One Aquarium at a Time: Marine Depot Shows How Important Knowledge & Customer Service are to E-Commerce Success
5.10.17 Ecommerce

One Aquarium at a Time: Marine Depot Shows How Important Knowledge & Customer Service are to E-Commerce Success

By: Jon McDonald

The Crunch: The world of an aquarium hobbyist is one that is in a constant state of fluidity. With decisions to make regarding tanks, filters, pumps, lighting, and a plethora of other custom options, even an expert can be overwhelmed. Marine Depot, an online aquarium retailer that has been in business since 1998, knows all of the choices well and can help anyone, from novice to aficionado, make the right decision. By employing hobby experts and enthusiasts, Marine Depot ensures customers get not only the best equipment but also the knowledge and responsive service they need.

The internet was built with commerce in mind, hence the creation of web addresses ending in .com — originally meant to identify commercial intent. Practically every product imaginable is now only a few clicks and a credit card number away from being on a consumer’s doorstep in a few days.

And, while that click-and-ship model works for many consumers, others have questions that go deeper than a product specifications page or even an FAQ page. They also aren’t interested in dealing with a customer service department that is neither responsive nor knowledgeable.

Aquarium enthusiasts often find themselves in that boat, and they need more information, context, or guidance than is provided by an online retailer. For those immersed in the hobby, making decisions on everything from tanks to filters to lighting — and understanding how they all fit together — can seem a bit overwhelming.

Marine Depot logo

Marine Depot, which was launched by a self-described ‘reef geek’ in 1998, is on a mission to ease the online frustrations within the hobby by providing not only a wide selection of products but also personal customer service from experienced and passionate fellow enthusiasts.

“Our business is focused on the hobbyist, maybe someone who started out with a small tank and is expanding to more complicated projects like a saltwater aquarium,” said Wayland Wong, President of Marine Depot. “And that is not a product you buy online, put together, and walk away, it takes knowledge and expertise, which is what we provide.”

Marine Depot is a rare e-commerce retailer that takes customer service as seriously as it does its products because the people who work there know the challenges of the hobby. Its business model is designed to give customers the confidence to build their aquarium visions and to be a valuable part of the larger marine retail ecosystem that includes local stores.

From One ‘Reef Geek’ to a One-Stop Shop for Aquarium Needs

In 1997, Ken Wong — Wayland’s brother — was frustrated that there wasn’t a single aquarium hobby store where he lived that could satisfy all of his needs. He found himself visiting different shops around town to get the well-rounded service and advice he desired.

Out of that frustration, an idea was born for a one-stop shop where hobbyists could get reasonably priced equipment and, above all, quality advice from aquarium experts. Ken began by talking with distributors and manufacturers, setting up partnerships to sell items in an online store. From there, things got a little more challenging.

“Now, it takes $20-$30 and a Shopify account to sell on the internet,” Wayland told us. “In 1998, it wasn’t very easy to build a website. Back in those days, you had to code.”

Photo of Marine Depot headquarters

Marine Depot moved into its 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Garden Grove, California, in 2007.

So Ken picked up some software and a coding book and got to work on building his own e-commerce site. He launched Marine Depot in January of 1998 and was able to run it from his apartment until the business grew so large it needed 1,000 square feet of office space in 1999. From there, Marine Depot moved into different locations to support its growing inventory and customer base until moving into its current 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Garden Grove, California in 2007.

Marine Depot’s growth is rooted in the right combination of product selection and expert-level customer interaction, and the company is still passionate about both.

In-Depth Product Knowledge and Personalized Service Improves Customer Experience

When Ken took customer service calls in his apartment in 1998, it was one aquarium hobbyist helping another, and Marine Depot continues to adhere to that strategy. The company employs expert hobbyists — it calls them techs — to advise customers or talk to them about what products might be best for what they want to accomplish.

“Our techs are hobbyists who are on the phone four to five hours a day,” Wayland told us. “And we celebrate positive feedback. When we come through for a customer who is struggling, that really energizes our whole team.”

And not only is the tech team full of aquarium aficionados, but it also goes through a kind of continuing education on the latest products and features that consumers are buying. These weekly training sessions also focus on some of the snags that a customer might encounter.

Collage of Marine Depot eomployees

Marine Depot employs many aquarium enthusiasts who share their passion and knowledge with customers.

“We talk about how to set up new systems and even how to overcome common pitfalls of some products,” Wayland said. “Those are nuances you won’t get in a regular e-commerce transaction or from a click-and-ship store.”

That is why Marine Depot considers its knowledge and customer service as a primary area of distinction compared to other online retailers. The website even has an informative News & How-Tos section that supplies visitors with calculators, charts, and diagrams, as well as other guidance in the form of videos and blog posts.

Marine Depot also attends — and has even hosted — Reef-A-Palooza, billed as America’s largest saltwater aquarium show, which is held three times a year.

The company knows that it must maintain a high level of customer satisfaction and a wide range of inventory to keep its online business successful, but Marine Depot also recognizes the importance of local stores to the hobby.

An E-Commerce Strategy Designed to Supplement Brick-and-Mortar Stores, Not Replace Them

In the expansive commerce world, physical stores can’t be expected to compete with the inventory of online retailers. In the hobby world, though, brick-and-mortar locations are beneficial, and, often necessary — especially when it comes to aquariums.

Photo of Marine Depot President Wayland Wong

Marine Depot President Wayland Wong talked with us about his company’s role in the aquarium hobby.

“We aren’t in business to replace the local fish store; I think we work alongside them,” Wayland said. “They can’t physically stock as much product as we can, so customers that can’t get something from that local store can buy from us. Their health is just as essential to us as ours is to them.”

Marine Depot fills in the gaps that local stores can often leave in knowledge and inventory — the same gaps that Ken found in 1997. But local stores are still vital to the industry because they are most often the supplier of live fish and products of immediate need.

“When it comes to doing a build, we can help customers with the big things,” Wayland said. “But anytime someone needs a small part to finish something off, they can’t wait to order it online. They need to run to the local store and pick it up.”

Catering to hobbyists who want to expand and improve their aquariums while maintaining a personal level of service has made Marine Depot one of the premier sites on the internet for hobbyists, and the company plans on sticking with that formula well into the future.

Staying the Course to Support Passionate Hobbyists

Any product a consumer could ever want is available online, and many e-commerce retailers race to have the lowest price, fastest shipping, or the fewest clicks to order. Marine Depot believes that, while those areas are important, focusing on customer service will allow the company to stand out from the internet crowd.

Because an aquarium enthusiast started Marine Depot, and it employs hobbyists as its customer support team, the company knows the type of investment its customers make and their desire to maximize their purchases.

“It’s not an easy hobby, especially when you are spending hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars,” Wayland told us. “Making the correct decision is crucial, so it is better to get it right the first time.”

That is where Marine Depot has an edge because it has people on staff who have had to make those decisions. For some internet retailers, customer service is an afterthought, but at Marine Depot it is part of the mission because the passion for aquariums runs through the company.