Healthy Tank, Healthy Sales
Aquarium maintenance products and services that keep customers in the hobby and coming back in-store for
more are helping to reshape the aquatics retail business model.
BY E THAN D. MIZER
Aquarium hobbyists know they need to maintain their setups, and pet specialty retailers can become the go-to source for knowledge and products that will help them
succeed in the long-term. What’s more, maintenance services
have become a staple of the industry that helps differentiate
local fish stores from their competitors and bolster their bottom
line in a difficult but growing market.
Many retailers have put an emphasis on their maintenance
services to help drive business.
“When we started, we were mostly focused on retail,” said
Matthew Catanese, co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark,
Calif. “But now, since we’ve bought the store and taken it over,
we’re trying to push more for maintenance services because it’s
a consistent paycheck.”
Catanese formerly worked for a tank-maintenance and in-
stallation company in Los Angeles, where he saw the success
offering maintenance services can bring.
“I have around 20 maintenance clients right now,” he said.
“We just got a van yesterday, so now we’re going to start actually
pushing it because we’d been doing services out of our personal
cars, and it’s a nightmare.”
In general, retailers reported that the maintenance services
side of the business is on the rise.
“Maintenance services are always growing,” said Janet Davis, co-owner of Manda-
rin SeaLife in Jacksonville, Fla. “New customers are always moving in, and business is
Still, she added, “Some new customers want to be educated where they can do it for
Customers who are committed to maintaining their tank setups on their own often
seek products that simplify maintenance chores, retailers noted.
“The biggest trend is trying to add convenience,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner
and president of Dr Tim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif. “Consumers don’t want to spend
a lot of time carefully measuring this and that, and diligently adding this precisely at
some specific time. They don’t want to be ‘tied’ to their tank. So more and more, it is
about products that work in a wide range of conditions, that are easy to apply and don’t
take a lot of time.”
Helping customers figure out what they want and need can also help minimize main-
tenance problems down the road.
“When we have new customers, we try to start them out right,” said Bill Ridgway,
owner of Aquatic Creations in Ijamsville, Md. “When they ask about how easy or how
big a tank they should get, we always base our recommendation upon the fish they can’t
live without. Once we know what that is, then we can design the whole aquarium setup
around that desire.”
A MATTER OF BIOLOGY
Products to bolster biological filtration, such as probiotics, are increasingly
popular with aquarists.
“Every aquarium needs a healthy level of good bacteria to counter and filter
out pollutants such as ammonia that can harm, or even kill, fish,” said John
Pailthorp, vice president of marketing for Spectrum Brands Pet, a subsidiary of
St. Louis-based Spectrum Brands Holdings.
To address this need, Tetra recently introduced Cleaning Bacteria. The
product contains a blend of beneficial microorganisms, Pailthorp said, and is
formulated to replenish the bacterial supply and maintain biological filtration
within an aquarium when used monthly.
Other manufacturers are also introducing novel products to help with tank
maintenance and water chemistry.
Recently, Dr Tim’s Aquatics introduced its Time Release Waste-Away Gels.
“The gels are infused with our Waste-Away bacteria,” said Dr. Timothy
Hovanec, owner and president of the Moorpark, Calif.-based company. “Being
in gel form, the product is very simple for consumers to use. They simply unzip
the wrapper, attach the suction cup and stick it anywhere in the tank, filter or
sump. For the next 30 days or so, good bacteria are automatically released into
Overall, hobbyists are more aware of the need for beneficial bacteria,
industry participants noted.
“In recent years, we’ve noticed a much better understanding in the hobby of
the role of beneficial bacteria in fish health, waste management and even nitrate
reduction,” said Rachel Torrence, marketing specialist for Seachem Laboratories
in Madison, Ga. “A better understanding of the ways in which healthy biological
filtration and bacteria supplementation can keep fish and aquariums in top
condition leads to easier and more effective aquarium maintenance.”
MAINTENANCE MADE SIMPLE
Effective merchandising and promotion of
aquarium maintenance products and services
can not only boost sales, but also help hobbyists
understand what it takes to have a successful,
thriving tank, according to industry participants.
“Customers have to be aware of what they’re
putting in their tank,” said Janet Davis, co-owner
of Mandarin SeaLife in Jacksonville, Fla. “Our
biggest selling point is that we can provide that
knowledge. Probably 80 percent of the time, they
are so unaware that’s even an issue.”
Product displays are an important part of
reminding customers about their aquarium
maintenance supply needs.
“The tactic we use in-store is to keep stuff that
makes sense together,” said Matthew Catanese,
co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark, Calif.
“We highlight the stuff that sells the best, such as
It has become more difficult to compete on dry
goods, retailers reported, but focusing on top-
sellers can help cut down on carrying too many
“We don’t really carry a ton of dry goods, like
I guess old-school pet stores would,” Catanese
said. “We carry more of the stuff that we either use
ourselves or that people ask for. It’s easy to sell
something if you use it yourself.”
Growing business might require thinking
outside of the box. Because growth in the
maintenance services segment is strong, retailers
might do well if they focus on add-on sales of both
maintenance products and even livestock to help
drive sales overall.
“We offer a service to bring fish to customers
and acclimate them,” Davis said. “We offer full
maintenance service. I don’t really believe in
selling a lot of product. I would rather sell the best
product I can as far as salt because that’s where
it starts. And then you don’t need all of these
other additives, which has been a big marketing
campaign in itself. I would rather sell customers
In general, offering livestock sales to
maintenance customers is an excellent way to
drive sales and retain customers in the long-term.
“Livestock is a bit more expensive for your
maintenance clients, because at least for us,
we quarantine our livestock that are going to
our maintenance customers,” Catanese said. “It
works out, it keeps the customer happy, it makes
them feel like we really care about their tank, and
we’re just not trying to make a buck. Also, we
have to deal with fewer issues and fewer angry