With the space mostly to themselves, high-end saltwater
shops can maximize profits and build a strong, loyal
customer base on a reef bedrock.
By EthaN D. MIzEr
the coral livestock business is thriving, according to aquatics specialty retailers across the U.S. Profits are stable, and the arrival of new aquarists in shops is bal- anced by long-time hobbyists seeking high-end corals to add to their collections.
“My average customers are just walk-in customers,” said Matthew Schmidt, manager of Reef Plus in North Aurora, Ill. “They don’t really know anything about saltwater, and that’s kind of why we’re here to educate them. But I do have a lot of customers
who have been in it for a long time, and they’re very experienced customers for sure.”
As such, retailers are carrying all types of corals, from easier-to-care-for soft corals
and small polyp stony (SPS) corals to large polyp stony (LPS) corals as well as many
other rare and exotic varieties.
“Zoanthid corals are doing really well, and bounce mushrooms are doing really
good,” Schmidt said. “A lot of the basics are doing well. A lot of different types of the
soft corals are coming back again. Certain types of LPS corals are coming back.”
Availability plays into what’s popular, but having a wide selection is what is serv-
ing reef retailers best right now. Corals from Australian waters have been easier to
find and are increasing in popularity as well.
“Our wholesalers have a pretty good supply of Australian corals right now,” said
Jose Garcia, owner of Living Reef Aquariums in Oakland Park, Fla. “The Indo-Pacific
corals are the best. They’re more affordable and more available. There was a big de-
mand there for a while, and they couldn’t really bring in enough, but now it seems to
be a lot better.”
High-end species also sell, though, as with any high-dollar item, it might take
awhile, depending on local demand.
“Something that was available before but that’s appearing more frequently is the
rainbow welsoni corals that have absolutely amazing color spectrums,” said Ashley
Hoglund, manager of New Wave Aquaria in Minneapolis. “Everything’s actually doing really, really well right now. We have a lot of higher-end clients who really want
only designer pieces. So we’re selling those and turn them around quickly, and then
we’re able to get them in more frequently.”
HEALTHY DISPLAYS ARE GOOD BUSINESS
When customers come in-store, they want to see beautiful corals
displayed prominently in healthy systems.
“Having a healthy tank with a big, beautiful reef system full of all
these colors and different environments really attracts people,” said
Manny Corrales, manager of M&F Reefs in Brodheadsville, Pa., adding
that the shop performs water changes weekly and constantly monitors
Healthy corals help drive sales, but strong husbandry practices also
help preserve livestock—and pet specialty retailers’ bottom lines.
“Health is the No. 1 factor with corals,” said Jose Garcia, owner of
Living Reef Aquariums in Oakland Park, Fla. “That’s why we don’t like to
frag corals, because they look like they’re hurting. They’re not going to
open to their full potential. If I chop it up and put 50 little fragments in a
Some retailers prefer to link their systems for centralized
maintenance, while others set up independent systems to prevent the
spread of problems that might arise.
“All our tanks, all of our store, are made up of well-established reef
tanks,” Garcia noted. “I don’t have any shelves full of corals. I think every
store has that. They display all their corals on shelves or in shallow
Other retailers reported merchandising livestock in fully stocked
display aquariums as well.
“All of my fish systems are on big, interconnected systems,” said
Matthew Schmidt, manager of Reef Plus in North Aurora, Ill. “Otherwise,
each and every reef tank is all on its own.”
Mixing frag tanks with egg-crate racks and more elaborate display
reef setups is a common tactic retailers reported using.
“We have five lagoon-style tanks with the lookdown [coral
viewers],” said Ashley Hoglund, manager of New Wave Aquaria in
Minneapolis. “We also have numerous different frag racks. The most
important thing is the health of the corals. If you don’t have healthy
tanks, your corals are not going to look healthy and you’re not going to
sell them. We are extremely strict on weekly water changes. We don’t
Hoglund focuses on shifting displays around to keep things
“We really try to mix up the colors,” she said. “We mix and match to
make things pop a lot more, and that’s what [we’re] really having success
with. We’re constantly rotating our frags around.”
SOCIAL MEDIA OUTREACH
When it comes to building consumer excitement for corals,
aquatics specialty retailers have turned to social media, and
especially Facebook, in a big way. Retailers report using
frequent social media posts to successfully bring customers
in to purchase new livestock.
“Our main marketing is through Facebook,” said Manny
Corrales, manager of M&F Reefs in Brodheadsville, Pa.
“Every time we get a new shipment, we put it on Facebook
with some nice pictures. Almost every post, we get people
asking and calling.”
Keeping new livestock in front of customers can help
retailers generate buzz and cater to customers’ collector
mentality to help ramp up sales.
“Our Facebook page does wonders for us,” said
Ashley Hoglund, manager of New Wave Aquaria in
Minneapolis. “A lot of our regulars know to watch the
page because it’s first-come, first-served with a lot of the
collector pieces and nice pieces.”
Retailers can also use social media marketing to
highlight reef-specific services, such as coral fragging and
accepting trades. These activities are common in the hobby,
but retailers have to balance serving customers with what’s
right for the store.
“Typically, we don’t normally like to take requests just
because we’re really busy here,” Hoglund said. “We will if
we’re slower. We get a lot of donations from people with
colonies that have outgrown their tanks. So we’ll frag those
down and throw them out on a frag rack.”
Some retailers offer store credit for frag trades. Creating
that community feel and engaging with coral hobbyists
helps retailers keep customers loyal.
“We do anything to accommodate a customer,” said
Jose Garcia, owner of Living Reef Aquariums in Oakland
Park, Fla. “If they have a coral that’s too big, or that they’ve
just grown tired of, we always take them. They can take a
new species and continue to grow stuff and trade.”
STAYING IN THE KNOW
The reef hobby can be highly technical, as anyone who has
kept corals can attest to. So, for retailers, this aspect of the
industry means focusing on education to keep customers
happy, successful and invested in the hobby.
“People come in and you feel them out, what they
know, and you go from there,” said Natalia Washington,
assistant manager and coral farming specialist for Barrier
Reef Aquariums in Renton, Wash. “You have beginners who
have never seen coral ever, and some people don’t want
Though a lot of information is available on the internet,
customers still go to their local specialty store with
questions. Retailers often position themselves as experts
to help build trust and rapport with hobbyists.
“We leverage education 100 percent,” said Andy
Seagraves, owner of Brentwood Reef Supply in Brentwood,
Calif. “Sometimes, it can get pretty hectic in here with
people asking questions.”
Getting the corals customers want can also be a
challenge, and retailers said they stay vigilant to make
sure they know what’s changing in the distribution
chain. Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) restrictions for
certain kinds of corals exist, and they play a role in what’s
available either seasonally or, in some cases, all year long.
“There are always regulations,” said Jose Garcia,
owner of Living Reef Aquariums in Oakland Park, Fla.
“That’s why I don’t bring in anything direct, because
then you have to [be aware of and] follow all the rules
and regulations. I let the wholesalers take care of that.
Whatever they bring, that’s basically what we have
Recently, imports of live rock from Fiji were briefly
banned, though the restriction has since been lifted.
“We immediately saw a change in live rock prices
at the wholesalers,” said Manny Corrales, manager of
M&F Reefs in Brodheadsville, Pa. “It started getting more
expensive right away. You start regulating where you
can and can’t get it from, or reducing the places they’re