The Heart of the Department

An honest evaluation of your aquatics sales requires both an examination of the in-store setup and an introspective look at your overall approach to livestock.




How much profit did you make last year versus previous years? If your aquatic sales are lagging, is it your fault or a result of a general malaise in the industry? Are you working as long and as hard as you can to make your aquatics department a success? Questions like these can keep a retailer up at night.


If you are suffering from business-induced insomnia, it may be time to step back from the day-to-day grind of running your store to indulge in some old-fashioned soul searching. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get the most value out of every square foot you have devoted to the aquatics department. 


When it comes to deciding which products to stock on your shelves, the best approach is to simply give the customers what they want. Hard goods are relatively easy to navigate. Livestock, on the other hand, is what really presents a challenge to aquatics retailers. You need to love fish and invertebrates and have a passion for their display and proper care to truly be successful in this business. You must be the expert that everyone comes to when they have a question or a problem with their fish. The cardinal points when it comes to aquatic livestock are healthy animals, varied selection, dependable availability and reasonable prices. Being able to achieve this combination is the line that separates the players from the pretenders.


Let’s look at what makes for an extensive freshwater section. What should we see? It’s always best to use individual tank-to-tank filtration. I know it means more time spent on maintenance, but it also allows for more attention to detail. If you need to convert a particular aquarium to an entirely different environment, you are only dealing with one tank, not an entire system. If you wish to incorporate tanks of different sizes, try to bundle them, with 10-gallon tanks, 20s, 30s, 55s, 100s and so on grouped together. 


The width and depth of a line of tanks is more important than the length. As you visually scan a row, all tanks should be the same height and width. This makes them easier to clean, but even more importantly, the physical appearance is more appealing. Always over-filter your display tanks. Commercial loads should be much greater than in home aquariums. 


The question of lighting is not as cut and dried. If you employ different brands, types and colors of bulbs with various tanks, your display is going to look really odd. Still, some fish need more or less light than others, so this problem is not easily solved. My suggestion is to make an effort to standardize the lighting, but don’t fret too much if it is not perfect.


Marine fish, invertebrates and coral enclosures are an entirely different animal. If you carry marine livestock, there are a number of factors you must keep in mind.  For example, never sell anything from a display reef tank. You are trying to keep your display looking awesome, and you can’t do that if the stock in the tank keeps being depleted. You also don’t want to have to keep replenishing the tank’s population—adding new items without taking great caution not to harm the rest of the inhabitants is a mistake made by amateurs.


Once a shipment of ich-prone fish comes in, never put the next shipment of similar fish in the same tank. All tanks with reef fish prone to ich—you should know the usual suspects, with tangs at the top of the list—must have extensive UV-filtration, with no live food used to feed the fish. However, coral tanks should not have UV filters. You want them “dirty”—the water should be alive with microscopic food.


When it comes to invertebrates, it’s best to maintain a consistent supply of small, inexpensive specimens such as crabs, hermit crabs, shrimp, snails, etc.—after all, not every customer can afford a $100 head of coral. Also, keep inverts out of fish tanks unless they are for display only. On the flip side, you should keep very few fish in small invert tanks, sticking mainly to items like gobies, blennies, dottybacks, jawfish, basslets, etc. These tank mates should do well together and highlight one another. If you want tangs in your coral tanks to help with algae control, cut down your lights—or at least never sell the tangs once they are in the tanks. 


Selling coral has its own particular complication. Everyone is entitled to make a buck or two, and that is what has happened in the “coral frag” part of the marine trade. Every reef geek with some money and half an understanding of how coral can be maintained, propagated and fragged has a garage operation these days. These breeders—I use the term loosely—will sell to anyone. Continue to solicit their business as customers, but I would not buy from them—it just encourages the continuation of the phenomenon.


The coral frag vats so popular today are ugly and often make a store look like a warehouse. Eschew them for a more elegant and polished atmosphere that fits your space and signals your desire to stand above the average. I like a meandering lagoon concept with coves and beaches. Maybe even throw in a few live mangrove pods for good measure.


Marine fish are extremely diverse, and you will always have a few customers looking for predatory species, especially sharks. I refuse to sell anyone a shark until they bring in a photo of their tank with them standing next to it. If it passes my test and they give me a deposit, I get them a shark. All customers buying venomous or poisonous fish, such as  gold-stripe groupers, should sign a waiver. Lionfish are great, but I just hate the concept, and I draw the line at scorpion fish and blue-ring octopuses—there’s no need to have a customer in the hospital due to an animal you sold them. Rabbitfish are bad enough, but I love them. 


Live rock is a necessary evil that is invariably loaded with bad things, the least of which are Aiptasia anemones and bristle worms. I would sterilize all such rock when it comes in, but then you could not in good faith call it live. You must sell live rock, but you don’t want it taking up valuable space on the retail floor. I would stick it in the back of the store, where it does not interrupt the flow of your establishment. Keep it in long, low vats so customers can sort through it to find a piece they like, perhaps near the rocks you sell for freshwater tanks. 


Finally, I have left probably the most important thing for last. You may be the brains of your business, but your employees are the heart. It takes both of you working together in a coordinated effort to make things function properly. You should vet your people on an ongoing basis, both on their knowledge of animals and products and their customer skills. Don’t be afraid to get to know your employees. It’s the only way to find out how they really feel about you as a business owner and a person.


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.


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