Evaluating the Aquatics Department

Pet specialty retailers need to consider a number of factors, including their livestock assortment and the quality of their employees, when assessing their aquatics department.


How good is your aquatics department? That’s a tough question to answer since there are several ways to judge the performance of any given segment of your business. You might conduct a strictly financial evaluation, without considering that a big-box store opened only a few miles away last year, draining off some of your gross. Or maybe you’ve forgotten to factor in the major overhaul of the reef and saltwater department, which marginalized that segment of your business for at least a month during the summer. I hope you are following my logic here—nothing is as simple as it appears to be. 

Many factors can affect your bottom line and how you evaluate the aquatics department.

For example, good people are difficult to find and keep, however, the right selection of employees is just as important as the right selection of products on your shelves. They have a direct impact on a store’s image, and they should be ready to help everyone on an equal basis—from the novice who does not know a mushroom from an SPS-coral to the stuck-up coral geek who trades only in the latest and greatest signature varieties. While managers may be too busy to personally help every customer, they should never feel it is beneath them to wait on beginners. 

This brings up the concept of “selling” livestock and even many types of equipment. Keep in mind that the aquatics department is no place for high-pressure sales tactics. You want customers to walk away with what they want or what they can handle. If you send shoppers home with coral they can’t keep alive, that bad memory will live forever in their minds. 

The same thing applies to equipment—except, hopefully, no animals will be harmed in the process. A set of LED lights costing $1,200 may well be your idea of a great sale, but not if the person who buys them could have a satisfactory experience with something that costs half as much. Not everyone needs a little, red Corvette; some people will do very nicely with a nondescript sedan.

When evaluating a store’s aquatics business, it is a good idea to break the department down into segments. Let’s start with the obvious—total gross sales of the entire department. First, break this down by livestock: freshwater livestock, aquatic plants, saltwater livestock, live coral (and relatives), goldfish and koi, pond plants and living food items.  Next, evaluate all things food-related: frozen foods, prepared foods, live foods and live coral foods. There is overlap, but you still want to know how much sales you are doing of live items. This is important, because if live sales figures go up, your sales are heading in the right direction. More dollars sold in living organisms means that people are coming to you for the things they can’t get at the big-box stores. This is what you want.

After living things, the next category that will be important in evaluating the aquatics department will be foods. You want to see figures on specific brands of foods, as well as specific items for each brand. Some shelf-stable foods are far and away better than others. Certainly, avoid selling brands carried in big-box stores, as well as those sold by smaller local competitors, if possible. There is no reason to keep these on the shelves if you are going to be beat up every time you sell such items.

I do have one additional bellwether when it comes to sales. It’s the simplest thing of all, and while the profit it directly generates may not be that impressive, the auxiliary sales can be huge. How many tank setups have you sold this year? The more you’ve sold, the better you are doing. These are the sales that separate a great store from a retailer that is simply going through the motions. 

Several times a year, you should run blowout tank sales with great prices partially backed up by discounts received from wholesalers and/or manufacturers. Unfortunately, the way things are today, you may find it necessary to shop around for an independent company making tanks. Creativity is the key to success in selling tank setups—along with advertising placed in appropriate places at crucial times.  Holiday weekends are perfect. I really like Thanksgiving sales; if you have the storage room, you can hold onto customers’ tank setups until just before the holiday. This will give people time to pay them off. 

One last thing to add to your aquatic department evaluation: have a meeting with all your aquatic employees. Ask them their opinion of how the store has done in the past year and on where improvements can be made. Give them a couple of weeks’ notice, so they can think long and hard. You may be surprised by the thoughtful consideration and creative suggestions employees may offer.

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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