Is Wide Open
BY E THAN D. MIZER
Long considered the pinnacle of the aquarium hob- by by many in the industry, reef aquariums afford retailers high-margin coral and equipment sales.
But as product innovation continues to make coral-keeping easier than it’s ever been, new opportunities
are opening up for industry participants to generate
profit and keep customers coming back.
When it comes to coral livestock, many retailers
reported that high margins and relatively low competition is keeping the market attractive and lucrative.
“Livestock has got to be your bread and butter
because the internet is killing everything else,” said
James Minigh, owner of Bluewater Reef Aquatics in
Daytona Beach, Fla. “A lot of people don’t want to buy
The reefkeeping hobby also is more accessible than
ever, meaning retailers have access to a wider customer
“Innovations in lighting technologies and feeding
and filtration have really made reefkeeping so that hon-
estly anyone can do it now,” said Bruce Kelley, manag-
er at Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “And you
don’t have to have a 200-gallon tank; you can do it in a
10-gallon tank and be successful at it.”
Nano tanks are still drawing newer, less-experi-
enced hobbyists in, primarily because of low entry costs.
However, low cost does not necessarily equate to user
friendly. Nano tanks are an exception to the trend of
easier-to-master reef setups.
“Nano tanks are still the rage, with consumers find-
ing the lower price point for these setups compelling,”
said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA,
based in Hayward, Calif. “The downside is that these
aquariums, while viewed as easier to keep, are actually
more difficult. Retailers find they have to spend con-
siderable time working with consumers to keep these
tanks in balance.”
Having a wide variety of coral in stock is key, be-
cause customers often are seeking new specimens, and
different species become popular for various reasons.
“The whims of coralkeepers change, I’d almost say
monthly,” Kelley said. “Right now, balance mush-
rooms are fairly hot. Last month it was zoanthids. The
month before that it was Acanthastrea, or torch corals.”
“Mushrooms definitely are the craze,” said Jess
Viscovich, manager at Diablo Corals in Concord, Calif.
“These odd-ball, Rhodactis-type mushrooms normal-
ly go for about $30 wholesale; people are now paying
$250 to $300 per rock wholesale.”
Though the conventional wisdom is to keep lots of flashy,
eye-catching display aquariums when it comes to selling aquarium products, displaying expensive-to-maintain reef aquariums
in-store isn’t necessarily always the best—or easiest—approach.
“We have three coral displays—a mixed reef, a soft coral
tank and a SPS-dominated tank,” said Bruce Kelley, manager at
Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “I see a lot of coral shops
that light their coral tanks with nothing but 20k light, and the
corals look fantastic, but they’re not real. I don’t do that. Our
corals look like what they’ll look like in [a customer’s] home.”
One way to showcase corals without having to invest in a
gigantic display aquarium is to focus on smaller offerings.
“Stores that have frags from $5 to $10 and up always seem
to be doing better than stores that don’t,” said Chris Clevers, pres-
ident of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “Frags seem to keep
consumers coming in, and that is a key to successful retailing:
Another important aspect of reef aquariumkeeping that
many new customers aren’t aware of relates to the power
needed to keep these tanks running. Many customers also
need to be brought up to speed on how to keep power consump-
tion in check.
“We all know the cost to operate a tank, especially in a
home, is quite expensive with power,” said Jess Viscovich,
manager at Diablo Corals in Concord, Calif. “Now every manufacturer has their own line of DC pumps, skimmers and powerheads.
The cost to operate a system now gets cut 30 to 40 percent …
so that’s huge for the customer, too.”
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
Customers are increasingly savvy on keeping reef aquariums, and
thanks to the internet, many know what they want before they set
foot in their local specialty shop.
“The average hobbyist is better informed, very much so,”
said James Minigh, owner of Bluewater Reef Aquatics in Daytona
Beach, Fla. “There are a lot more reefkeeping groups, a lot more
localized fish groups and all kinds of things that are helping newbs
However, retailers still need to focus on offering quality
information and a personal touch.
“By consistently providing customers with good advice and
helping them make sound buying decisions, retailers will ensure
that shoppers return to their stores,” said Pamela Morisse, digital
and media marketing manager for Central Garden & Pet Co.,
based in Walnut Creek, Calif. “The bottom line is, if hobbyists are
successful, they’ll want to keep doing it.”
Being honest with customers about what they need to be
successful is important, retailers reported.
“If you tell people the truth about the complexity of coral, that
really makes a difference in long-term customer retention,” said
Bruce Kelley, manager at Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas.
The more retailers are able to help customers make good
purchasing decisions, the higher their chances of keeping
“I always keep people informed to make a good decision with-
out leaving too much of the bad out,” said James Minigh, owner
of Bluewater Reef Aquatics in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I’m always 100
percent upfront with them and let the cards fall where they may.”
ERCHANDISING ONSUMER EDUCATION
For specialty retailers that sell coral livestock,
big-ticket equipment sales are important.
“Everybody is going to hybrid [LED/T5 combo]
lighting,” said James Minigh, owner of Bluewater
Reef Aquatics in Daytona Beach, Fla. “Usually big
ticket things like that are kind of slower [to sell].”
LED fixtures continue to be popular as well,
and Coralife recently came out with a new setup.
Called the Coralife LED Aqualight-S Fixture, the
line features bright white, blue Moon Glow and
color-enhancing RGB LEDs, said Pamela Morisse,
digital and media marketing manager for Central
Garden & Pet Co., based in Walnut Creek, Calif.
“LED lighting is still most in demand, particularly controllable fixtures,” she added.
Coralife also released the Coralife LED
Bio-Cube, which features increased tank size, a
revamped hood and increased light output, among
other design changes, Morisse said.
Interest in new tech is popular, and features
such as controllability are top of mind.
“Right now, for us, the biggest thing is automa-
tion,” said Jess Viscovich, manager at Diablo Corals
in Concord, Calif. “It doesn’t have to be one controller
company or another. They’re all making leaps and
bounds as far as where the automation has gone.”
Another major factor driving coral sales is the
wide variety of foods available on the market.
“[Manufacturers] have gotten very good at
producing and doing consistently high-quality
coral foods,” said Bruce Kelley, manager at Aquatek
Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “Everything from
Hikari’s coral foods to PE Mysis to Cyclop-Eeze are
Several manufacturers have introduced new
lines, including Hikari’s Coralific Delite, which is for-
mulated to be an easy-to-feed, multiuse coral food,
and the company’s recently introduced Cyclopod+
line, said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales
USA in Hayward, Calif.
Additionally, Quality Marine is the exclusive
distributor for the Nutramar and Benereef food
lines, said Cindy DeLillo, media manager of
Quality Marine and Aquatropic in Los Angeles.
The Benereef line is formulated to feed the whole
aquarium—not just corals, she added.
“Good coral foods have been even more
important these days due to the trend of retailers
recommending that customers run super-low
nutrient systems,” she said.
Retailers said that coral food offerings are
selling well and helping them retain customers.
“Right now, there are definitely some interesting coral foods that have been doing well for us,”
Viscovich said. “The whole line of LRS fish food
from Larry’s Reef Services has been doing huge
[business] for us. It’s been a great game changer.”
Livestock sales dominate, but customers
still like the personal touch from retailers.