chemistry regularly.”
With a freshwater tank, hob-
byists only need to test for pH
and the components of the nitro-
gen cycle—ammonia, nitrite and
“We usually test for pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and general and carbonate hardness,” said
Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets in Quincy, Mass.
Most stores will perform
simple water testing for regular
customers, especially for new
hobbyists. All too often with
newbies, the often-heard com-
plaint is “My water is crystal
clear, but my fish are dying.”
The best response I have heard
to this is, “You could have a crys-
tal-clear tank filled with vodka,
and all the fish would die.”
Many stores display a chart
of pH and the three lines of the
nitrogen cycle. Getting hobby-
ists to understand pH and the
nitrogen cycle increases their
chance of having a good experi-
ence with their fish tank, and it
not ending up in the attic or at a
“With beginners, we like to
have them bring in a water sam-
ple, and [we] test it with them in
the store,” Richmond said. “We
want to make sure the water test
is done properly, and we want to
show them how easy it is to do
water testing, so they will soon
want to test on their own.”
The simplest way to test wa-
ter is to use dip strips, which can
show the tank water’s acidity
and alkalinity, the nitrogen cy-
cle’s maturity and whether the
water is hard or soft.
“When hobbyists feel com-
fortable that they understand
the nitrogen cycle and what the
kits are testing for, we usually
try to encourage them to do their
own testing,” Fefferman said.
“When they have progressed
in the hobby, we try to move
them up from the dip strips to
the ‘real’ test kits that use wa-
ter samples and test drops. Of
these, we prefer to use and sell
the Seachem kits.”
Savvy aquatic retailers know that teaching hobbyists to test for
important water parameters, and about needed additives, is a
simple and necessary task.
Many hobbyists don’t want to do anything in the way of water testing, let alone
water treatment. However, they must treat tap water for chlorine and chloramines
before using it in their aquarium. Every local fish store must be zealous in teaching
their customers to do this.
“We use Seachem’s Prime in the store, and that is what we recommend our
customers use for their tanks,” said Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets in
New hobbyists seem to want to find something wrong with their fish and “treat”
it. With education, that desire to do the right thing for their fish should transfer easily
to treating the water before putting it into the fish tank.
As imperative as it is that hobbyists treat their tap water to neutralize chlorine,
chloramines and whatever else is added to our drinking water, the best thing hobbyists
can do is to sit on their hands.
“They need to fully understand how important it is to have the tank water in the
best shape possible before they add any new fish,” said Allen Fefferman, owner of Old
Orchard Aquarium in Skokie, Ill.
Well-stocked shelves are crucial for generating maintenance product sales.
“Most successful retailers and distrib-
utors are recognizing not only the impor-
tance of having key maintenance items in
stock, but also the profit potential offered
by the category,” said Frank Kudla, sales
and marketing consultant for Aquatop Aquatic Supplies in Brea, Calif. “Although most
maintenance products are low-dollar [cost], they make up for it with high margins.”
Because products in this category aren’t necessarily eye-catching, retailers do
best to rely on the fact that they are required for success.
“It’s a necessary buy,” said J.J. Elliott, co-owner of Triad Reef Critters in
Greensboro, N.C. “We do a lot of new setups. Everything’s located in a general area;
everything’s together with the long-term maintenance items you need for your tank.”
While new customers might not purchase maintenance products up front,
retailers can anticipate an eventual return and purchase.
“It might not be the initial sale, but the sale coming up,” said Scott Tracy, owner
of Aquarium Oddballs in Tulsa, Okla. “We’re a big information-type store. I’m just as
likely to educate someone about a topic that doesn’t provide a sales opportunity as
one that does, especially when they’re going to get set up.”
“Maintenance products should be incorporated into the sales process for all
aquariums,” said Chris LeRose, aquatics division manager for Rolf C. Hagen (USA)
Corp. in Mansfield, Mass. “We must be careful when merchandising this category so
as to not overwhelm the first-time hobbyist. There are many great products out there
for the advanced hobbyist. Displays should be neat and orderly; we recommend
dedicating merchandising space specifically for the first-time hobbyist that will
show them exactly what they need to be successful. Fluval is currently developing a
maintenance assortment that will be a one-stop kit for consumers to grab and go.”
All too often, fish retailers must deal
with the complaint (especially from
new hobbyists) that “The fish you
sold me died.” This commonly is
followed up with, “All the fish in my
aquarium are fine, but I found the
fish you sold me yesterday dead this
It can be virtually impossible to
explain to this customer that their tank fish are used to the less-than-ideal water
parameters—pH off the scale (usually too low), nitrates through the roof or water
so hard you could break walnuts open with it.
In my stores, we gave all new hobbyists two small cups with covers—the ones
we kept bettas in, so we had plenty and the cost was low. We printed a label that
we placed on the cups with our store logo, address and phone number. We asked
them to use the cups to bring back a sample of their tank water whenever they
wanted a fish replaced.
I made it clear that we would replace the fish regardless of how the water tested, but we wanted to test the tank water before adding any more fish. If a problem
presented, we wanted to solve it before simply replacing the fish, only to have it die
as well. This simple practice very often changed an irate customer with a dead fish
into a happy hobbyist who wanted to learn more about fishkeeping.
THE FISH YOU SOLD ME DIED
ARE MAINTENANCE SERVICES ON THE RISE IN YOUR STORE?
“Our service department is growing.
We just added two more vans. Our
expectation was, when we started
offering services, that we didn’t
know how good it was going to be.
It’s probably been one of the most …
aggressively growing departments. If
people have the money, they’ll pay to
have maintenance done.”—J.J.
ELLIOTT, co-owner of Triad Reef
Critters in Greensboro, N.C.
“This hobby is work. We don’t offer
[tank maintenance services] here. If
you’re thinking, ‘Set it and forget it,’
then maybe this isn’t the hobby for
you. You have to be on top of your
tanks. I kind of move people toward
doing things themselves.”—LAURA
HAMPTON, owner of Aqua-Holics in