By providing a reliable and comprehensive supply of frozen and live food options, retailers can build sales and become an indispensable resource for their customers.
A familiar face, expert advice and a wide selection of “customer service” products—these elements, absent from big box and chain stores, can give independent retailers an edge over the competition. And when it comes to customer service products, there’s no better category than frozen and live fish foods. With a little extra effort, these small ticket items can add up to big profits.
Most customers are predisposed to feed their fish nothing but shelf- stable foods. It’s cheaper and easier for them, and if they buy into the idea that most tropical fish can live perfectly well on manufactured foods, it’s going to be difficult to convince them otherwise. Step one in changing their minds is to locate the frozen fish food directly across the aisle from your checkout counter. Require all clerks to ask every customer if they have plenty of frozen food for their fish. This is a quick and easy way to increase sales in this category, but it’s only one of several techniques you should employ to accomplish your goal.
In the aquatic area, you must have signage encouraging people to feed a varied diet to their fish. In addition, as employees catch fish for customers, they should talk about the proper diet for the type of fish being selected. Most people have no idea what fish eat in the wild, so explaining dietary requirements will benefit all parties. Customers will learn something, the fish will have a varied diet and you will make more money by selling a selection of foods—it’s a win-win-win situation.
There are many different frozen foods available, and they can generally be fed to both freshwater and marine species of fish. However, some foods are better than others for reef fish. I find it beneficial to dedicate one freezer to freshwater foods and another to marine. There is a good deal of overlap, but having separate freezers makes it easier for customers to select the proper foods and see all the options for their fish, including ones they may not have considered.
For example, a customer might not instinctively choose to feed squid to freshwater fish, since they wouldn’t find squid in their natural environment. However, this logic can lead you astray—brine shrimp, the single most common frozen fish food, is found in water too salty to support any fish, yet it is almost the perfect food for a vast majority of small tropical species. Of course, the shrimp are thoroughly washed in fresh water before being frozen.
How do you distinguish quality when it comes to brine shrimp? Well, the animals feed primarily on bacteria or algae. Shrimp that live in bacteria-rich water take on a reddish-brown color from their diet, while shrimp that feed on algae have a green cast. Green or red hues are good, but a dark, almost brown color is not.
Mysis shrimp is another popular option. This freshwater shrimp, typically collected in Canada, is much larger than brine shrimp, and fish are highly attracted to its potent odor. Remember, fish find their food by using their olfactory sense more than their vision. After all, not every underwater habitat is as clear as a home aquarium.
Bloodworms are another excellent choice to feed freshwater fish. Marine fish will eat them as well, but it may take them some time to adjust. Bloodworms, which aren’t worms but rather the larvae of a chironomid fly, are mostly cultivated for the aquatics trade, but some are still wild-collected. As the name indicates, bloodworms should always be bright red in color. If they are darker, the larvae were flash frozen after they died, rather than before.
The list of frozen foods for tropical fish is almost endless, with entrepreneurs coming up with new ones on a regular basis. Retailers should carry a diversified selection, but maintain an ample supply of the big three. In particular, offer these in flat packs as well as the convenient cubes. I encourage people to buy the flat packs because first, they get much more for their money, and second, people always feed more when they are portioning out the food by hand.
As for live foods, while these items can easily set you apart from your competition, they are also the most difficult to deal with. Finding a reliable supplier may not be easy, and you must devote space and time to the challenge of maintenance. These live foods often require more care and maintenance than ornamental fishes.
By far the most popular live food item is feeder fish. The term “feeder fish” covers a range of possibilities: goldfish of various sizes, of course, but also shiners, rosy reds, mosquito fish and guppies. Except for guppies, these are all cold-water species, so you will need a system with a chiller, and the water must be well-filtered and free of pathogens. Since feeder fish are cheap, their health is frequently not particularly good. You have the challenge of maintaining them and keeping them free of disease and parasites, so a UV-sterilizer is essential.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to maintain feeder fish in facilities that are not on public display. Some people object to the concept of feeder fish on humanitarian grounds, so having feeders out in the open is asking for trouble. Customers may want to select specimens, but this should never be allowed. No matter what the live food item is, it should be behind closed doors.
Aside from feeders, you will want to stock live shrimp, black worms and ghost shrimp. Each of these presents its own special problems when it comes to maintenance. Brine shrimp must be kept cool, well oxygenated and well circulated, with no dead spots in the holding container. You don’t have to feed them, but you can if you so choose. Black worms must be kept cool as well, and there should be a moderate current over the worms, but not enough to dislodge them. Some shops prefer to store the worms in a refrigerator rigged especially for them, but I have had limited success with this technique since it requires constant monitoring of the animals for pockets of dead worms.
Ghost shrimp are popular food items for smaller, predatory species of tropicals. They are not hard to raise, but they are expensive per-unit, so if you lose too many of them, there goes your profit. A large, low, vat-like tank or tub is the best way to maintain them. Keep a light on them and allow algae to grow so the shrimp have something to feed on, or feed them micro-pelleted fish food.
If you live near coastal areas, you may be able to collect or purchase grass shrimp. They are hardier and larger than ghost shrimp and will survive in a marine tank if not eaten immediately. I really like them as a food for any predatory species of fish—freshwater or marine.
Since your live food items will be off-display, customers may ask to see how fish react to them. There is nothing wrong with getting a sample and feeding the store tanks. However, I would refrain from letting the public see your staff feed live feeder fish to the ornamental fish you are selling.
I have saved the best live food for last because it may be one you never considered. It is commonly sold to fishermen who are going out for a day on the lake. I am speaking of earthworms, specifically the “red wrigglers.” These are bite-sized treats for any fish big enough to swallow them. They usually come in handy plastic containers and there is no need to repackage them. If your store is warm, you might want to keep the containers in a dedicated refrigerator with the temperature control set at 55 degrees.
Carrying live and frozen fish foods is probably the single best decision an aquatic store can make. Customers will come to you on a regular basis just for the foods, but they will undoubtedly go home with other products as well.
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.