Beyond Fish Flakes
Retailers can help aquarium hobbyists move beyond feeding their aquatic pets only flakes and pellets by educating them on the many nutritious live and frozen foods on the market.
Fish foods come in all shapes and sizes. There are shelf-stable, frozen, live and even refrigerated foods. A pet shop or fish store that specializes in selling aquatic livestock is obligated to carry all types of foods. Retailers’ presentation techniques will greatly influence how successful they are in selling the more unusual items. In fact, if you expect to sell any significant amount of food other than flakes and pellets, you have to be prepared for the challenges posed by stocking and selling them.
Some stores can make money by selling items more commonly thought to be used as bait for fishing rather than for feeding ornamental fish. In many areas of the country, the local pet shop can serve the same function as a live-bait retailer; it all depends on the location. I would suggest carrying live bloodworms, night crawlers, red wigglers (earthworms), shiners and chubs. All of these can be used as bait to catch fish with a hook and line, but there are numerous aquarium fish that will eat them as well.
In addition, you should stock rosy reds, guppies and goldfish as feeder fish. Other classic live foods include brine shrimp, black worms, glass larvae, ghost shrimp, grass shrimp and even the marine macro-algae Caulerpa (for vegetarian-loving marine fish). Many stores with large saltwater departments grow their own Caulerpa and sell it in clumps as fish food and to stock refugium sumps.
In the 1960s, living in Philadelphia—a city that was virtually the birthplace of the aquarium hobby in this country, thanks to people like William T. Innes and a handful of dedicated serious hobbyists—I could walk into any one of several mega-fish stores and buy live tubifex worms, daphnia, Cyclops, bloodworms (chironomid fly larvae) and, of course, brine shrimp. In addition to these, the stores offered foods for people who were breeding fish and needed to feed larval or just-hatched fry. I could purchase brine shrimp nauplii, microworms, wingless fruit flies, vinegar eels and something called “infusoria.” This infusoria was a cocktail of virtually microscopic animals and plants created by infusing a clump of hay with a living broth, putting this mixture in a Mason jar and sitting it in the sunlight. In two or three days, the numbers of infusoria would multiply exponentially and provide live food for the smallest of fish fry, such as bettas.
Believe it or not, there is a parallel to this live micro-food pantry today, but it is relegated to the marine segment of the trade. You can carry live copepods to feed picky marine species (mandarin dragonets, for example) and live cultures of rotifers for customers who want to try their luck at breeding clownfish or dottybacks. However, it is a niche market, and you must be certain you are located in an area where you can sell these items.
There are downsides to stocking live foods, especially feeder fish. First, it may be difficult to find a company that can supply you with these items. It would be advantageous to have them delivered to your door when you need them, but that may not be feasible. Certainly, feeder fish are not the type of merchandise you can afford to have delivered by air freight, and door-to-door freight delivery might be even more costly. If you are able to secure a reasonable source for feeders, your next challenge will be figuring out a way to maintain them. Since feeders are inexpensive, they are probably not raised or maintained under optimal conditions, meaning their health may be questionable.
Many, if not most, feeder fish are not native to tropical waters. They come from temperate environments, so they do not handle warm water temperatures well, especially when they are crowded together. You will need to use a chiller on items such as goldfish, rosy reds, shiners and chubs. It is best to employ a flow-through filtration system with a series of in-line vats or tubs all connected to a central sump with good biological filtration. The use of a UV-sterilizer is highly recommended. The benefits to your bottom line are twofold. First, you will make a substantial profit margin on all live foods you sell. Second, and maybe even more importantly, it will draw people back into the store on a regular basis. This is bound to result in auxiliary sales of items unrelated to live foods. Think of live foods as ambassadors of good will to your customers. You know people need these foods, so you are providing a customer service by stocking them. Your reward is extra income from both the primary product (live foods) and and secondary items.
In the Freezer
Live foods have obviously been around forever, while frozen foods only came along once the freezer became a common and everyday household appliance. Back in the 1950s, peas and corn came in cans until someone perfected the freezing and storage of fresh vegetables. The same is true of fish foods; there has been an explosion of products over the past few decades that are in frozen form. Frozen fish foods maintain a high level of nutritional value if they are not overly processed before they are frozen. To me the best frozen fish foods are the ones especially formulated to feed ornamental aquarium fish. Some consumers think that frozen seafood or meat from the grocery store is cheaper and just as nutritious as what a pet shop sells. If you prepare your talking points, you should be able to convince these customers otherwise.
Stocking frozen foods requires some planning, since you must calculate how much of each item to buy so that you never run out; nothing turns a customer off faster than hearing the words “out of stock.” While this applies to all goods, it is particularly important to be in-stock on consumable products.
Today, there are two basic presentations for frozen fish foods: flat packs and cubes. People are drawn to the convenience of cubes because feeding them is a no-brainer. Popping four frozen cubes of brine shrimp into a cup and melting it with some tank water is simple, especially compared to the drudgery of taking out a flat pack and trying to guesstimate how much your fish need. Frankly, feeding fish should not be a “throw in the tank and forget about it” activity. A fish tank owner should embrace the act of feeding.
I believe that frozen fish food should not be thawed out—and basically liquefied—when it is fed. Instead, the fish owner should hold the cube or piece of food in his hand and move it under water to slowly dissolve the liquid around the whole food pieces. Fish will quickly learn to take this food directly from the feeder’s hand. The food retains more of its nutritional value when dissolved this way, allowing the fish to consume chunks of food. The feeder should also endeavor to broadcast some food around the tank so that all the fish can have their share.
Freezers in the store stocked with frozen fish food should always be glass-fronted, so the product is visible at all times. I strongly recommend one freezer (or more) for foods suitable for freshwater fish, and another for foods primarily consumed by marine fish and invertebrates. Keep the marine foods in the saltwater department so your employees don’t have to leave their station in order to sell or recommend foods. Freshwater items, on the other hand, are best displayed near the checkout counter to remind people to stock up on fish food. Also, clerks working registers can easily wrap frozen foods in newspaper and/or plastic bags to insulate them for the trip home.
The category of refrigerated foods is still fairly small, but it is significant when it comes to feeding corals and some species of finicky fish. There are foods in liquid suspension that are both date and heat sensitive, so they must be refrigerated. Also, there are live foods that require cool temperatures in order to slow down their metabolism while they are being held prior to use. This applies to cultures of live bacteria that are used to cycle new tanks, remove sludge from old tanks and feed species of invertebrates that consume bacteria as a food (sponges, gorgonians, some SPS corals, etc).
Live feeder fish have been an issue in some parts of the world for animal rights organizations. They classify it as animal cruelty. Many customers buy feeder fish just because they get a kick out of seeing their pets eat live food. At times, I have seen other types of customers express dismay when one fish eats another. For this reason, and to maintain a relatively low profile as far as live feeders are concerned, I prefer to only advertise these items inside the department. In other words, I don’t plaster signs all over the store directing people to the feeder section. You should also think twice about putting this information on your store’s website. It’s a double-edged sword.
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.