July 8, 2014

At aquarium store Fintastic in Ayrsley, buyers and browsers are both welcome

The one-stop aquarium store is not just a place to shop. With customers traveling more than an hour, Fintastic is “a destination” for browsing.

“This little guy is a terrorist.”

Meghan Hirth holds up a Ziploc bag. Barely visible at the bottom of the bag is a dark-colored fish about the size of a nickel.

It’s a pea puffer fish, and Hirth has taken it back to Fintastic because it ate her snails and hurt her beta fish.

Hirth’s two young sons dart around the store, looking into brightly lit aquariums with colorful fish. They stop at a bigger tank – this one with two 12-year-old Bamboo sharks, a main attraction at the store.

“It’s like a free aquarium day,” Hirth says of Fintastic.

Having enough display space for more than 425 aquariums filled with fish, plants and corals is a main reason why owner Greg Sowers moved his aquatic life store to Steele Creek’s Ayrsley development nearly a decade ago. By relocating from South Boulevard to the more than 10,000-square-foot space off Interstate 485, Sowers hoped to make Fintastic more of a regional attraction.

Today, customers often travel up to an hour and a half just to come to the store, Sowers says. Once there, they’ll find components for a whole aquarium system – from rocks to filtration – or even the supplies to build an outdoor pond, which Fintastic advertises with a pond of its own outside the store.

Aquarium connoisseurs in the market for a new fish have a range of options, from zebra danios that cost 75 cents to crosshatch triggers that ring up $2,600 a pair.

But Sowers says Fintastic is not just about selling fish. He wants to bring in browsers as well. That’s why the store holds public events. Its 22-year anniversary celebration, held in May, featured one of the store’s most over-the-top displays: Two live “mermaids” swimming in a tank with the sharks.

“This,” Sowers says, “is a destination fish store.”

From audits to aquariums

Sowers’ own interest in aquatic life started when his parents bought him his first aquarium – a Christmas present when he was 6. It’s a love that led Sowers, 51, to invest $40,000 of his personal funds over the years to feed his hobby.

After spending 5 1/2 years at Arthur Andersen LLP and a year and a half at United Technologies Corp., Sowers decided auditing was not for him. Instead, he followed an old passion – fish.

He has two tanks at home – one in each of his daughters’ rooms. He says it brings him joy to see his daughters and their friends take an interest in the fish.

Sowers told the Observer in 2004 he invested about $750,000 to relocate to Ayrsley. He has since catered to customers with exotic interests.

Last year, Sowers says, he sold two aquariums to a company in Baltimore for a grand total of $200,000. In Charlotte, he’s seen a couple of individuals spend more than $100,000 for a system.

But times aren’t always good for the aquarium industry.

“I sell purely a luxury, discretionary hobby,” Sowers says.

After the economy collapsed in 2008, Sowers says he saw a 40 percent decline in revenue over six months for both the retail and maintenance side of the business. Fintastic went from 75 customers who used their aquarium-keeping services to just 45 in the span of months.

Then the company faced a new challenge – the Internet and all its online distractions. Aquarium-keeping as a family hobby was no longer a priority for many households, Sowers says.

That’s part of the reason he looked for a different marketing approach. Sowers started investing in search engine optimization, or SEO, which enables Fintastic to be on the first page of search results when someone Googles the phrase “1000-gallon aquarium” – no matter where you are in the country.

He says he now spends $1,000 a month on SEO and $400 a month on social media marketing.

And he thinks it’s paid off.

“We got back what we lost and grew 10 percent,” Sowers says.

Plenty to see

To attract browsers as well as shoppers, Sowers allows free school tours. The big anniversary event, held during the first weekend in May, was meant to attract new customers. The professional mermaid swimmers looked like the real deal, complete with fin tails and hair that floated behind them as they swam in front of their audience.

But the event proved so popular that overcrowding prevented attendees from shopping.

“It was a logjam,” Sowers said.

Anniversary-weekend celebrations at Fintastic typically bring in about $80,000 in revenue. Sowers says this year’s event only made $55,000. “We had over 1,100 new people, and we couldn’t sell,” he says.

But days after the event, things started to change. The new customers who may have initially felt overwhelmed came back, and they spent money – a lot of it.

From May 5 to June 19, Sowers reported $50,000 brought in by new customers. He says Fintastic asks customers whether they are new to help guide marketing strategy.

“It has actually created hobbyists,” he says of the anniversary weekend.

Sowers calls being an entrepreneur a “dream job.” Employee Ehab Elmenshawi also loves the work.

“My first day on the job, I asked Greg, ‘Are you really paying me for this?’ ” Elmenshawi says.

Elmenshawi says he picked up aquarium-keeping from his father. It was a hobby he missed when he spent 10 years in Iraq in the Army and later the Air Force. After serving, Elmenshawi came to Charlotte with a woman he met while deployed.

He says the work helps him cope with stress after returning from combat.

“It’s therapeutic to me,” says Elmenshawi, adding that he doesn’t need the job for money.

“I just like fish.”

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