Living for Profit

Live and frozen foods can be a major profit center for retailers that choose to devote the time and staff to nurturing this important but delicate department.


Set the time machine to the year 1967. The location is the Philadelphia metro area. While there were no chain or big-box stores at the time, some independent mega-stores were making it tough for smaller establishments to compete on price. Many small stores countered this competition by stocking a wide selection of exotic fish, and a few shops offered an almost bewildering selection of live foods. They were catering to the authentic hobbyists who still existed in large numbers back then. One store, in particular, had an item for sale that no one else could match—live bloodworms.

These bloodworms I am speaking of are not the earthworm-like creatures that fishermen use to catch certain types of game fish. They are, instead, the larvae of a fly—specifically Chironomus plumosus. This insect is a non-biting member of the family Chironomidae. It is an important item in the food chain in most freshwater biotopes east of the Mississippi. In fact, it can be found in virtually every aquatic and semi-aquatic habitat, including anything from standing water in cattle hoof-prints to holes in trees to center cups in orchids and bromeliads—even in rotting vegetation and wet soil. In this way, bloodworms are very much like mosquitoes, but again, they do not bite.

The life span of bloodworms is short, since they metamorphize into flies rather quickly. So in order to stock these live items, it is necessary to collect them no less than every three to four days; otherwise, the product will almost literally fly away. Once you flash-freeze bloodworms, they make excellent frozen food.

Around the time that live foods were getting popular in small stores, I had friend that would head out with his collecting gear twice a week, almost year round, to stalk the bogs near the Delaware River, where bloodworms could be found in impressive numbers. Since mosquitoes exhibited equally massive populations during warm months, he would don what looked like a bee-keeper’s outfit that had been rigged for aquatic environments.

One day, my friend took me on one of his bi-weekly safaris to stalk the wild bloodworm. The locations are not that hard to find. First, look for flying insects that resemble mosquitoes. If you look close enough—between bites—you can tell the difference. Of course, while collecting bloodworms, you are bound to run into mosquito larvae as well, but the two items are collected in different ways. First, all the mosquito larvae are netted off the surface of the water where they float. This bounty is placed in minnow buckets like those carried by fishermen. Then, you walk through the previously inspected area and drag your feet through the muck on the bottom—that is where you will find the bloodworms. Bloodworms prefer to live on or in the substrate, while mosquito larvae mainly float at or near the surface.

After four hours of trudging through mud, sometimes above your knees, you probably have enough product for the day. Rush this back to the garage where you have troughs of running water to rinse off the mud. If you are not quick enough, the larvae will succumb due to lack of oxygen. The mosquito larvae must be flash-frozen immediately, since it would not be prudent to sell live mosquito larvae for obvious reasons. After my experience in the mud flats, I never complained about the price of a package of frozen bloodworms again, and I realized that the store that sold them must have made a huge percentage of its profit strictly on this one item.

Live and/or frozen foods are very important items for any store that wants to distinguish itself among the competition. The other upside to these live/frozen foods is that they are high-profit products in today’s pet market.

Now, I could tell you another story about collecting live tubifex worms from the Delaware River, but I will save that for another day. What I will say, however, is that today’s black worms are the clean version of the old tubifex product. Fortunately, black worms are ranch-raised, so it is a lot easier to control the quality of the worms and a whole lot easier to collect.

If you are going to be a destination store for people looking for unusual or rare fish, it makes sense to offer a large selection of frozen items and live foods in your repertoire. Having that assortment can also help you set yourself apart from rival stores. However, it will require a little diligence on your part, since nothing worth doing ever comes easy.

Start by reviewing your frozen and live stock. Many of the frozen foods will be specific to marine fish. Coral foods, on the other hand, may be presented in a variety of ways. Some coral foods are bottled liquid-suspension products that can be put on a shelf. Some coral foods are live and require refrigeration. Others are not live, yet still require refrigeration. Be certain your signage clearly indicates which are which. Shelf life applies to these bottled “live foods”—so stay alert to what is happening with your product.

Frozen foods need to be front and center. The only way to accomplish this is with glass-fronted freezers that present the food item by item, rather than thrown together into a massive pile to be sorted through like leftovers at a rummage sale. Employ signage throughout the livestock department to suggest specific foods for specific fish.

If at all possible, try to segregate your live food items into a central location. It will make customer service much easier. Feeder fish are notorious for carrying a wide variety of bacterial infections and parasites. The best way to minimize the danger is to employ heavy filtration and massive UV-sterilization. Although it will be expensive, try to maintain different types of feeders on their own filter systems. This should prevent cross-contamination, provided you use dedicated nets and collection containers.

Live foods need to be fed in order to stay healthy enough to be sold. Since system loads are likely to be high, supply plenty of filtration, using all three types to ensure success. Perhaps, the single most important thing you can do for your feeders is change the water. Don’t just do it when restocking; do it on a schedule, so you can be certain it has actually been done. Feeder systems will have the highest turnover rate of any of your livestock tanks, so perform regular maintenance. One person needs to be in charge of this work. Otherwise, there will be no continuity, and no one will be willing to take responsibility for problems that arise.

Live food can also be an important part of caring for in-store livestock. Let’s say you have a tank of peppermint pikeheads. It’s your first shipment of these rare Southeast Asian rheophilic denizens, so you want everything to be perfect. You have them housed in a long tank with a strong current running from one end to the other. The substrate is composed of small river-rock stones with patches of live plants scattered here and there. There is a tight-fitting top in place, since pikeheads are good jumpers. Lighting is subdued, but the environment is not dark. Water chemistry and temperature is by the book. Now, all you need are live foods, since this notorious pikehead will surely accept no food unless it is a moving target. Here, your best bets will be half-grown guppies and ghost shrimp. They might eat a few live brine shrimp, but pikeheads live to hunt, and that means having the proper food items.

Lastly, lots of signage and plenty of employee recommendations are your best salesmen when it comes to both live and frozen foods. And the most important message employees need to convey to customers is that fish need to be fed more than once daily. Banish the popular perception among customers that fish need to be fed only flake foods once a day. Fish need to be fed two to three times a day, and as wide a variety of foods as they will accept—end of story.

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.

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