A Fresh Take
By building a diverse selection and constructing creative displays, aquatics retailers can keep freshwater livestock sales afloat.
With online, big box and chain stores grabbing a significant percentage of the retail aquatic pet market, there is precious little left for small, independent stores to call their own. My instincts suggest that livestock sales should be the primary focus of such businesses. Even though you can order live items and have them delivered to your house, how much better is it to pick them out yourself? There is no comparison. Keeping aquatic animals is an adventure, and visiting a brick-and-mortar location is part of the mystique.
My report on the freshwater fish industry today is a bit checkered. Some stores are doing quite well, while others are suffering a general malaise—possibly due to a lack of aggressive purchasing and merchandising. As we know, if you stock it, they will come.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, my aquatic world in Hampton Roads, Va., was fairly sparse. I traveled to the D.C. metro area, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York to look for exotic freshwater fish. If I found a new Rift Lake cichlid or an oddball loach, catfish or Asian cyprinid, my trip was an unqualified success. It’s the thrill of the hunt that gets your blood pumping, not waiting for a box to show up at your door.
A store that earns much of its income from freshwater livestock sales must turn over its inventory as quickly as possible. Customers want to see new fish every time they visit—if they don’t, they will come less often. Fewer visits mean fewer sales, so you should try to bring in new items every week. To meet this potentially challenging goal, you need either a good local source for fish or a major airport nearby. These are your lifelines to the livestock inventory you should stock. There are fewer companies offering livestock delivery directly to your store, and if every one of your competitors uses them as well, you won’t have anything different from them. In this business, it’s good to be different.
When it comes to deciding which freshwater fish to sell in your store, you know the usual suspects. But why carry these unless you want to directly compete with other shops? If there is a tetra from South America that sells well, sell larger specimens of it instead of the semi-adults that most places carry. You may need to buy directly from Florida fish farms, but that’s easy, and it’s less of a hassle than bringing in your own boxes from overseas.
The supply of fish is not what it used to be, but I believe it has little to do with a shortage of livestock. More than likely, we see fewer exotics and even fewer of the specialty or genetically manipulated fish in the U.S. because of an increased global demand, specifically from emerging markets in the Far East and the Middle East. These places had virtually no sales 20 years ago. European demand has waned only slightly and is more than compensated by the rest of the world. Sadly, many places are willing and able to pay more for wild-caught and genetic newcomers than us.
The collecting of wild-caught fish has been affected in only a small way by environmental concerns. In fact, there is much greater pressure on the fish food industry than there is on the fishkeeping hobby. Still, anyone involved in the aquatics industry should remain vigilant and fight any efforts to curtail or shut down our sources of livestock, whether foreign or domestic, wild-caught or captive-raised.
The internet has created a real problem—there is a demand for fish or genetic varieties of fish that few shops will be able to get. If you browse around online, especially on Facebook, you will see a great many photos of exotic varieties of bettas, swordtails, guppies, glowfish, flowerhorns (cichlid hybrids), etc. Unfortunately, these special specimens are rare and expensive, and you are unlikely to encounter them in a retail shop. The problem is customers are likely to come in with these photos and ask if you have any fish like these. The answer will, of course, be no. This will turn them off and possibly send them to other retailers, which are just as unlikely to have the fish.
Even if you could purchase these fish, the price would be so high that few people could afford them or would be willing to pay what you will need to charge. However, there are still a fair number of new fish available, both genetic varieties and wild-caught. You must find a way to sell the fish you can actually get, not the aquatic unicorns you see on the internet.
One way to do this is by using your skills to design and build total environments for different types of fish. Many people lack the knowledge and imagination to set up community aquariums or specialty tanks, so you should lead by example.
First and foremost, I suggest a community tank with livebearers. You can combine swordtails, platies and mollies; just adjust the water to the alkaline side. Remember to use lots of live plants, since such vegetation will serve as cover for the many babies that will be born in a livebearer-centric environment. Just stay away from predatory or aggressive fish species. In a larger tank (75 to 125 gallons), stock species that grow to more than six inches in length, but avoid those that prefer to eat live fish or refuse to eat anything but their tank mates. There are plenty of mildly aggressive fish that will make great neighbors.
The tank likely to draw the most attention will be a brackish water environment. You can combine species from Central and South American coastal regions with those from Asia since the water requirements are virtually identical. Shoot for a specific gravity around 1.010 to 1.012. You will need to find Anableps, mudskippers, monos, scats and archers, and there are a variety of goby species that will work as well. Stay away from cichlids, unless you want to throw in some orange chromides for color and variety.
A ‘rainbow community’ tank with species from Australia, Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya would also be extremely pleasing to the eye. These peaceful and active are not called rainbows because some overly enthusiastic salesman thought up the name—they actually live up to the hype. Throw in a few miniature gobies from the same areas, and you will have one of the most attractive tanks that anyone could dream up. 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.