Fish Food Cornucopia

The wide variety of shelf-stable diets available on the market today can help aquarium keepers improve their chances of success in the hobby, provided a knowledgeable retailer can help them sort through the choices.


Sometimes it is necessary to clean house and find something new that will energize sales in the aquarium department. In the shelf stable foods arena, this means ditching the products that are “flat-lining.”

Of course, before making a change, retailers will probably want to evaluate why certain products are underperforming. Maybe the packaging does not “pop” enough to attract casual sales? Perhaps the food is simply too expensive for the average consumer? While the obvious answer should be that the product is substandard—fish don’t eat it with gusto and/or it does not help maintain fish in good health­—this is rarely the reason why a product will sit stagnant on the shelf. Frankly, most customers cannot tell one food from another. Only a handful of fishkeepers are discerning enough to judge the nutritional value of foods on the market.

If there is a product line that a retailer prefers over the others, no matter what the reason, it is going to be up to that retailer to make it a best seller. Few people know just how to select the right food; they look for price first, packaging second, and finally, availability. With this in mind, maybe it would be advantageous to sell a store’s “best” food at the same price as so-called “bargain” foods. This does not need to be a permanent price reduction, merely an introductory offer to entice customers to make a change.

Or, let’s say that the packaging of a retailer’s favorite food is only mediocre. This means that it should be displayed more prominently than other foods. Certainly, it must be on the same aisle as other foods; otherwise, customers might miss it altogether. However, a second display should be placed in a heavy traffic area to increase visibility. I suggest directly across from the checkout counter. This way, anyone working the register can recommend the food without ever leaving his or her post. It can also be a great way to remind customers that they need fish food.

Evaluating the Options
Before selecting their stores’ favorite fish foods, it is important that retailers understand how much difference there is between the various lines of shelf-stable foods. Certainly, ingredients can vary from product to product, and this causes the protein value to vary as well. Most foods are produced from meals. A few are manufactured directly from raw products. Most foods have dye added to give flakes and/or pellets color. Some foods have no dyes at all.

Most foods are also processed in ovens (the long-belt variety), where the ingredients are cooked to prepare them for production. Some foods are not heat-processed but cold-extruded. This preserves valuable nutrients that might otherwise be cooked away.

Basically, all of these variations can support good health in the majority of tropical fish sold in the pet trade. A few picky species will need considerably more than shelf-stable foods in their diets if they are to survive in captivity. The funny thing about these problem species is that while they cannot survive solely on shelf-stable foods, they still benefit greatly from eating them. Getting predatory fish or coral-eating fish to eat flakes or pellets is only going to make them healthier.

The trick is getting these aquarium inhabitants to eat the prepared food. This can be accomplished through the addition of flavor enhancers or flavor attractants to the food. A few foods use these as part of their recipes; most do not. With this in mind, retailers should carry appetite stimulators for customers to add to the food they are feeding their fish. The cheapest and best-known ingredient in most food additives is garlic; fish seem to be really attracted to its odor.

Providing Direction
To give customers an idea of the broad selection of fish foods available on the market, retailers should create a display of products that showcases the various forms that shelf stable foods can take: flakes, pellets, discs, crumbles, sticks, freeze-dried, etc. This presentation should stress the value of each food as it applies to different species of fish and their trophic (feeding) behaviors.

Even though “complete” food displays can be impressive, they can also be confusing. For example, while fakes and pellets manufactured for goldfish and koi should not be fed to tropicals—these products contain a significant percentage of carbohydrates, which are poorly utilized by most fish, except for domestic goldfish and koi—customers may see the lower price and try to save themselves a few cents. If retailers segregate foods into tropical freshwater, temperate freshwater and tropical marine categories, it will greatly reduce the number of mistakes that customers make when purchasing them. Certainly, there are foods that fall into more than one category, and these can be placed in multiple locations.

Retailers can also help their customers avoid mistakes in feeding by being prepared to educate them about the ingredients of these foods, especially as they apply to specific fish. Many customers will be surprised to learn that some fish are almost strictly vegetarians. The goal here is to foster better husbandry by recommending the proper items. By helping people be more successful, pet stores will sell more food.

Feeding Frequency
Another great way to sell more fish food is to tell people the truth about feeding fish. The old line is that fish only need to be fed once a day. Nothing could be further from the truth (except in the case of piscivores). Tropical fish are small, and small animals need to feed frequently, since they have a high metabolic rate. Fish should be fed three times a day, and even more often is not too much. As long as the fish are awake, aquarium keepers can feed them every three to four hours and without experiencing a problem.

Of course, more food means more sales for the store. It will also necessitate more tank cleanings, so the retailer will also sell more auxiliary items, such as filter cartridges, carbon, pads, etc.

Don’t forget that the food for many saltwater organisms is quite diverse, and there is far from a single “perfect” food for the majority of marine fish. In fact, feeding a single food would almost certainly result in the death of the fish in a short amount of time. Likewise, many corals can benefit from a variety of foods as long as they meet the animals’ requirements. I would display coral foods separately from marine fish foods.

On a side note, I have observed that it is extremely important to specifically feed marine invertebrates such as crabs, hermit crabs, snails, sea hares, starfish, anemones and many others. Numerous shops and especially customers look on a majority of these items as “janitors” to cleanup the leftovers. This philosophy almost always results in the premature demise of many animals that simply cannot find enough food on which to survive. “Clean-up” organisms should be fed at least half as often as fish.

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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