Jumping into the Pond Business

Retailers can reap many rewards-including much desired profit-by getting fully immersed into the pond segment of aquatics and offering a comprehensive selection of livestock.


When it comes to the pond segment of the aquatics trade, are you in or out? Are you simply dipping a toe in the pond business, just to pull it out when the weather cools? Or are you fully immersed up to your neck—the way you should be?

Many retailers view the pond business as strictly seasonal—and understandably so. In the winter, ponds go relatively dormant. However, that does not mean that customers will completely abandon their ponds. There may be a need for a variety of products during winter. Pond covers and heaters, thermometers and even water pumps are important items to have around in the off-season. Livestock, on the other hand, is not a necessity, but it is a wise move to keep this product on display year round.

Think about it: Outside it may be freezing, but when your customers come through the front door, they can be greeted by a beautiful pond display with a wide variety of colorful koi and goldfish. It gives people something to dream about before the weather improves. And don’t sell the indoor pond concept short. Indoor ponds are gaining popularity in many parts of the country. Obviously, they tend to be smaller than the classic outdoor variety, but they can generate profits for retailers all year long.

The thing I like most about indoor setups is that they lend themselves more to smaller fish—particularly the many varieties of fancy goldfish that frequently experience problems in large outdoor ponds. While you can certainly mix koi and goldfish, the slower-moving fancy varieties have problems competing against the streamlined koi, and even the comet and shubunkin goldfish. Also, predatory birds can easily catch a bubble-eye, oranda or celestial goldfish—making them ideal for indoor setups where that risk is eliminated. Another advantage to keeping these exotic types indoors is that they do better when water temperature remains relatively stable. There will be less stress and a lower risk of disease or poor health due to a change in diet or lack of appetite.

Any store that considers pond sales an important part of its business must, out of necessity, be in the pond maintenance business as well. These two things go hand in hand. One without the other makes little to no sense. Now, pond installation, that’s another matter that may require a much greater commitment from a retailer. If you don’t have the personnel or the knowledge necessary to fully landscape and install ponds, don’t even try. Perhaps you can team up with a company that specializes in that service but does not maintain ponds after installation. The further afield you range, the harder it is to concentrate on your brick-and-mortar operation.

The major concern of most retailers that sell livestock for ponds is space. It requires a good deal of square footage to house and display koi and goldfish. Even if the business is seasonal, that use of space is not. Facilities for maintaining coldwater fish cannot be dismantled and reconstituted on a whim. You must keep them running constantly, even if the biological load is greatly reduced during the off-season. Not many retailers can devote adequate space to a commodity that only generates sales for a limited amount of time. This is a dilemma that is not easily solved.

As I said before, you need to think long and hard about your commitment to selling aquatic livestock for ponds. One of the factors that may influence your decision is auxiliary sales, primarily in the area of aquatic vegetation for ponds. If you have the space to house a varied assortment of pond plants, you can add greatly to your bottom line. In this case, displays can make all the difference. My favorite example is a shop in upstate New York that maintained a heated greenhouse between two sections of its store. Even in the dead of winter, this area was an oasis for both fish and plants. With snow falling outside, you could walk through the greenhouse and see fully developed pond, bog and marginal plants along with the koi and goldfish. The water temperature never ranged lower than 55 degrees. This type of setup is not possible for most retailers, but if you live in warmer climes, there is no reason you cannot maintain something comparable without too much effort.

It’s always a struggle to decide what varieties of koi and goldfish to stock for your pond customers. While it is difficult to showcase koi in aquariums, it is relatively simple to display goldfish. The really tough decision is what size to sell and display. From my experience, display fish for koi should range from 18 to 30 inches. If they start to grow beyond this size, it’s time to sell them off for a healthy profit and replace them with smaller specimens. Since koi may grow to well over 36 inches, it’s probably best not to advertise this to customers. They may worry that the fish will eventually outgrow their ponds. Goldfish rarely grow large enough to worry anyone, so those can be displayed up to full size.

