Reaching the Masses
Well-planned marketing and merchandising techniques are imperative to a healthy fish business.
Upon entering your store, a large sign with daily specials should greet every customer. These specials should change daily, with the new discounted items for the next day posted by closing of the previous day. Bear in mind, items going on the “Daily Specials” board need not have been purchased specifically for selling in this way. The selection of these items should be essentially random, with the only stipulation being you have an adequate supply to accommodate anyone wishing to take advantage of the sale.
There is nothing more important for marketing than keeping up your social media. I recommend using as wide a variety of platforms as you can handle. While websites are great for telling people all about who you are and what you sell, Facebook does a better job of covering the day-to-day events and sales that are going on at your store. Whatever the easiest platform to use on a mobile device is, that’s what you want to advertise on. And while you are at it, you should have specials that are only posted online and not at your store. Customers will be asked to bring in a special code in order to receive or benefit from these cyber sales.
You may ask yourself the difference between merchandising and marketing. I like to compare this to the dilemma of which came first—the chicken or the egg? In our case, marketing comes first. Proper marketing drives people to products. Once the products are available, sufficient merchandising will sell the product. To some extent, it is up to manufacturers to market their products.
However, in today’s pet industry—specifically in the aquatic segment—the retailer ends up shouldering most of the responsibility for both marketing and merchandising. In the good old days, most aquatic companies were independently owned, not just another element of a giant corporate behemoth. There were lots of salesmen out there on the road, constantly keeping in touch with retailers. In other words, a shop owner could put a face on a company and the products that it produced. Some companies have even gone the route of selling direct to retailers, but most stores order from an ever-narrowing number of distributors that are mainly storing and shipping facilities. As a result, the burden falls more on the retailer than ever before.
I may be a one-man cheering section when it comes to certain aspects of aquatic marketing and merchandising. I like to believe I have a modern and successful approach to what will work best for many stores. Concentrate on the things you can do that not everyone else can.
First of all, locate your store geographically in an easy-access location. Pick an area with few independent stores. The number of chain stores is inconsequential if you follow my philosophy.
Second, it’s all about the livestock, not the dry goods. Anyone can have products on the shelves. Only people who know what they are doing will have great livestock. You need to be in tune with your suppliers, and that means knowing them personally. Fish should come from domestic and foreign sources. If you don’t have an airport near you with decent service, it is going to make your job that much more difficult. The aquatics trade is not for the faint of heart, but it will pay great dividends if you are diligent.
Third, only carry products that you know and trust. If a new item comes along, don’t buy it immediately—vet it first. See if it really works as well as the hype says it does. Stock products, and product lines, that your competitors do not sell. Some overlap will be unavoidable, but try to emphasis your proprietary items if they are, indeed, better.
When it comes to freshwater livestock, you want to carry a wide assortment of fish from all over the world. Stay away from small specimens by paying a few extra pennies for medium to large fish. The only time you want small fish is when the species is small overall. A good example would be neon tetras, which only reach 1.75 in. Some big-box and chain stores will sell these at less than an inch. Never carry neons this small. Go the extra mile by buying large fish and selling at low prices. Any common fish in the following groups should only be stocked at medium/large sizes: tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, rainbows, swordtails, platies, mollies, guppies, Corydoras catfishes, algae-eaters, plecos, freshwater sharks, gouramis, etc.
Do you know how and where to get imported fishes? Do you know what airports to pick them up at? Have you visited the holding and shipping facilities of your importers? Can you call up your suppliers and get your favorite salesperson on the phone? Do you know the seasonality schedule for such items as clown loaches, wild discus, Congo River Synodontis, L-number plecos, etc. I hope you are getting the point. You need to know your fish in order to merchandise them properly. And it will not be satisfactory for you to be the only expert on the playing field. You need to have excellent employees who specialize in different groups of fish. That way, you will feel comfortable when you walk out the front door.
Ideas for marketing products revolve around one concept—reliability. From fish and fish foods, to aquariums and filters, to heaters and lighting, you should only carry what works and sells for a reasonable price. Bigger is not better when it comes to product lines. A few good fish foods are better than a bunch of mediocre brands.
As far as corals are concerned, it’s a bit of a crap-shoot, since so many people are getting in on the act. You have reef shops, coral frag garage stores and frag wholesalers/growers. All of these are selling online, and many have brick-and-mortar locations. It’s a competitive mishmash that you might choose to avoid. This can be done by selling larger coral specimens, rather than the micro-frags that are so common. Avoid designer corals because they have nothing to do with day-to-day sales that keep you in business.
Let’s say your favorite filter is Brand XYZ. This product line is the one you will feature on your website and Facebook page. Tie any cyber-advertising to similar product displays in your store. The same approach can be used for any type of product with the exception of fish tanks. In this case, there is little difference from one company to the next. You may as well buy your aquariums when you get a great price and put them on sale only when you can afford to do so. Nowadays, many people buy their first tank from a website rather than an aquatics store. Used tanks are a dime a dozen, so the opportunity to make money this way will come mainly on specialty tanks.
The very best merchandising tool you have available to you is probably your most convenient. That would be your employees. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have good people. You need knowledgeable, reliable, personable, well-groomed and honest personnel. Sales associates should take pride in their jobs and strive to help the customers rather than make a sale. I do not like the concept of departmental sales contests. It feels like something you would do at a used car dealership.
Educate yourself, your sales staff and your customers. Not all the answers to problems with tank setups and fish can be found on online forums. Your store needs to be the place that people come for advice and products. 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.