A Fresh Approach
Selling live and frozen food presents an array of challenges, but pet specialty stores have much to gain from offering a comprehensive assortment of these options.
When aquatics customers tell me they do not feed frozen or live foods, I usually try to talk them into changing their minds, and the analogy I use is a simple one. Say you love peanut butter and bread. Well, both items are good for you if you don’t overindulge. Together, the two foods provide protein and carbohydrates. In fact, theoretically, a person could probably live off of nothing but these two items for a long time. But you don’t. It’s boring to eat the same things over and over. Variety is the spice of life. Why would you believe that fish would feel any different than you?
Just like humans, fish benefit both physiologically and psychologically from a varied diet. Live and frozen food can be a great supplement to a diet of shelf-stable foods. Of course, selling live and frozen foods is not without its challenges. These foods are often considered premium products with premium prices, and offering them for sale requires some care and effort on the part of retailers. Still, I cannot imagine a worse business decision for a pet specialty retailer than opting out of the category altogether.
This is the type of product category in which independent retailers can shine. It’s a customer-service area that chain and big-box retailers totally eschew. There are, of course, reasons that some businesses prefer not to handle these products. First, both live and frozen foods require a little TLC. Frozen foods must be kept, well, frozen. With the door to the freezer being constantly opened and closed, the equipment must be functioning at 100-percent efficiency. Inexpensive, used equipment may seem appealing, but if it breaks down and you don’t have redundancy taken care of, you can lose an entire freezer full of food.
Live foods are even more demanding. Each type must be handled properly, both in environment and nutrition. Brine shrimp are probably the most common live food offered in pet shops. They don’t necessarily need to be fed, but they do require clean water that is properly oxygenated and kept at a constant temperature. It’s this last parameter that can be the most difficult to achieve, especially in a fish department where water temperatures are best maintained around 80 degrees. Brine shrimp prefer much cooler water, with 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit being optimum to keep losses at a minimum. So, a chiller should be used, and of course, the specific gravity of the water must be high—1.025 to 1.030.
Retailers that are marketing feeder fish as live food need a dedicated space for all their live items. In fact, it is relatively important that live food is maintained in facilities that are not on the retail floor. There are numerous reasons for this, but the best one I can think of is limiting customer selection. This means customers should not be given the option of selecting live food items. If there is a 75-gallon tank filled with 400 cardinal tetras, you don’t let a customer pick the six he wants. Likewise, if someone wants a dozen feeder goldfish, that choice is not his to make.
Selling live food items can quickly make your store a destination retailer. People will come just for the live food, but they will almost certainly purchase other products as well. I have seen lines form on the day black worms arrive. Regular shoppers always know it’s best to get live foods shortly after they come in from the store’s supplier.
What frozen foods should you carry? That’s an easy question to answer—all of them. How will you know what sells unless you try to sell it? There are obvious choices, and those that come as surprises.
I never believed frozen squid would sell, but they do—mainly to people with large predatory marine fish like groupers, moray eels and triggers. Another example would be cubes versus flat packs. Most people have a single tank, so a package of cubed frozen food seems more economical for them. However, as it turns out, that evaluation is inaccurate. Cubed frozen foods are convenient but much less economical if you look at cost per unit of weight. Besides, using a flat pack will give people more options and encourage them to feed more. In general, the only frozen foods I don’t like to sell are those that mix a variety of foods in the same cube or package. There is no way to know what you are getting since everything is sliced and diced.
Cubed foods tend to be more broken up than those in flat packs. If a company shreds a product so it will fit in a cube, it is bound to lose some of its nutritional value just from having the cell walls destroyed. Brine shrimp are a perfect food unless they are macerated in liquid before being packaged. It’s easy to tell. Unadulterated brine shrimp are a rich, dark-red color, and when a bit is melted in water, all the shrimp are whole. Macerated brine shrimp are a light brown, and the majority of the product consists of pieces. Which do you think is best for the fish?
The perfect live food is the one that can live in the tank until the fish are ready to eat it. Items such as black worms, ghost and grass shrimp, and even earthworms come to mind. Yes, earthworms. They are excellent food for large predatory fishes and can survive underwater for many days.
Since live feeder fish are typically cheap, they are not always in perfect health when you receive them. Care must be taken to reject livestock coming from suppliers when it is not healthy. This lesson can be a hard one to learn, but the goal is to avoid having customers coming into your store to tell you that the live food they purchased made their fish sick. Live foods can be a blessing to your bottom line or a curse to customer relations.
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.