The Perfect Packaged Diet

With the proliferation of packaged fish diets on the market these days, hobbyists are turning to retailers for help in finding the most ideal products for their fish.


I remember walking into a pet shop in 1965, the first year I ever kept tropical fish, looking at the selection of packaged fish foods and thinking, “How do I know which of these I should feed my fish?” Segue to the present and imagine the angst experienced by novices as they stare at a wall of fish food. Back in the old days, there were only a few brands. Today, there are so many choices that no single store can—or should—carry all of them. So how do retailers know which foods to carry and how best to market them to customers?

The key to successfully retailing packaged fish diets is to have a useful, working knowledge of the subject and the ability to share that vital information with customers—an area in which pet specialty retailers can truly differentiate themselves from the competition. 

Big-box stores are in business to make money, as are independent pet specialty retailers. However, unlike the big-box competitors, indie specialty stores are the backbone, the lifeblood, and the heart and soul of fishkeeping. Without them, the tropical fish hobby would die off in short order. Their knowledge and passion for this business can never be matched by endless aisles of merchandise. And since fish food is at the very foundation of this industry, it is the most important item specialty retailers sell.

Still, as we all know, it is next to impossible to personally wait on every single customer who comes into the store. Many of them come and go with their purchases and never speak to any employees except at the cash register. There is nothing wrong with this, but if you see someone standing in the fish food aisle and taking an inordinate length of time to shop, the odds are that they can use some help. Here’s a good way to do something about that. First, put the fish food in a prominent location where people working at the front counter can see the comings and goings in that department. This will allow you to help more of your customers (as well as discourage shoplifting of these  often pocket-sized items). 

Secondly, even though people are frequently reluctant to seek out help, you can provide a tool for them to use. Place a buzzer right in the middle of the fish food section with a sign underneath that reads, “Help Me, My Fish Need the Right Food.” If a customer pushes the buzzer, they should be guaranteed help within two minutes. This is a simple, painless method for someone to request help. You will be surprised to discover how many people will take advantage of this service. It’s customer satisfaction to the max. And while you are at it, you can convince the customer to try more than one selection. It’s extra sales with a minimum of effort.

Over the years, while the variety of items finding their way into packaged diets has grown, the value of many of these items as nutritional components is, at best, questionable. In other words, there is a lot of filler in many fish foods, and this material is of extremely limited value to the fish. Still, a food of low nutritional value but heavily spiked with flavor attractants will be gobbled up posthaste. Fish cannot tell which foods are the best for them. You are a better judge of that.

Customers should always read the contents on a package of fish food, but even when they do, it doesn’t mean they understand what they are reading. You and your employees should be the interpreters of this jargon. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Staple or basic diets typically imply that everything a fish needs nutritionally is in the food. While this matter is up for debate, let’s move over to the specialty diets. If you are trying to feed vegetarian fish, such as a headstanders or Leporinus, you will want a food that appeals to these species. The ingredients should be primarily derived from plants, not animals. Many foods aimed at plant-eating fish have animal protein as their first, or primary, ingredient. 

High-quality plant-based foods that would be good for fish are frequently expensive to cultivate, grow or collect. Low-grade, animal-based proteins are available from animal-processing facilities at cheap prices. It’s common practice to find these substandard or incomplete herbivorous fish food products. What you should look for are foods with items like algae as the primary ingredients. Further down the list, it’s perfectly acceptable to have an animal protein, since it will serve as a good appetite stimulator by helping the food smell good to the fish. It’s all about evoking the olfactory response first and satisfying the dietary requirements second. 

What about the reverse of this equation? Suppose you are looking for a really good source of animal protein for carnivorous species of fish. Obviously, animal proteins should come primarily from prey that a fish might actually encounter in the wild. This is unlikely to be anything that comes from cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, etc. You should look for ingredients such as fish, shrimp, squid, crabs, etc. These are higher-priced sources of protein than items that are usually farmed. 

Flake foods are the gold standard, but they are not the perfect food for many fish. Large specimens frequently inhale a cloud of flakes only to exhale most of it through their gills. After that, the fish may or may not scavenge the substrate for leftovers if the filter does not suck everything up. A better choice than flakes would be large pellets, sticks or discs. These can be taken in and crushed by the jaw or pharyngeal teeth. This way, very little goes to waste.

Try to convince your customers to feed a variety of packaged fish foods in a variety of forms. After a short period of experimentation, it will become abundantly clear which items the fish prefer. After that, it will only be necessary to tweak the diet if new types of fish are introduced to a tank. Even people can get bored feeding the same foods to their fish, so you should encourage experimentation as long as the results are positive.

If you decide to start carrying a new fish food, be certain you are doing it for the right reasons. Making more money is a good thing, but not at the expense of your customer’s good will and their fish’s health. There are some really good fish foods out there, and I highly recommend stocking the brands that the big-box stores eschew. You can’t compete with them on price, so go the other route and sell what they don’t or, in a few cases, can’t stock. It’s always good to be a leader and not a follower.

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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