Considering the complex feeding needs of fish, carrying packaged diets isn’t about finding the cheapest option.
Excuse me for saying this, but fish are not as easy to feed as dogs or cats. Unless you want to consider the latest crosses between domesticated breeds with wild types, all dogs and cats are the same. Yes, I know there are exceptions to every rule, but forgiving those, dogs are Canis familiaris and cats are Felis domesticus. Fish, on the other hand—well, they’re more complicated.
There are approximately 28,000 to 32,000 species of fish if you include both marine and freshwater environments. Of these, close to 15,000 are indigenous to fresh or brackish waters around the world. This is remarkable since non-marine habitats make up less than 1/2 percent of globally-available water (you can’t count the frozen freshwaters in the Arctic and Antarctic regions).
It’s obvious that freshwater species are extremely diverse and have found a way to occupy virtually every available niche in their places of residence. In the U.S. aquatic trade, there are precious few cold water fish sold as ornamentals. You can count them on one hand. Therefore, almost all freshwater fish sold in the pet trade come from tropical or subtropical regions. The same can be said for marine species.
Fish from the tropics prefer water temperatures ranging from 65-85 degrees F, in general, with a few higher or lower. Warm or tropical water environments are what make fish tropical—hence the term tropical ornamental fish or, more simply, tropical fish. The aquatics hobby in the U.S. deals primarily with tropical freshwater species, raised on fish farms in Florida and many other parts of the world.
Wild-caught species come from South America, Africa, India and Asia. A freshwater aquarium should be maintained between 75-84 degrees F, with the optimum temperature being 80 degrees F. Certainly, there are exceptions to this statement, but, in general, it works for 95 percent of the species sold in the trade.
Fish housed in warm water aquariums have higher metabolic rates since their habitat is warm. Unlike people, fish cannot control their body temperature internally. There is one known exception to this rule: the Opah (moonfish), a large disc-shaped fish that lives in the open ocean. Many predatory species, like tuna, can warm up their bodies slightly, but not like the Opah.
Back in the aquarium, fish will not be sufficiently active if they are not maintained in warm water. The Betta is a perfect example. Wild Bettas live in ditches in Southeast Asia, where temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees F, which is why they are capable of utilizing air as a source of oxygen. Without their labyrinth organ, Bettas would die from lack of oxygen. But, they may also linger and die if they are maintained at low temperatures. Room temperature in a typical home is not sufficiently warm to keep Bettas active. All Betta tanks should have a heater set at 80 degrees F. If there is a heater, there needs to be moving water to distribute the heat. This means that Betta tanks should have a filter or, at the very least, air stones driven by an air pump.
Tropical fish require a diverse diet in both content, form and presentation if it is to adequately supply their nutritional and psychological needs. The idea that a single food or diet can deliver everything a fish needs to prosper is naive at best and deceptive at worst.
Is there a single food that can meet the nutritional requirements of many, if not most, tropical fish? My answer is maybe. But meeting just the nutritional needs is not enough to keep fish happy. Yes—I said happy. After over 50 years of keeping fish, I can tell when fish are not happy. It’s usually the environment: not enough space or cover, bad tank mates, insufficient water quality, poor lighting, improper location of the aquarium, etc. Finally, what are the fish fed? When are the fish fed? How are they fed? The presentation of food is an art form that few people have mastered.
In a community tank, there may be 10 to 20 different species of fish: tetras, barbs, loaches, catfish, rainbows, cichlids, livebearers, gouramis, etc. These names represent hundreds—if not thousands—of species of fish, each unique in its own way, and you want to feed them all the same thing? No! Feed them good foods, varied in form and presentation and fed over an extended period of time.
If you feed your fish only once a day, you should not have a fish tank. If you feed them only twice a day, you are lazy. Fish should be fed small quantities of food several times a day. If you can’t manage this due to time constraints, use fish feeders. Feed flakes, sticks, pellets, granules, discs and any form of prepared food that seems reasonable.
You should stock these items on the aisle where all the packaged diets are showcased. If you prefer or recommend certain foods over others, place them on end caps or utilize special displays supplied by some companies. Your sales associates should be trained to help customers select fish foods that fit their specific needs.
For those people keeping large predatory species, don’t sell them flake foods. Pelleted foods come in a wide variety of sizes, from a tenth of an inch to a quarter of an inch. Large specimens will usually eat by sucking in the largest pellets, which can be offered in sinking or floating forms. In some cases, it is not advised for fish to suck in air since it can get trapped in the stomach and cause fish to bloat.
When selling packaged diets, try your best to sell brands that are high in quality and not carried by your competitors. Search long and hard to find superior products that match this profile. Of course, you will need to carry brands that other stores have, so don’t make them the brands of choice for your store. Showcase brands that you prefer, that are proprietary to your store and readily obtainable in small or large quantities. You don’t want to count on one brand of packaged foods—that requires a large minimum order.
While packaged foods are the backbone of the aquatics trade, they are carried by every big-box and chain store in the country—not to mention online outlets. Your price margin is going to shrink on these if you attempt to compete with these retailers, so I would consider removing brands that are obviously in bed with the corporate monoliths.
Even though packaged diets are the most important form of fish food sales, don’t neglect the frozen and live food categories. These will actually increase your sales of packaged diets. When customers come in every week for their live foods, they can frequently be persuaded to pick up any packaged foods they need. You should position signage near the live or frozen food areas that says, “your fish will thank you for stocking up on flakes and pellets.”
Believe it or not, there are some bargain basement packaged diets still being made and customers will not comprehend why one brand can cost twice as much as another. You need to be ready with an explanation that sounds logical and sincere. I always draw attention to the food’s ingredients. Most consumers will not even bother to look at these; they’re usually focused on price and packaging.
A good graphic to use would be a blow-up list of ingredients by brand. These will probably require some explanation since most consumers are not experts on fish nutrition. I like to use the analogy of hamburger versus steak—or beef quality grades—with prime being the best and U.S. commercial being the lowest (non-retail). For example, you might call a certain brand of fish food pellet the “prime” pellet of the industry. Another pellet you would classify as the “select” pellet. It would be two grades below the prime. I believe everyone will be able to interpret this reference, no matter how little they know about packaged fish foods.
Finally, the critical factor in selling fish foods is education. Educate your employees so they can educate your customers. Role playing is always good. Pretend you are a customer asking a lot of questions and see how they handle it. Insufficient responses will initiate a class in fish nutrition and salesmanship. 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.