The Latest on Invertebrates
Retailers should stock a variety of invertebrates for both beginners and veterans to stay relevant in the aquarium business.
It’s about time that the world of freshwater invertebrates makes a serious challenge to the preeminence of their marine cousins. For too long, coral reef shrimp, snails and crabs have been the best selling members of this category. Let’s not lose track of history, however. From the very beginning of the aquarium hobby in this country, there were many invertebrates maintained, both fresh and saltwater in origin. Unfortunately, the marine species were rarely available commercially. Only people who lived near the coast could collect these and expect to keep them alive by transporting seawater back to their homes.
It was only after World War II, when the transportation of fish by air became common, that it was possible to collect marine fish and invertebrates, and expect them to survive to inland locations. Much later it was discovered that soft and stony corals could also be harvested and sold to consumers. Yes, corals are invertebrates, but the main focus of this column will be motile invertebrates, not the sessile species. If your shop has not joined the “shrimp invasion,” all I can say is get on the boat fast or you will be left standing dockside wondering how you missed out on a powerful new category of invertebrate sales. I am speaking, of course, about ornamental freshwater shrimp.
Thought to have originated from miniature species of shrimp native to China, crystal shrimp have been bred and genetically manipulated in Japan into a wide variety of patterns. Red and black are the two basic body colors, with white being the interjected wild card. These vary in price according to how close they match a standard set down by crystal shrimp clubs and national organizations throughout many countries of the world. Individual specimens have sold for as much as $1,000.
When it comes to sales potential, there is nothing small about freshwater crystal shrimp, but the animals themselves are rarely above an inch in length. The major problem for you as a retailer is learning how to merchandise them to your best advantage. I recommend establishing a miniature section in your store. Shrimp are not the only small things showing up; there are also numerous species of miniature fish. Most of these come from Southeast Asia and generally max out at an inch or less. A casual customer might overlook these diminutive fish and the crystal shrimp unless they see them in action. Shrimp-heads (I made that up), or purists, will want shrimp-only habitats. However, most people will want to mix fish and shrimp together, which is no problem as long as they stick with non-aggressive, compatible species.
You can sell setups in your store that you put together as kits or purchase ready-made setups from several companies. I recommend trying to do it yourself to see if you are talented enough to pull it off. My reasoning is that many kits are available online, and if you try to sell these, your margin may be less than if you made your own. There is going to be a learning curve, but it’s not that difficult. Always include a good deal of live plants, driftwood and small decorative rocks and sand in each environment. Believe it or not, there are many miniature plants that have been added to plant nursery inventories just to accommodate micro-environments.
Shrimp containers should be at least 5 gal. in size, but I prefer 10 gal. A set-up of that size will give you more of a punch at the cash register. Load up your shrimp displays with natural items only. There is no room in this phase of aquatics for cute or cartoon-themed environments. Shrimp are serious business, but that does not mean that younger people will not be attracted to them. These invertebrates are almost foolproof and rarely succumb to problems. They are easy to feed, clean and breed. The young are born fully formed and motile—virtual copies of the adults—only so small they are difficult to see without close examination. Most of the micro-species of fish you would put in with these shrimp will not eat them, but you will need to avoid using fish like guppies and Endler’s livebearers. Stick with micro-cyprinid species, which are basically from Southeast Asia.
You can think of crystal shrimp as the new guppy of the aquatic world. Being that there are so many varieties out there, you may not know which ones to stock. Since taste is always a matter of personal preference, you should probably try stocking a little of everything. In general, all-red varieties are not considered particularly appealing to serious shrimp hobbyists, but many beginners love them. A common species, Neocaridina davidi, known as the cherry shrimp, grows a bit larger and comes in several colors, but red is dominantly popular. This shrimp is a good starting point for novices, but it’s usually not enough to satisfy anyone but a very casual hobbyist. It’s like starting fishkeeping with guppies, but moving rapidly to more exotic items.
As with anything new, there is a lot of competition to deal with, both local and cyber. Keep a close eye on what everyone is doing and gauge your selling prices not only on your costs, but also your strength of sales. If you are selling a lot, you can afford to lower your prices a bit, if necessary. Otherwise, it’s non-productive to carry items that are not selling due to their price point. As with any new product in your shop, the kinks may need to be worked out. In-store and online advertising is critical when you initialize your miniature aquatics department.
Here’s something you need to understand when it comes to keeping miniature shrimp. It’s a zen thing, not who’s got the biggest, rarest and most expensive. These are dynamics that frequently reflect themselves in the coral phenomenon. A person with a small number of tanks, dedicated to varieties of shrimp, is not looking to impress anyone but himself. It’s usually the opposite with coral enthusiasts who are cutting and pasting tiny pieces of different species and varieties together to make a one-of-a-kind organism. It’s best to stay out of the coral frag arena. Medium to large coral pieces are what I recommend to sell if you want to be taken seriously by your customers. Turn over your inventory of stony corals as quickly as possible. If people learn that waiting for a coral to go on sale will not produce the desired result, they will be more likely to purchase a piece within a few days of seeing it.
I highly recommend that a small part of your marine department be reserved for shrimp, crabs and snails which can be used in coral tanks as cleaners. Basically, these are inexpensive to moderately priced cleaners, which add a great deal to the ambiance of a reef tank while providing an important service. These invertebrates may be subject to predation if your selection of tank mates has not been thoroughly vetted. It’s best not to take any chances on what fish, if any, you use in these sale tanks. Replenish your stock frequently.
With the internet playing such an important part in dry good sales, aquatic retailers are depending more and more on livestock sales to help their bottom lines. In the past, livestock could be as low as a third of your sales, but this figure has increased a great deal, perhaps even reaching a 50-50 ratio. In exclusively marine shops, it is an even greater challenge since coral frags are a dime a dozen on local shopping websites. The supply of good marine fish is ever shrinking and getting them at a reasonable cost is a hit and miss process. Only a few retailers living near large cities and ports of entry for livestock have an advantage. Being as diverse as possible in your livestock selection will go a long way to alleviate this problem. Stock up on items like starfish; anemones; live shells, like cowries, conchs, whelks, flame scallops and giant clams; hermit crabs; sea urchins and sponges.
If you are up for a real challenge, go the jellyfish route. You can set up a display tank with live specimens and sell the entire kits that include everything a person will need, including coupons to be registered online, and their jellyfish will be on the way by express mail. Selling livestock without it ever touching your tanks? That’s a leap into the future.
Missing from this picture are most freshwater invertebrates like crayfish, many algae-eating snails, mangrove crabs, grass shrimp, fairly shrimp and, most importantly, assassin snails (Clea helena). These little devils will take care of runaway snail populations in short order. Of course, you might surmise they are born to die if they succeed at their task. But NO, they will eat regular aquarium food just as readily, so they will always be around when needed. Usually sold at an inch or less in length, they may grow to just under 3 in. The pattern of the snail is quite striking, so they are rather decorative and easy to remove if so desired.
To sum up: THINK SMALL, GO BIG. Set up a section of small tanks for miniature fish and shrimp. Drive the concept with plenty of hype both in the store and on your website and Facebook page. 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.