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Selling Complete Aquarium Setups

Every pet shop employee probably feels good when he sells a complete aquarium setup, and he probably should. It looks good on his sales figures, and adds a nice chunk to the day's totals. But, an aquarium setup is not just a "big sale" for today; it can also be the gateway to years of enjoyment for the customer, and years of patronage for the retailer. It's important, then, to look at the big picture, in addition to the bottom line.

It's no secret to our industry that many people who attempt aquarium fish keeping for the first time have difficulties, and that some give up in despair after only a few months. There can of course be many reasons for failure in this hobby, and some may not be within our reach to fix. Who knows? It might be hard for many of us to comprehend, but there may well be a few people on this planet that just don't have the time, patience or interest to maintain an aquarium!

However, studies have shown repeatedly that there are many other short-term hobbyists that just got off to a bad start, with inadequate equipment and questionable advice. And while the local pet shop isn't the only place to get either equipment or advice, it's certainly in our best interest to make sure we're holding up our end by offering quality merchandise and proven methods to those just starting out.

Most aquarium retailers will no doubt be happy to supply the customer with whatever equipment he'd like; but many quickly find that the vast array of tanks, filters, heaters, and other aquarium equipment available make selecting components for an aquarium setup a daunting task - especially for the beginner. To make the decision process a bit less complicated, some retailers opt to put together some sort of Standardized Setup, in which certain brands, styles and sizes of products are recommended for certain aquarium sizes.

Standardizing setups has several advantages. First, if similar products are used across a range of tank sizes (e.g. power filter size A for up to 10 gallons, size B for 15-20 gallons, C for 25-40 gallons, and so on), prices can be more realistically compared. Also, the dealer can take better advantage of special pricing on products that he knows his employees will be promoting. But most importantly, the dealer can select and promote products that he believes will lead to success and long-term customers.

What to include in the Standardized Setup. When selecting items for the Standardized setup, it's important to put together a package that is reasonably complete, but without scaring away potential buyers with "sticker shock" by throwing in everything including the infamous kitchen sink. A good place to see this concept in action is at a local automobile dealership. The sticker price generally includes the basic necessities, such as engine, body, and with any luck at all, tires. Added to this are various Options, such as power steering and stereo equipment, which many, if not most, customers will likely select. Then, there are Upgrades, such as bigger engines and special lighting packages, which some, but probably not the average, buyers will appreciate.

The basics of an aquarium setup would be the tank itself, a cover and light, some sort of filtration/aeration package, and a heater and thermometer. Starter sizes of dechlorinators and fish foods are often included as well, and a step-by-step setup instruction sheet is an absolute must. In each of these categories, the dealer should select reliable, low-maintenance items - in short, the type of equipment he and his staff would take home and be comfortable in using. Neither high-tech, top-of-the-line items nor cheap junk has a place in this basic setup. Likewise, if the dealer routinely speaks with disdain about a certain style of filtration or brand of heater, it would be quite disingenuous to include them in the package.

Options would include things that most people will certainly use, but really aren't quite a required part of the life-support system. Gravel, backgrounds, and other decorations fit nicely into this category, as do aquarium stands and cabinets. Cleaning equipment such as scrubbers, scrapers, brushes and nets can be nice little add-ons, too. Some of these items could be incorporated into the setup price by setting an "allowance" for decoration or maintenance supplies for each size setup, but there are far too many choices in size, style, color and price for the retailer to calculate an exact cost. For one thing, it would make comparison-shopping much more difficult, since few pet stores - and probably no mass merchandisers - include these items in their prices. Also, some hobbyists might spend hundreds of dollars on decorations for a 30 gallon tank, while others might get change back from their twenty.

More experienced hobbyists - and beginners with acquaintances in the hobby - may want an Upgrade from some of the standard equipment: perhaps a canister filter instead of a hang-on, a calibrated submersible heater, or a bigger and quieter air pump. These upgrades should be encouraged, but not made necessary by skimping on items in the basic package.

Pre-boxed setups are now available from a few manufacturers, with eye-catching packaging and a discounted price. While the selection is still quite limited, there's no good reason to overlook these packaged deals, as long as they include the types of equipment the dealer recommends. It is again counterproductive to offer items that the dealer feels are inadequate, even if they come in a pretty box at a good price.

