Spineless Sales

Pet retailers should keep a well-maintained and diverse assortment of invertebrates to appeal to everyone in the hobby.


Pet retailers with a marine department may wonder just how important it is to carry marine invertebrates. Well, that depends on a number of factors—not the least of which is their clientele.

High-end reef shops may specialize in corals, fetching a pretty penny for the latest and greatest. In fact, custom or signature pieces may go for well over $1,000. On the other side of the coin are the “cleaners,” such as snails and hermit crabs. They may retail for as little as a dollar each and are commonly found in typical stores. What a store decides to stock in the marine invertebrates category will depend largely on the retailer’s focus and customer base.

Some stores may cater to the more advanced hobbyist, rather than novices or beginners. Reef stores and reef hobbyists can be quite selective. However, this type of philosophy can be a double-edged sword, for it may exclude a great number of potential buyers from even considering visiting a store with such a high-end selection.

My advice to shops with a marine department is to stock as much of the common stuff as possible, because every customer who comes through the door will be able to afford it. Items that are inexpensive are much less likely to be ordered online or comparison-shopped. You need to be the destination store that every level of marine enthusiast can depend on—both the novices and the aficionados. This is best accomplished by maintaining a diverse selection of livestock, keeping your prices competitive with local merchants, stocking hard goods that are both common and uncommon, and having the very best employees that your budget can afford.

Retailers may question whether they can really profit from selling marine invertebrates—excluding coral. Can you really make money selling snails, crabs, shrimp, anemones, sea hares, sea slugs, lobsters, sea stars, brittle stars, serpent stars, corallimorphs, clams, scallops, tunicates, sea urchins, hermit crabs, feather dusters, limpets, chitons, tube anemones, zoanthids, sponges, etc.? Well, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the names mentioned are extremely diverse in and of themselves. Snails alone probably yield over 100 species that are so-called, reef safe. (I prefer the term “reef tolerant,” which means that, in general, the invertebrate will not be a danger to coral or coral-like animals. It is also a reminder that there exceptions to every rule. I have seen the most benign organisms become destructive when conditions fall into a danger zone.)

Putting together an assortment of invertebrates for sale takes some know-how about to keep and display them. Most marine invertebrates offered for sale should be kept with as few fish as possible. When you are trying to dig out a sale item, you don’t want to disturb fish in the process. Also, many invertebrates are excellent food items for fish. As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, items like shrimp, crabs, anemones, sea stars and lobsters can also be predatory on each other.

For small specimens, acrylic units with multiple enclosures are highly recommended. In fact, these are just about your only logical choice if you are going to stock large quantities of solitary invertebrates. But, be careful—the cubicles must be foolproof or the inhabitants will simply crawl or jump out, and you will find them on the floor in the morning.

Many of the common invertebrates are filter-feeders, so they prefer “dirty” water. Never put snails, crabs, starfish, anemones or sponges in squeaky-clean environments. They need detritus, and frequently algae, if you are going to keep them alive long enough to sell.

The nano-tank craze fits in perfectly well with the sale of marine invertebrates. Many of these organisms remain small in size and, therefore, they make perfect inhabitants for aquariums ranging in size from five to 16 gallons. In fact, they do better than most fish. I think it is a great idea to give a gift certificate for invertebrates with every nano-tank sale you make. This will encourage people to try something they might otherwise have never considered.

Many people, however, will need some hand-holding when it comes to getting up to speed on maintenance of these creatures. The diversity is so great that many species even of a common type—snails, for example—may require different things in order to prosper. Let’s say a customer buys a few ramshorn snails for clean-up detail in his freshwater tank. If he decides to set up a marine tank, he may believe that marine snails all function the same way, buying a half-dozen turbo snails to eat the algae in his 75-gallon tank. A week later, half of them will be dead because they ran out of algae to eat. This would never happen to ramshorn snails because they will simply eat leftover fish food. They are true scavengers while the turbo snails are strictly herbivores, which feed only on hard surfaces, and never in the gravel or on plants.

For customers who are unfamiliar with the vast array of marine invertebrates, selecting which to take home can be quite intimidating. Take shrimp, for example. Cleaner shrimp will actually clean parasites from the skin, gills and mouth of fish. If no host fish are available, they simply scavenge for other items. The harlequin shrimp, on the other hand, prefer to eat one thing and only one thing: sea stars. This makes them problematic in two ways. First, they are relatively expensive, and second, feeding them can cost a lot of money. If you saw one in a pet shop and did not know its life style, you would never guess what a stone-cold killer it is.

Marine invertebrates should come with instructional information on their lifestyles, feeding preferences, maximum sizes and hardiness. Many of them are delicate, and most of them are vulnerable to predation from fish. People may come into your store, see an animal they like, and buy it with absolutely no knowledge of what is needed to keep it alive. For this reason, it is essential that retailers investigate the buyer’s ability to keep his purchase alive and healthy. Fish and invertebrates are not disposable items. It benefits everyone to ensure that the future caretakers of these species have the knowledge and tools to keep them alive.

It is also important for retailers to maintain invertebrates in a way that showcases them to their best advantage while giving them the habitat they need to survive. Cubicle systems come in handy when it comes to selling many invertebrates. If you don’t place them in some sort of solitary confinement, they may not be easy to find when a customer comes calling. The cubicle system is customer friendly and allows people to see exactly what they are looking for in invertebrates.

Finally, the best thing a retailer can do with marine invertebrates is to maintain a constant supply. Don’t go two weeks without critical items. Your customers are likely to find these items at another store and then go there the next time they need something. Don’t let this happen.

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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