However, one reason not to sell full-size fish is the price point, which can be quite a shock to anyone unfamiliar with these fish. A ranchu, lionhead, bubble-eye or dragon-fin goldfish can easily top $100 retail. That’s a bit steep for a lot of buyers, but some people will not even blink an eye. It all depends on how deep the customer’s pockets—and pond—are. As far as koi are concerned, there are well more than 30 varieties that can be classified as top sellers. These vary not only in color and pattern, but also scalation.

Retailers that sell koi should stock three sizes during the season—small, medium and large—and if you have the space, display a “show” size, as well. The show fish are the specimens you have on permanent display, but if a customer just has to have one, you will sell it. Put up a sign near the pond that says, “Pricing for Show-Quality Koi is Available on Request.” With this in place, only the serious people will inquire.

Different sizes of koi should always be segregated, otherwise, you are asking for nothing but drama. Employees will get it wrong, and customers will insist that the fish they want is small, not medium. Different vats will end this discussion before it starts. This does not, however, affect the discussion over what variety of koi is what. There are so many types that you cannot expect the uneducated consumer to be able to distinguish one from the other. You need colorful charts on the walls near the vats that show the perfect conformation for each variety. Even then, people will struggle to identify the fish. This is when your expertise will come in handy. It’s critical that your employees are equally adept at explaining and showing customers the differences.

Ideally, new shipments of koi should be segregated for a while before they are introduced into the general population. This is a luxury few stores can afford. Unfortunately, new fish frequently mean new problems. You can be proactive by treating prophylactically, but this will only work on certain things. Treating usually means killing off much of the biological filtration, and that spawns an entirely new set of problems. I recommend high levels of UV-sterilization throughout any coldwater system, since it will greatly reduce the columnar bacteria level. Should an outbreak of parasites be detected, you need to treat immediately and quarantine the system. It is frequently helpful to find a livestock supplier that consistently ships healthy fish and use that supplier exclusively.

If you choose to go the route of importing fish from Japan or China, you must be prepared for the consequences should things go awry. The only time it is cost effective to do this is if you live close enough to a DOI [Department of the Interior] Port of Entry, and getting there and back to your store is not a nightmare. Also, why would you bring in varieties that are easily obtained domestically? It makes more sense to look for types of koi that would cost a great deal more in the U.S. or those you can’t get at all. Fish from overseas may arrive in great shape or in terrible condition. Never mix these with your preexisting stock or you could lose everything in a few days time. If you have to set up temporary quarters for a while, do so. It will be well worth the effort.

While koi and goldfish are by far the most important items for a store to sell, they are not the only fish available for the pond. In fact, several types of fish native to Europe and particularly England are sold for ornamental purposes in the U.S. These are typically available in the spring from a number of coldwater farms. And it does not hurt to have a turtle or two in a pond. If your store stocks these, don’t forget to suggest them to customers. Even non-native crayfish will do well if you have a small bog area on the pond’s perimeter.

A final point to consider when dealing with pond fish is their temperament. They are all bottom feeders in the wild, and even though you may love watching them snatch food off the surface, it is not a recommended feeding strategy. When a fish takes food off the surface, it can frequently swallow air. If too much air is swallowed quickly, the air can become trapped in the gastrointestinal system. Even though carp, like koi and goldfish, exhibit a phenomenon known as gut respiration, they are only able to absorb a certain amount of the air into their system. Excess air may actually affect the fish’s ability to maintain its equilibrium. This is not as big of a problem with koi as it is with goldfish. Drastic changes in the body shape of many fancy goldfish cause them to lose their ability to swim properly much more easily than streamlined or naturally shaped specimens.

Finally, when fish get to their homes in customers’ backyards, who knows if they are going to be adequately protected from predators such as birds, muskrats and raccoons? If they feed at the surface, they are much more likely to be picked off by whatever lies in wait—including dogs and cats.

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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