Over the years while working in aquarium stores, and selling to aquarium stores across the country, one of the most common questions we get asked is, “What products should my store stock?” We respond with, “What kind of store do you have?” In many cases, the store owner or manager is unable to answer the question.

We’ve been in business since 1994, and in nearly 30 years of business, we’ve sold to thousands of stores around the country. Many, if not most, are no longer in business. The ones who have succeeded have followed one of these four business models. Once you have a business model, it will be much easier to give advice on what products you should carry.

The Frag Shop w/ An Online/Frag Swap Presence

This type of store focuses on high-end livestock. These stores don’t just sell frags. They usually also sell expensive quarantined fish or rare water plants. As hobbyists, we love going to these stores. The trouble with these stores is there are very few cities across the country where local sales of high-end livestock alone can support a store. The number of people in any given area looking for a particular $500 coral frag is very few, but the number in the entire US may be significant. This makes online sales essential for this business model. Regular participation in frag swaps and shows around the country can broaden the customer base.
These stores don’t need to stock many dry goods because they have few walk-in customers, and those who do walk in are high-end hobbyists who are very particular about what products they like. These stores should stock what they use in the shop. If there are extra additives, lights, or powerheads on hand for maintaining the grow-out system, these could be offered to customers.

The Gallery & Maintenance Store

This type of store makes the majority of its sales from maintenance. The shop itself serves as a central hub for service techs and a gallery to show the kinds of installs the shop can do. These stores need to be as beautiful as possible, and they should have some standardized setup method that allows shop employees to quickly give customers quotes on the cost of a setup and the necessary maintenance for most aquariums.

These stores need to stock what they use in the field. This will let you quickly swap out defective equipment, upgrade accounts that you take over, repair plumbing, and set up new tanks. This core group of products can be sold to walk-in customers. If you can have enough inventory to have plug-and-play systems on the shop floor this can provide a huge advantage over the competition. There are many customers who want the tank up and running by the end of the week, and the only way you can do this is if you have all of the equipment to set up the tank ready to go.

The Beginner Store

The beginner store focuses on new aquarists. These customers are going to the store and not the internet because they don’t know what they need, and the internet is often not helpful in this regard. Customer service with online companies is lacking.

These stores need more inventory than the previously listed store types because many beginners want to walk in and walk out with a tank & livestock. These customers are looking to get everything they need to get started.

Instead of the large expensive complete custom setups you might see in the gallery store, these stores often have starter kits and basic aquariums that a beginner would be interested in. They can also have larger setups, but they are usually more cookie cutter with minimal plumbing and in standard shapes that will fit through doorways and look good in most homes.

These stores should also stock problem solvers such as medications, water clarifiers, and algae treatments because beginners often come to the shop looking for solutions to their particular problems. They will also be looking for ways to upgrade the system you initially sold them with products such as a fish feeder, ATO, skimmer, dosing pump, RO system, or wavemaker.

Beginners can get overwhelmed with choices, but they still need everything to keep a tank. It is best to focus on breadth over depth. Rather than stock four brands of calcium and alkalinity, stock one brand but try to have as wide a variety of products as you can. They are coming to your shop for your suggestions, and once they trust you they will buy whatever you recommend.

This is the aquarium store many of us first went to when we got into the hobby, and it is what most of us think of when we think of a traditional fish store. They are somewhat similar to the aquatics section in a PetSmart or Petco. But there are two key differences:

1. Often these stores focus on basic reef and planted tank setups. Petco and PetSmart do not compete in these arenas.

2. The quality of customer service needs to be better than a Petco/PetSmart. Those stores do not have employees who are aquarium experts.
Ultimately, the beginner store is a customer-focused store. The customers may take up your time, and they may overwhelm you with their lack of knowledge, but these customers will keep coming back if you can hold their hand a bit and help them to be successful.
Unfortunately, this type of store requires significantly more capital than the previous two store types. These stores often fail because the owners do not have sufficient capital to stock everything that is needed to operate this type of store. Do not attempt to succeed with this type of store unless you have enough capital to stock a reasonable variety of setups at various price points, and also stock the necessary products to maintain the tanks.

The Mega-Store

The mega-store is a very large store that is an actual competitor against the selection of the Internet. This store is very large and has a huge selection of livestock and dry goods. These stores are only viable in large metro areas that have large numbers of aquarists. Most metro areas can only support one store of this type, and smaller cities will not have a large enough customer base to support even one mega-store.

These stores shouldn’t just focus on having one brand of additive, pump, or skimmer. They need to have multiple competing brands in each category. This requires a very large amount of capital to fully stock the store with dry goods and livestock. While there are multiple stores of this type that are very successful across the country, we find that often stores fail because they try to be a mega-store without the customer base or capital needed to support a store of this type. It is often better for new stores to start out as a different type of store and shift into this model once they have the capital and customer base to support it.

How Much Capital Do You Need?

How much capital you need overall depends on your location and the rents, wages, shelving, electricity, and other costs at that particular location. Part of the equation is also the cost of setting up the display tanks, and the cost of the livestock. We can’t provide an estimate for those costs. But as for the amount you will need to spend on just the dry goods for sale, here are some ballpark figures:

The Frag Shop w/ An Online/Frag Swap Presence: $5,000 to $20,000
The Gallery & Maintenance Store: $10,000 to $40,000
The Beginner Store: $40,000 to $75,000
The Mega Store: $125,000 to $250,000

Jaron Hudson
[email protected]
(480) 829-8122