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Stocking & Selling Aquarium Filtration


Bob Fenner


Not a year goes by that there isn't "later and greater" filtration technology available to the aquarium retailer and their public. With new styles and types of filters and pumps coming out on the market all of the time, how do you select the best ones to resale and help make your customers make an educated purchase? This article takes a look at what's old and new, and offers some strong suggestions on promoting and selling the right filter for its applications.

Function First:

You and your staff should be able to briefly describe just what filters do. Simply put, the primary purpose of filters and pumps of any kind is to maintain water quality; chemically, physically and biologically. This is accomplished by removing solid, liquid and gaseous wastes or otherwise aiding in conversion of these products into less toxic forms.

There are many types of filters available for retailing; they all have their application and marketability. As your shop(s) can not, will not, indeed should not stock all brands and sizes possible, you must decide which lines and sizes will make your "set" to offer. Considerations as to form, function, size, costs to acquire, assemble and operate, and even relative noisiness are key to understanding consumer's preferences.

A Brief Review of Filter Types& Their Use:

Box Filters and Sponge Filters:

 Those tried and true workhorses of yesteryear are alive and well. Lustar for box-types, Tetra and Jungle for sponges are my top-rated preferences. These types of filters work well under a wide variety of conditions, as back-ups, auxiliary, treatment and "baby" tanks, and are often the most appropriate for small tanks to large commercial applications.

Undergravel Filters: are staples in our hobby and industry,

typically powered by some type of diaphragm air pump or power -heads. If space and inventory outlay allows I'd two basic model-types (the "Sear's Best" (tm) and one alternative philosophical approach to product assortments). A lesser-expensive brand with pre-cut uplift tubes and a more-expensive "salt-water" type with better coverage of tank bottoms, incorporating large air-lift tubes in conjunction with airstones or powerheads. The kits we self-assemble and offer for resale are outfitted with the former for freshwater and the latter for marines.

To increase flow and create a strong current, submersible powerheads positioned on uplift tubes are a great choice and should be demonstrated in a prominent tank. Powerheads, manufactured by a number of brand names, have low power consumption while providing high water flow. A venturi air feature on each brand helps to mix the water with air, removing excessive carbon dioxide and reintroducing oxygen.

Don't miss the opportunity to show small to large flow rate applications with these products; as well as the new reciprocating attachments that are coming onto the market.

Power Filters: 

Are units that come with their own pumping source. Made for use both inside and outside of the system they are great additions to undergravel filters; the good ones can be used alone. In fact, for some set-ups, such as goldfish, the right power filter, sized, engineered and fitted with appropriate media is the best filter by itself. The best brands of power filters, when used properly, can be efficient and complete filters where undergravel is not acceptable (i.e. African cichlids who dig a great deal).

Some power filters affix to the inside corners of aquariums where they can be hidden amongst decor. These inside power filters range in sizes, usable down to the smallest of tanks. They have a few distinctive features compared to the hang on the back models; due to being submersible they can be more energy conserving, quieter, less obtrusive, even operating in terrariums where water level is only a few inches. For aquarium gardeners inside power filters have the added advantage of not agitating air and system water together, liberating desired carbon dioxide. For store-use these filters are invaluable in being able to be quickly relocated to a tank in need of extra filtration.

Canister Filters: 

Are probably the most complete types of filters readily offered; providing filtering biologically, chemically and mechanically. Features to consider are good flow to water contact time with low power consumption and maintenance problems. Eheim, Fluval, Magnum, are being joined by some newcomer's that offer a high flow rate with magnetic driven pumps.

"Wet-Dry" Filters:

 The miniature reef interest is still in a growth phase in most of our markets; and very lucrative to those who understand what the hobbyist is looking for and can supply it. Be especially aware of new trends in fluid-moving pumps, magnetic and direct drive, and the use of new filter materials.

Standing Inventory Costs: A Solution:

I have a sensitivity for how much time, money and space all this can take up. My best advice for you if any/all of these are limited, is to develop a binder of plastic coated sheets with pricing of what is available from your suppliers to show prospective customers. Allow them to order the more expensive items through your store with a substantial deposit. Most folks will gladly wait on these high ticket items, freeing up your stores resources for higher turnover product.

Higher and Higher Technology:

Those in the know are aware of "other" filtration modes, ozonizers, protein skimmers (aka foam fractionators), refugiums, plenum and custom undergravel paraphernalia, contactors of all sorts from in-line water treatment devices to specialized reverse osmosis, deionizers, and selective removers/adders of chemicals. If your store(s) deal in marines and/or serious live-plant set-ups you should be offering these units, plus the tools, materials to install them, and the subject of the next section:

The Real Money: Accessories & Filter Media

It was the original Henry Ford who proclaimed he would give a car free to any adult who would agree to purchase all consequent service, maintenance and parts from him. This point is not lost on store owners who realize where the real money is with filtration: the repeat business in media and accessories AND the incidental sales from those repeat customer visits.

Many successful outlets and mail-order companies virtually give-away their higher end filter units, but not the related gear and ongoing maintenance materials. You might well benefit by following their lead.

Merchandising Filters and Related Equipment:

How much space, money can you, should you dedicate to stocking and displaying various aquatic filtration gear, and how should you go about showing it off? A few of my core beliefs:

1) Whatever assortment you settle on, decide to offer one best and an alternative, or good/better/best choices in each category (box, sponge, canister, power filters...). This grants your customers a clear selection, and allows you and your personnel to develop concise pro/con comparisons to illustrate features.

2) Arrange your assortment in a logical, systematic way, let's say left to right, with the assortment arranged to allow comparison and flow, less to more sophisticated, lower to higher price, smaller to larger size...

3) Seal Those Boxes! Tape over openings for all resale filters. Returns for missing pieces, instructions are the bane of our industry. If a potential buyer feels they need to examine the merchandise have your staff assist them or better still...

4) Demonstrate what you sell in pre-made up "kit" set-ups with other appropriate gear, or best, in actual operation on one of your in-store systems. No endorsement beats your using the gear itself; none.

A Conclusion:

How to tell which filters are hot and which are not? The popular brands and offerings of pumps and filters can be discerned with a cursory reading of hobbyist publications like Aquarium Fish, Tropical Fish Hobbyist and Freshwater and Marine Aquarium; read and heed them.

There have been many new styles and great improvements in filters recently; and with a bit of research on your part you can enhance customer interest and knowledge, improve their water quality, while at the same time boosting your bottom line.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Enright, Michael P. 1993. A brief history of home aquarium filtration. FAMA 6/93.

Fenner, Bob. 1992. The right filter for the right freshwater fish. The Pet Dealer 3/92.

Fenner, Robert. 1992. Marine filtration: A retailer's view. The Pet Dealer 5/92.

Fenner, Bob. 1996. Marine aquarium filtration. FAMA 6/96.

Gamble, Sam. 1996. Plenum? FAMA 6/96.

Schiff, Steven J. 1993. Aquarium set-up: Basics of filtration. FAMA 3/93.


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