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Hobbyist Drop-out: The Number One Problem Facing Your Business & Our Industry

Bob Fenner  

Many studies over the years have cited sources of business loss in the aquarium interests; lack of availability of hardy livestock, paucity of helpful information, poor merchandising and general business practices within the trade (more or less "solved" with the proliferation of mass merchandisers), the perception that aquatics is onerous in the way of maintenance'¦ and occasionally, what is and has been to me the single largest cause of lack of vitality and growth in our trade; the high turnover in hobbyist-customer base.

By some reliable estimates the average real hobbyist (excluding goldfish bowls and few-gallon desk-top death traps) stays in the interest less than a year; this is a real problem, or opportunity for those looking to build their business.

Ask yourself, "who is my best prospective customer?" Let me give you a clue, it's the same best advertisement/promotion of aquarium use in your area as well. Yes, "it's" your existing customer base, in particular the enthusiastic, avid intermediate to advanced groups that breed, display, and maintain live plant, fish-only and full-blown reef systems. These folks do the maximum to inspire and inform new customers by example, advice and sharing their excess spawns. The most successful geographic areas and their independent stores have a strong and growing core of these excellent hobbyists, do you?

Do you dispute this impressive value of long-term serious hobbyists in sustaining/boosting your business? Good, then I'd like to spend the rest of this brief essay offering how you can and should do culture such individuals.

Hobbyist/Customer Attrition: What Can Be Done?

You & Your Attitude: You are your best, in fact in the final synthesis, the only person who can effectively represent your business and the trades interests to your public. I can't emphasize how crucially important it is to hobbyists that we "be there" with useful information, interest and compassion when they have questions, problems, even suggestions.

I recently had a call from a fellow in the northeast who had a concern over his multi-thousand dollar reef set-up. He told me that upon telephoning another hobby-magazine writer, he'd been rebuffed'¦ "Oh he's too busy writing articles and books to take hobbyist calls". Too busy? Can you imagine how damaging such an expressed attitude is? As an "industry person" these last three decades I assure you, the folks making these queries are THE REASON I'm here; I will never refuse their company or the opportunity to serve them. And neither should you.

It is only natural for beginners to experts alike to feel discouragement and alienation with their captive aquatic worlds when "things" go wrong. Livestock losses, including complete wipe-outs do occur; much could be done to limit their ultimate worst impact; the hobbyist leaving the interest. Here's some of my suggestions for you to consider.

Yourself: Content and Format. Basically, how much do you know and how good are you at relating it to others? Back to averages, the mean time for retailers in our trade in the U.S. is only around two years. Not long at all. How much business savvy along with product and livestock knowledge do most retailers possess? None so much that they cannot improve. Knowledge is Power: be powerful. The field grows faster than a single human can keep up, but that's still no excuse for not trying. Read above all else. Read the popular hobby magazines; this is the same material that your advanced aquarists are seeing and you should be scrutinizing it closely. Trends, new products, the latest in livestock imports; they're all there. And the trade magazines. Writers and publishers who with burning desire want you to succeed put their best in writing to aid your business monthly. Read the industry publications for their face value as well as what they say "in between the lines". They are indeed anomalous; invaluable, yet free of charge to the trade. Amazing.

Also look outside the pet industry for more mainstream printed business advice. Business Week, The Wall Street Journal and other sources list current best sellers. Allow these sources to bring you new ideas and insights to improving your store(s).

Hobby conferences and shows, and business trade shows are absolutely golden opportunities for getting the low-down on new and established products and livestock'¦ as well as essential battery recharging. By all means, relive the fun and excitement of the interest and business by attending these events. They're stimulating, educational and profitable.

Your Store: Speaks volumes about you; your approach to the field as business, attitudes toward your living charges, and goals as a business person. Is it a warm, friendly hobbyist-oriented place with vivid displays as examples of what your clientele might aspire to have in their homes and workplaces? I realize that the tanks most of the livestock you sell can't be fully stocked with live plants, décor or live rock, but a few designer set-ups are paramount to generating and continuing hobby interest.

Does it speak of your knowledge of the field, artistic abilities, and astute business practices? On the latter, do you rotate displays, employ seasonal "hooks", keep your staff bright and eager to serve? Is there enough of what it takes to bring in your new and especially year-plus "old" customers? How will you make it better?

Please excuse another personal anecdote. One of my all-time favorite endorsement and sales-tools involves a simple gravel vacuum hung over a sign announcing, "Lose Muck Now, Ask Me How". We sold gross after gross of these important maintenance tools and related paraphernalia before the days of Python Products, by simply demonstrating their use in front of customers. A huge part of the trepidation of new aquarists is how much time and trouble their aquarium may require for upkeep. All easily dispelled by a simple demo.

Cloze: Look around you; successful stores have a mix of new and established customers, in particular a core of "advanced" types that keep, show, and breed the best of what's available in the aquaristic interests. Imagine the effect of keeping the average aquarist in the trade for just a few more months'¦ incredible.

` You should cherish and cultivate your relationships with these hobbyists; they are your single best means of growing your business. The ways of doing so are several, but undaunting. Above all else be informed and accessible to your customer base. Read, attend conferences and shows, hobbyists and trade; participate in your local aquarium societies undertakings. Remember who your best future customer is and where they are likely to come from; your existing intermediate to advanced consumers; don't let them leave the hobby for lack of your help and enthusiasm. In fact, make them your allies in creating new long-term customers.


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