Saltwater Success

Retailers that are looking to grow their marine livestock departments must first consider whether fish or invertebrates will be the key to that growth.


Most pet stores that stock marine livestock specialize in either fish or invertebrates. Maybe the business caters primarily to reef enthusiasts, so the store carries a full range of corals, but not fish. On the other hand, if fish are a retailer’s concentration, the store may have a minimal selection of corals—possibly even none at all.

fishWhich segment of the marine trade proves most valuable to a retailer’s bottom line depends upon a number of factors. The first and most important thing to consider is a retailer’s level of expertise; after all, if you don’t know what you are doing, why are you doing it?

Coral stores are usually owned and operated by coral aficionados—people who are just as much hobbyists as they are entrepreneurs. The best way to compete with these establishments is to carry a bigger and better selection of corals, and have the most knowledgeable staff possible running the coral department. Short of that, you are not likely to make much headway against these reef experts.

Another good reason to make sure that a marine department’s staff includes coral experts is to avoid theft. Employees who are not coral savvy can easily be duped by unscrupulous customers. I have seen it happen time and time again: two people walk into a pet store, and while one distracts an employee by asking a lot of questions, the other switches a $100 coral for a $50 coral. Then, the guy asking the questions buys the switched piece for half of its actual retail price. It’s the old bait and switch, in reverse.

In the old days, when tropical freshwater fish were king, there were hobby breeders around who made a decent income working with such fish as angels, rams, guppies and bettas. Later, when exotic cichlids grabbed center stage, some people switched to the African Rift Lake species, since many of them are as colorful as reef fish. These fish breeders could indeed supply a fair number of specimens to local shops.

Today, the same is true of coral hobbyists, except they are not breeding the coral, they are fragging it. Any pet shop dealing in coral that isn’t into fragging is well behind the times. Splitting up a large coral head into numerous fragments can increase a store’s profits exponentially. Of course, a retailer has to know how to frag and what to charge for frags. I liken it to a restaurant owner going to a local wholesale food market and knowing what to buy, what price to pay, what to do with it once he buys it, and how much to charge for a dish. All of this can be a bit daunting to uninformed merchants.

Reef fish are pretty much strictly available from importers, as well as a handful of hatcheries. Any retailer who wants to stock these fish has to buy them from the same group of suppliers that everyone else uses. A major problem for the U.S. market is that our purchasing power and our thirst for quality has greatly diminished over the past few years, particularly in comparison to markets in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. At this point, we are near the end of the line when it comes to being guaranteed both high quality and high desirability. In addition, a store might have to wait months just to obtain fish for customers. That is no way to run a retail business in this day and age, when the Internet puts merchandise in the hands of consumers at lightning speed.

Handling rare and expensive fish can have another downside—a retailer might lose some of them. Reef fish sometimes get sick and die, and treating them can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition. Many stores quarantine their fish before putting them on sale, but this is becoming less common for a variety of reasons. Frankly, when you factor in the cost of quarantine—both in hardware and man-hours—it increases the cost substantially. Selling a fish as soon as it comes through the door, however, is guaranteed to maximize a retailer’s profit.

While corals, on the other hand, can certainly die, they rarely get sick. Most of the time, these marine aquarium inhabitants die because the parameters in their environment are not conducive to their good health. Factors such as improper or inadequate lighting, poor water chemistry, predatory or dangerous tankmates, insufficient diet and incorrect placement in the environment can all contribute to the death of coral. Unfortunately, it is usually difficult to tell when a coral’s health is at risk. Unlike sick fish, which usually exhibit some easily diagnosed affliction, corals tend to hide the root causes of their problems—greatly lessening your chances to save them.

For pet shops that are looking to grow their marine departments, the choice between focusing on corals or fish should really depend on location. Larger metropolitan areas have more customers, and more customers with money. However, these regions also have more competition from both professionals and amateurs. Retailers might end up losing customers to a guy fragging coral in his garage. After all, his overhead is a lot less than a typical pet shop’s.

There is, of course, another aspect to the marine department—invertebrates that are not corals. There are literally hundreds of these animals, and most of them can make money for retailers—just not the big bucks that coral can bring. Shrimp, crabs, anemones, starfish, snails, hermit crabs and bivalves (clams)—the list is endless and the animals are virtually indestructible compared to coral. Retailers that don’t stock this segment of livestock are not servicing a large contingent of potential customers. Since the price of these animals is frequently much lower than most coral, pet stores will usually sell a good deal of them.

Small, motile invertebrates can be a bit difficult to stock, because they are constantly moving and hiding—under rocks, in the gravel and inside décor items. A tank may appear to be devoid of snails, but depending on the species, there can be hundreds cruising in the substrate on the lookout for food. Shrimp, on the other hand, can be quite aggressive and territorial, so they may attack other individuals. This means they need to be housed in small, separate containers—this is where acrylic cubicles can be used to their best advantage. The same housing works for many small organisms, such as blue-leg hermits or any crab or snail that will not crawl out of an uncovered box. Don’t be the retailer who opens the store up in the morning, only to find hundreds of dead snails lying desiccated on the floor. That is a painful and expensive lesson to learn.

Fairly large stores that can devote plenty of square footage to the marine department will want to stock a balanced selection of both fish and invertebrates. Should a retailer’s space be more precious, it may be a better idea to concentrate on corals, since they bring a fairly substantial price compared to many fish. While very few items of marine livestock can be considered cheap, pet stores are not going to make much profit selling damsels, snails and hermit crabs. Speaking in dollars, corals are almost always a better investment than fish. Throw in the extra benefit of not having to chase coral around the tank in order to sell it and you might wonder why you stock fish at all.

Many coral shops carry just a handful of fish species—the ones deemed safe for reef tanks. The list is especially small if you remove   species from the list. For example, you are never going to see lionfish eating coral, but they are piscavores to the max. Introducing live feeders to accommodate predatory fish can be like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know if a prey item is carrying dangerous parasites or diseases. This is particularly true in the case of feeder fish. Some people believe they can avoid this problem by feeding freshwater prey items to marine predators. Maybe it will work for a time, but for how long? Besides, predators produce copious amounts of waste products. In other words, they will have an aquarium’s protein skimmers working overtime to strip out the proteins in their waste.

Another important consideration for any retailers getting into the reef business is that while most fish look their best in full, bright light, corals look the most spectacular under actinic (or blue) lighting. Actinic lighting brings out corals’ phosphorescent and fluorescent capabilities, an effect that is best viewed in a dark room with the only light source being actinic bulbs. If the room itself is bright, the coral will not glow nearly as intensely.

With this in mind, pulling off the best presentation for corals will probably require a dark room, or at least a hood over the tank. This will give customers a chance to see what corals can do when the lights (almost) go out.

As an added bonus, many motile invertebrates will become more active when blue lights are on. These inverts feel more secure emerging from their hiding places once the natural light fades. So, retailers that are going to stock any type of marine invertebrates need a location with very little natural or ambient light. It’s just about the exact opposite of most retail merchandising practices, but it will be worth it.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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