Packaged Diets for Fish
When it comes to fish food, retailers should stock packaged diets, as well as fresh and frozen foods, to compete with big-box and chain stores.
Remember back in the day when you were going to buy a pasta-making machine and create everything from scratch, including your own pomodoro sauce? When the reality of how much work that was hit home, you switched tactics. Next, came the fresh pastas and sauces sold as refrigerated items. However, all of these carried a use by date, so if you waited too long, you had to throw the unused food away. Finally, you gave in and accepted that packaged dried pasta and glass jars of sauce were the right way to go. These gave you more flexibility to pick and choose what you wanted to eat, when you wished to eat it. Segue to the aquatics trade and these three options can be taken as the difference between feeding captive fish live, frozen and packaged foods.
Packaged diets have been available for tropical fish since the early 1900s. That is over 100 years of fish food manufacturing. Some of the first packaged diets consisted of nothing more than dried milk fats and proteins. Later, egg whites and egg yolks were added. It’s been a long and constantly evolving research until we reached where we are today. As someone who has been feeding captive fish for more than 50 years, I can truthfully say that the diets available today range from woefully inadequate to just as good as food found in the wild. What is missing is the fish’s need to seek and find foods. This internal drive has greatly diminished and with it, certain aspects of fish behavior are undoubtedly being lost or compromised.
In an aquarium, fish are rarely able to find food on their own. Whatever you place in the tank is what they must choose from. Either they eat or they don’t. You know the consequences. Too many fish owners throw food in their tanks without regard to its quality, constituents or quantity. People are all over the map. They feed too little, too much, inappropriate foods and without regard to a schedule. You eat at approximately the same time every day, so should your fish. If you randomly throw food in the tank, the fish are less likely to eat it—unless, of course, they are starving. Much like humans, fish do better on a routine.
Packaged diets enable the aquarium owner to feed fish at the same time every day without too much difficulty. While automatic feeders can accomplish this, it is always more productive to feed in person because fish react very strongly to the presence of a live body. Fish benefit from small, frequent feedings as well. The smaller the animal, the more often it needs to eat. Think of a human baby as a prime example of this.
Think Outside the Package
So, we’ve established that packaged diets are a great thing for the fish owner, the fish and even the store selling the fish food. However, there are drawbacks to carrying packaged diets and depending on them exclusively as a source of income from the fish food category. First and foremost, every big-box and chain store can carry packaged foods. Second, every website can sell packaged foods. This is real competition in today’s world, so as an independent shop owner, how are you going to meet that challenge? The answer is to be smart enough not to depend exclusively on packaged diets. You must sell your customers frozen and live foods as well. Sure, it’s more work, but it will also produce more revenue for your store.
When customers come in for their weekly purchase of live food, they often wander over to the aisle with the packaged foods and scan the shelves looking for specials, discounts or even new brands to try. It’s the same thing with frozen foods except in this case, there are few frozen mixes passing themselves off as complete diets. It’s bad enough that all-inclusive diets can be dry-packaged, it’s much less likely that frozen foods can contain all the elements needed to keep fish healthy and happy. Use your live and frozen fish food selections as leverage to sell more of the packaged diets. This will require some propaganda on your part and the fish food manufacturers themselves.
Why would you carry the exact same brands of packaged foods as the big box and chain stores? They are almost certainly going to beat you on price. If you do match their prices, your margin is going to shrink to a miniscule level. The secret is to think “outside the package” and carry those brands that have not sold out to the mass merchandisers. Many of these are foods produced by smaller companies that have taken the time and made the effort to research what ingredients deliver the best results to enhance fish health.
When stocking fish food, you should separate the basic options from the more enhanced. One side of the aisle can have the more expensive and, hopefully, better brands for your fish’s health. The other side has the cheaper, but perhaps higher profile foods, which may or may not deliver the necessary essential ingredients for proper fish health. Make it obvious which brands your store endorses as more effective. To promote the more nutritious food, run a special on these brands. Offer a 20 percent discount for a week or so, and once a fish owner tries these he will be unlikely to go back.
Now, if you are wondering what percentage of aquarium owners need the better fish food, it’s probably lower than you believe. But try not to think that way. Think about what will be better for the fish and better for your chances of increasing the success rate of your customers. Happy healthy fish should create happy fish hobbyists and increase your business since these successful aquarists often add more tanks to their home. As a retailer, after you have reached your primary goal of making money and staying solvent, your next challenge should be educating the customers and improving their success rates with fish tanks. Proper aquarium maintenance includes a well-organized schedule for tank cleaning and fish husbandry. These are areas of expertise that you and your employees should have mastered and you need to pass on your knowledge to anyone who is willing to listen.
Your shop should carry not only foods at various price points, but a variety of specialty foods. Some examples include algae wafers for vegetarian species, large pellets for fish of size, floating pellets for fish that prefer to eat from the surface, freeze-dried foods—shrimp, daphnia, blood worms, etc.—for carnivores, algae-sheets for a variety of marine and freshwater species, and micro pellets of many types for miniature. These foods will be very beneficial for the fish, as well as your bottom line.
An aquatics store must depend on repeat business in order to survive. Customer service includes a great selection of fish foods, a dynamic knowledgeable sales staff, an unparalleled selection of livestock and a philosophy that believes the store must educate its clientele rather than simply sell product. There should be a bond with the customer—we are all in this together, let me help you be the best that you wish to be. 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.