Meal Ticket

Independent retailers face a lot of competition in the packaged diets category, but a well-informed staff and expertly curated selection can secure loyal customers and repeat sales.




Packaged diets can seem like a no-brainer at first—one of the few types of products that are cut and dried. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Independent retailers need to be experts on fish nutrition in order to offer recommendations to customers on the right options for their aquariums. 

Unfortunately, selling foods is not as simple as stacking them and watching them fly off the shelves. Customers need help to find the products that best fit their needs. If people go out the door with the wrong foods, they may not be successful in their aquatic experiences, resulting in the potential loss of a customer. Frankly, few customers actually know which foods are best for the fish they have. Many people simply buy the cheapest food, the food with the fancy packaging or even the food with the familiar label. They are often unaware that there might be a better choice—this is where you come in. 

I recommend extensive signage suggesting that customers talk with one of your expert food and feeding consultants about the right packaged diets for their fish. Additionally, talk to customers about their food needs and adjust your stock to better cater to them, rather than simply restocking existing inventory. Although packaged diets tend to take up more than their fair share of shelf space, aquatic stores should dedicate several aisles to these essential products. Every customer who walks through your front door will need food for their fish, invertebrates, coral, etc. You should have every contingency covered, so no one needs to shop somewhere else for this staple category. 

Ideally, independent stores should concentrate on brands or lines of food that are not sold by other retailers in their general vicinity. Some research may be necessary to do this successfully, but it will pay big dividends in the long run. Instead of carrying the most popular and widespread brands, I recommend you consider fish food producers that are actively researching fish nutrition and introducing new and better foods and feeding concepts. And don’t sell a food unless you have tested it in your store.

Packaged fish food comes in a wide variety of types, with flaked foods being the most popular by far. There are basically two categories of these: staple or complete diets and single-ingredient specialty diets. A staple flake food will contain a variety of flakes, usually of different colors, with each one representing a different ingredient. An example of a single-ingredient flake would be spirulina algae, best accepted by vegetarian fish but usable with others as well. The kind of flaked food you should recommend depends on the population of a customer’s aquarium.

Let’s say a customer is keeping Rift Lake cichlids from Lake Malawi. The majority of these fish are vegetarians, feeding primarily on algae encrusted on the rocks. They are best served using a spirulina flake as the main diet, but this should be supplemented occasionally with a staple flake to add variety. Meanwhile, most Central and South American cichlids are omnivorous. Customers with these fish should primarily use a staple flake, but augment it with a carnivore flake and frozen foods of animal origin.

The size of the flakes also makes a difference. If you are feeding large specimens, large flakes will result in less waste. Very small or juvenile fish should be fed flakes that have been crushed into smaller particles, or one of the diets made especially for fry.

The most important quality of a flake food, at least to the fish, is its odor. Fish have very highly evolved olfactory senses because the water in many habitats is not clear enough to use sight as the primary means of finding food. If a flake smells good, a fish is much more likely to eat it. When you open a can, jar, bag or any container of fish food, the stronger the odor, the more palatable it will be for most fish. Of course, manufacturers know this as well, so some add flavor attractants to the flakes so the fish will feed more aggressively. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the quality of the original protein is not compromised. 

Flake food was always my form of choice when it came to feeding fish in my hatchery. But I used aquariums, just as hobbyists do today. Large commercial fish farms use vats or even ponds to condition fish for breeding. In these facilities, pelleted foods work much better, producing very little waste. Picking up on this, fish food manufacturers have increasingly migrated away from flakes to pellets for consumers. I can say without reservation that a good pellet, produced with high-quality ingredients, is far superior to the vast majority of flaked foods available. 

Your best bet for expanding sales in the fish food department is to recommend both flakes and pellets to all customers. They can alternate, perhaps discovering for themselves which form their fish prefer. In general, the shelf life of a pelleted food is longer than a flake food. This is due to the smaller surface area of the pellets, which protects them from both oxidation and moisture damage. Still, always store packaged foods (opened or unopened) in a cool, dark, dry location. And be certain the lid, cap or bag is tightly closed.

If there is a brand of fish food you prefer over all others, advertise and recommend that one the most. Position your favorite line of food in a high-traffic location, such as on an endcap or directly across the aisle from your checkout counter. Freestanding displays of packaged diets can be located anywhere, so I suggest small satellite kiosks to augment the inventory on the primary fish food aisles.

Even though flakes and pellets make up the bulk of packaged diets, there are a number of other forms. Particularly utilitarian are the flat disc-shaped foods that sink to the substrate for bottom-dwelling fish to enjoy. Feeding sticks that float (at first) are excellent for predatory species to snatch from the water’s surface. Flakes always sink rather quickly unless you sprinkle them on the surface, while pellets and sticks can be manufactured to float for a considerable length of time or sink immediately.

Finally, remember that sales of fish foods typically make up a large percentage of your return business. It is critically important that you have this segment of your inventory tuned to perfection. Every competitor out there sells fish food, so you need to be the one that does it best.

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.


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