Matt Clarke answers some of the most common questions about buying aquarium and pond gear online, and points readers in the direction of some specialist dealers.
Why buy online?
As online shopping has grown in popularity, so too has the number of aquarium stores offering their goods over the Net. For those who neither have the time, transport or inclination to travel miles to visit their preferred store, online aquarium retailers are a welcome addition.
Although we all like to visit shops to buy certain things, particularly livestock, in a real bricks-and-mortar shop, growing numbers of people are buying their gear online. And as a result, an increasing number of retailers are branching out and realising that it's relatively easy to set-up an ecommerce side to their business.
Recent polls by Practical Fishkeeping have shown that fishkeepers are very price conscious. When we asked "Is fishkeeping equipment too expensive?" a massive 76% said "Yes". Likewise, a few years ago when we polled readers on their buying habits, 65% already shopped online. I wouldn't mind betting that this figure is now a little higher.
You can often choose from a greater range of products than those held in your local shop, and they're virtually always available at much lower prices, so there are some bargains to be had if you want to shop around and seek them out.
That said, the aquarium trade wouldn't be sustainable without bricks-and-mortar stores, so you should still support them as much as you can, too.
Is buying online any different to buying in a shop?
When you buy online from a UK-based company many of your rights are much the same as they are when you buy from a shop.
Just as in a normal shop, goods need to be clearly described. After you've purchased you should also get a confirmation email detailing what you've purchased, so you can contact the store if there's been a mistake with the order.
You're also entitled to a cooling off period that you don't get in a normal shop. If you don't like something for whatever reason, you can send it back to the shop and get a full refund.
New regulations introduced on January 1st this year also state that by law online retailers need to include their postal address, VAT number and company number, where applicable, on their site. Most also provide a telephone number. If they don't, you should perhaps wonder why.
How do I know my transaction will be safe?
Using your credit or debit card to purchase goods online is probably just as safe as it is buying goods in a shop, but there are some things to look out for.
There is as yet no equivalent to Amazon.com for the aquarium market, and most of the companies trading in the UK are relatively small. As a result, they tend to use specialist third-party merchants - such as banks - to handle transactions.
The products are displayed on their normal, insecure websites, but when you make your payment you'll normally be transferred to a merchant site, such as Worldpay, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland.
When you hand over your credit card details your details should be encrypted with a technology called Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which keeps them away from prying eyes when they're travelling over the Net.
Before you enter your card details, check that the address starts with https:// and not http://. You should also see a little padlock icon in your browser, and if you're using Firefox, the address bar might also change colour to indicate that you're using a secured connection.
It doesn't matter if the site you are shopping on is not itself secured with SSL, so an http:// address on that is fine (and the norm) if you're not providing highly confidential data, like your card details.
Some of the more sophisticated sites take payments seemingly within their own site. Providing the address starts with https:// you should be fine.
How can I be safer when shopping online?
The shop you're buying from might be as secure as Fort Knox, but that won't make an iota of difference if your computer is insecure. Use an up-to-date browser, like Firefox, and make sure that your computer is trojan- and virus-free with all of the latest software updates. Make sure you've got a firewall switched on.
How can I get extra protection?
Use a credit card. If you're spending over 100, you might get protection by the Consumer Credit Act if there's a problem. If you've purchased stuff from an overseas company it can be more difficult to sort things out, so we recommend sticking to UK businesses where you can.
Are the goods always in stock?
A lot of companies do not hold all of their goods in stock. When you place your order for, say a massive metal halide lighting system, they might then order that from their supplier, who will deliver it to you from their warehouse.
What happens if I want to return something?
Under the UK Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations, you get a seven day cooling off period and you can send things back. Traders are allowed to define procedures for returns, which need to be supplied.
The cooling off period doesn't apply to , magazines, DVDs or perishable items - including livestock, one would guess.
If you've ordered something massive, like a pre-formed pond, and it needs to be collected, you could be charged for the cost of having it collected.
Check out the company's website if you need to make a return, and drop them a line to arrange its return. If you're posting it, get proof of postage from your Post Office, and make sure you get it insured. The Post Office sometimes lose things...
What happens if my order doesn't turn up?
Online retailers should give you an indication of when your order is supposed to be turning up. If it doesn't arrive by the date you agreed when you ordered, you can get a full refund. If the shop doesn't or can't state a date for delivery, you have to wait 30 days before you're entitled for a refund if it fails to materialise.
If goods don't turn up, it's always worthwhile dropping the store a line. Keep a record of what was said or emailed, just in case. If you have difficulties with your transaction, your best bet is to contact the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for expert advice.
Can I buy livestock online, too?
Yes, a number of suppliers are now offering fish and invertebrates online. Aquarium and pond plants have been available this way for decades. It's important to double-check delivery times if you're buying livestock, as you need to be around to unpack the box when it arrives.
If you're buying fish, you should also check whether heat packs are included, and what method is being used to send the fish. Couriers are fine, but the Royal Mail doesn't allow fish to be sent by post, so do check this before you order.
Always use your common sense. Don't order fish when it's really hot or really cold, and don't buy things on impulse.
Where can I find online retailers to buy stuff from?
The Featured sites section of the Practical Fishkeeping website is a very good place to start.
There are lots of specialist online aquatic shops listed here, so if you check through the listed sites here and elsewhere in the Directory section you should be able to find some bargain deals.
This article is exclusive to the Practical Fishkeeping magazine website and may not be reproduced in any format without written permission.