Signage. While aquarium setups don't quite sell themselves, good signage can get the process off to a solid start. Like the setups themselves, signs can be too far too simple or far too complicated, and it takes a little experience and some feedback from the sales staff to find an effective middle ground. A card that just says "29 gallon - $119.98" leaves too much to the imagination, while a three-page dissertation of every possible combination of option and upgrade would be clearly overwhelming. A reasonable sign should include the list of items in the basic setup, the package price, and perhaps a few (as in two or three), of the favorite options or upgrades. Individual prices for the included equipment can also be included, and are very useful to shoppers who are perhaps only looking for a tank or a hood at this time. A "price if purchased separately" subtotal is also very appropriate if a special setup discount is allowed.

Display. Along with good signage, an attractive display can set the stage for a successful sales pitch. It is far easier to sell a 55 gallon tank that you're standing right next to than one that you're "pretty sure" you've got in the back room. Unless they have already seen an aquarium of the desired size or taken measurements of a spot to fill, many shoppers don't have a strong concept of just how big - or how small - a given tank actually is.

A simple display could consist of a tank with all the items included in the basic package neatly arranged inside, or if there's plenty of space and budget, a stack of such packages. But that's certainly not the only permissible approach. Also effective would be to show the tank with the various pieces of equipment unboxed and installed in their proper places. Or perhaps the equipment need not be shown at all in some displays; these might instead be attractively decorated with some combination of gravel, rocks, driftwood and artificial plants to give some decorating hints. It is not uncommon for someone to want to purchase the very decorations from that tank, which is a real ego-booster for the employee that arranged it. Some tanks can even do double-duty, being used as showcases for other merchandise in addition to their "real" job of promoting the setup. And there's no law that says one cannot simply affix a setup price sheet (neatly) to one of the store's display aquariums full of fish and décor. Proper signage, of course, will need to spell out specifically what is and isn't included in these packages.

Pricing, discounts, and bonuses. While the final setup price might be simply the sum of all the items included, it's probably safe to say that most shoppers will be expecting a package discount of some sort. If the profit margin of the individual items as adequate, even a small cash discount of a few per cent will make many customers feel that their business is appreciated. If the profit margin is a little slim, keep in mind that you're competing not only with Joe's Pets down the street, but with a number of mass-merchandisers as well, and that your goal is as much to make a lifelong successful hobbyist as it is to make a few bucks on this sale. Alternately or in addition, free "bonus" items can be included in the package; a coupon for free fish is an inexpensive way to show appreciation - and to bring the customer back for another visit. (Fish, of course, should not be taken home until the setup is assembled, filled, dechlorinated, and the temperature stabilized.)

Custom setups. Many customers' needs can be met by adapting one of the standardized setups, but sometimes it makes more sense to start over from scratch. For example, if most of your setups consist of rectangular tanks with standard lighting and undergravel filtration, they would be a poor starting point for a bowfront tank with double lighting and a large canister filter. A printed setup worksheet form will give a professional appearance, and can be invaluable in avoiding errors and confusion. A column of categories (such as "power filter", "air pump", and "heater") serves as a reminder of what needs to be included, and brand names, sizes and prices can be entered into the succeeding columns. Upon completion, a total price can be calculated, and any discounts or bonuses noted. Should the customer decide to wait before purchase, he can take the worksheet with him, and a carbon or photocopy can be kept on file at the store. As with the signs for standard setups, it is very important that the worksheet show precisely what is included in the package. Even if the same employee is available when the customer returns, it's difficult to remember all the details - and who would want to start a debate with a customer ready to buy? Some notice of expiration, or a "prices subject to change without notice" clause should also be included.

Selling. Signage and display are only the beginning of the sale, and a staff member will almost certainly need to be available and attentive to close the deal. This is the store's opportunity to put its best foot forward, and to promote not just this sale, but hopefully many future sales, and even the hobby as a whole. As with most sales opportunities, approaching the customer with enthusiasm and showing a willingness to help goes a long way towards making the deal before even the first word is uttered.

Some shoppers will want a detailed explanation for every bit of equipment, from the fluorescent light fixture down to the last inch of airline tubing. Others simply want to have some assurance that the unit will indeed support aquatic life, is unlikely to empty itself on the dining room floor, and that a mere mortal can assemble it. A salesperson that is listening, rather than relying on a canned sales pitch, will be better able to adjust his presentation to fully inform the former without overwhelming the latter. He should be prepared to explain what the setup includes and why, and how it might be different from those of other stores in the area. Options and upgrades can also be worked into the conversation as needed.

Not every setup pitch will be rewarded with an immediate purchase, but a good one will have a lasting effect on the hobbyist. And that's at least the next best thing.


This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine

Copyright © 2001 James M. Kostich
All rights reserved.