Carrying a wide selection of high-quality live and frozen foods unmatched in your area can drive sales across your store’s inventory.
Any store can put canned products on a shelf. That’s not the way to stand out from the crowd. You want to be known as the store with the widest selection of livestock and the most diverse types of food. People will come to you just to purchase the food for their fish—and they will always find other things to buy. It requires some skill to keep live food healthy long enough to sell it, but it is worth the effort.
Your customers who keep predatory species will want feeder fish, usually goldfish, which you can obtain in a variety of sizes, but there are numerous other options. Their availability varies a bit depending on where you are located in the country, but in general, you should be able to obtain golden minnows or dace. These are sold by the bait industry, so look for a supplier in sport fishing stores. They are medium sized, but for customers needing something smaller, feeder guppies or mosquito fish will do quite nicely.
The problem with feeder fish is that you need to keep them alive and healthy. A live feeder fish system requires adequate filtration with good water flow, and UV-sterilization is a must. For native fish, you need a cold-water system, and that means using a chiller. Tropical feeders will be fine at room temperature.
The next most common live feeder item besides fish is brine shrimp. It is a great food for tropicals that stay small but still enjoy catching their dinner. Almost any fish will eat brine shrimp. These crustaceans come from water with a salinity well above sea water. They can live in a saltwater tank indefinitely, but in a freshwater environment, they only last a few minutes. Only feed enough to satisfy the residents. Even in a marine environment, the filtration will usually suck them out of the tank quickly, so hobbyists might want to turn off the filtration for a short time.
Next in popularity are black worms. They are temperate to cold-water animals, and they must be kept in a healthy water current. An alternative setup works temporarily. This consists of a series of small plastic tubs placed in a refrigerator. The cold water slows down the metabolism of the worms so they survive in still water—for a while. Every night, the water in these tubs needs to be poured out and replaced with fresh water. Black worms are maintenance heavy, but people who keep small catfish and picky feeders will buy a portion or two every week, providing the repeat customers you need.
Other great feeder items include grass shrimp, glass shrimp or ghost shrimp. Many people use these terms interchangeably, but make no mistake, there are at least two distinct shrimp in the trade. In my experience, ghost and glass shrimp are the same, and they inhabit freshwater to very slightly brackish environments. These are typically shipped from Florida, where they are cultivated in vats or collected in the wild. The other shrimp is the grass shrimp, which lives in eel grass beds in brackish to marine habitats. This shrimp is fairly bulletproof—if you feed it to a freshwater tank and it does not get eaten, odds are it will adapt to the salinity change and continue to prosper. Its best application is in a reef tank with predatory species. I consider it the perfect live food.
Keeping grass shrimp in your store is quite simple, but it does take up some space. Use a long plastic or acrylic tub, no deeper than 18 inches. Filtration must not produce any major current, because you want the shrimp to sit on the substrate. The filtration intake must be covered with netting so no shrimp get sucked into it. Use fine marine gravel and plant Caulerpa algae. This should grow into a fairly thick bed with a grass-like structure where the shrimp will take up residence. Pick up the shrimp by skimming a large, fine net through the plants. The shrimp will thrive on pelleted food, which will sink to the substrate so it’s not removed by filtration. I have known grass shrimp to live for months in refugiums, and they will reproduce in captivity. The best salinity is around 1.012, but anything as low as 1.009 and as high as 1.025 will be well tolerated. You can also feed these shrimp to the fish for sale in your store, as they are cheaper and safer than feeder fish.
What about frozen foods? There are a bewildering variety of these available for sale. Some are much better than others, both for the fish and your bottom line. Brine shrimp, blood worms, krill, mysis shrimp and seaweed- or algae-based food are quite common. These and most other varieties come in convenient cube packs for easy feeding and in flat packs for custom-portioning. For people who have multiple tanks, the flat packs are the way to go. It will save them money and, perhaps, encourage them to set up more aquariums.
In the freshwater category, you should include baby brine shrimp, daphnia, tubifex worms and beef heart, as well as the classics. The list for saltwater is much longer: scallop, squid, various seaweeds, whole krill, clam, black mussels, shrimp, processed fish and the usual suspects mentioned earlier. Not to be left out of the mix are frozen and refrigerated foods for live coral and related sessile invertebrates. These are extremely important items, since they are at the foundation of a rapidly evolving segment of the aquatics industry. If you want to be on the cutting edge of the trade, you must sell these as well.
Frozen food must be sold in the same style of freezer used in grocery stores. Glass-fronted, well-segmented and clearly marked—these are the trademarks of effective frozen-food merchandising. Locate them at the front of your store, across from the registers. Always have insulated bags available for frozen purchases.
No matter how much live and frozen food you have for sale, it is going to sit there unless you have a substantial customer base. The way to increase your base is to have a great selection of livestock and dry goods at competitive prices. Run regular sales on live and frozen foods. Let’s say your grass shrimp come in on Tuesday— offer them at a discount on Wednesday. You don’t want to do this on a weekend, when your customer load is probably already at its highest.
Keep your live foods in the rear of the store near maintenance equipment and water supplies. Do not house any live feeder items where the public can see them, as this can lead to issues with animal rights activists and customers who want to pick out the feeders themselves. Feeder fish are generally not of a quality to be sold as display fish, but some people will buy them for that purpose. That’s when customers start to get picky. Make certain you have a sign stating there can be no hand-picking of feeder fish. They are usually sold by the dozen, and I typically throw in one or two extra so people feel they’re getting a deal.
Finally, I would like to remind you of a live food that is absolutely perfect for larger freshwater and marine fish—earthworms, or so-called red wigglers. These are basic items in any fishing supply store, and there may be a local distributor who will deliver them (along with live feeders) to your store. Keep them cool in a refrigerator turned up to around 55 degrees. They should always be sold in peat, which is organic and digestible by fish. PB
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.