Ready to Eat

The world of shelf-stable fish food is a vast one, but with a little research and experimentation, retailers can help customers navigate the market.


Everything has an expiration date, even items that are not clearly marked. I remember way back to the early 1970s, when aquariums made with silicon sealant were first marketed commercially. They were a revelation to be sure, but the burning question was, “How long will they last?” No one knew, since the technology was being used in this application for the first time. Segue to 2011, and we now know that the

average lifesapn of a good silicon seal is 25 to 30 years for a standard aquarium. What about the fish food sitting on the shelves in your store; how long will it last?

Just because something looks good—or even smells good—doesn’t mean it really is good. People eat bad food all the time, and the results range from no negative reaction to serious illness. Fish food requires even greater caution, however, because perfectly good and completely worthless may look and smell almost identical.

Flaked foods can appear great when you first open the can, and even outdated flakes are usable when the can is first opened. The initial exposure to the air, however, is a trigger for the rapid degradation of the fats and oils in the flakes. If the flakes have been sitting around for a while before they are opened, they will degrade faster than more freshly manufactured products. Would you buy a gallon of milk that expires in 24 hours, even if you were going to use all of that milk immediately? No, you would still look for milk that was dated at least a few days into the future.

Product Past Due
Most customers shopping for prepared foods will not even stop to check dates on the packaging. Many grocery stores put products that are near the end of their shelf life on special to move them out the door. In order to do this, you must keep a close eye on your inventory. This practice costs man-hours, and it may lead to what I call “perpetual sales.” If you always have fish foods on sale, many people will purchase only what they consider to be the bargains. It’s better to use outdated foods in the store than sell them to the public. Just use them up quickly before the nutritional value of the foods is totally compromised.

Taste Test
You might think that the better a food is, the longer it will last. If your definition of better is a higher percentage of proteins and/or fats, you need to reevaluate your conclusions. When it comes to shelf-stable foods, I test every one that comes on the market, and the ones that don’t measure up do not find a place on my shelves. There is no point in carrying substandard foods even if they bring higher profit margins.

Without any guidance from retail staff, customers will often pick the least expensive food or the one with the most memorable packaging. If you want to sell the high-end brands, you should carry only these foods. Giving your personal recommendation to a food is tricky, since it implies other foods are substandard. Instead, suggest a variety of brands and let the customers choose.

There is no denying that having a large product line is beneficial to brand identification. When a customer sees the same packaging on 50 SKUs, it is bound to make an impression. Meanwhile, a really great food with six items is going to need a lot of hype if it is going to compete with the “big boys.” If you favor these boutique labels, you can help promote them by showcasing them on endcaps or gondolas near the checkout counter.

When it comes to product diversification and assortment, you have to ask yourself, is it better to have 15 different foods that specifically target 15 different types of fish, or is it better to have one food that will meet the nutritional requirements of most fish? Keeping it simple is often better.

The fish food market also offers foods in a variety of forms: flakes, pellets, sheets, granules, powders, liquids, etc. Don’t be confused by gimmicks, but don’t overlook innovation just because it is different. You should thoroughly review all food products that come to your attention. The only way to do this is to obtain enough to test in your store. Companies that want you to carry their lines should be willing to give you enough to run trials. If they really believe in their products, they will do this without hesitation.

Shopper Beware
Many customers choose to purchase large cans of food in an attempt to save money and to reduce the number of times they need to buy fish food. If a person has large fish or several tanks, the bigger containers might be perfect. The average hobbyist, however, might be better served by buying a smaller volume of food. As I said before, once you open food, it begins to break down. Light, heat, humidity and air are all factors that destroy the nutritional value of shelf-stable foods.

Some people are naive enough to sit a can of food on the light fixture over the tank. That’s really asking for trouble. Tell customers that its best to store fish food in a cool, dry environment, away from the light. Transferring food from the original container to an air-tight one can extend the shelf life if the food is not going to be fed quickly. To preserve a food’s flavor, fish owners should use bags specially made for storing food and place these in sealed containers; this way, food doesn’t come in direct contact with the plastic. Customers—and retailers—should also take care to not place a wet hand in a container full of food. Wet food will grow mildew and fungus quickly in a closed container. If you are going to target-feed by hand, do so only with a quantity of food that will be administered in a single feeding.

Retailers should check the sell-by date on every single shipment of fish food they receive from suppliers—be they wholesalers or manufacturers. None of these dates should be close enough that the food might expire before the store can sell the product. Remember, first you must sell it, and then the customer should feed it before it expires. This leads us back to the question of holding sales on shelf-stable foods. If people “load up,” will they be able to use all the food before it expires? And, if they can’t use it all within in that time, do they know how to store it properly so it will still be safe to use when the time comes?

While the vast majority of fish can be maintained strictly with shelf-stable foods, there is no reason that this should be considered a plus or benefit. To make money, you need to sell a variety of foods, including frozen and live items. Remind, customers that fish need variety in their diets, just like people.

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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