Freshwater Livestock Report

Selling freshwater livestock has never required a higher level of competency than it does now.



Since this country is in the midst of an economic downturn, it is a good time for retailers to evaluate their sales strategy when it comes to freshwater livestock. Big-box stores only sing one note as far as pricing is concerned–cheap. It would be difficult for these businesses to lower their prices much further and still make money on livestock. So how can independent retailers possibly compete with stores that sell their livestock so inexpensively?

Selling freshwater livestock requires a high level of competency. A store with the complete package has a good selection of fish; healthy livestock (no small, sickly or under-nourished specimens); outstanding tank décor; a knowledgeable and friendly sales staff; and flexible pricing.

A lot of retailers have been dropping their prices on basic or “community tank” items, even though it cuts into their bottom line. The reasoning behind this seems to be twofold. First, to compete with mass merchandisers in this dramatic economy and, secondly, to provide the penny pinchers of this economy with cheaper fish. It is my feeling that in the freshwater livestock segment of the trade, this philosophy is unwise, possibly even unsound. Dropping prices may get a few of the big-box shoppers to come in and buy fish, but they are already bargain shoppers, and there may be little gained by getting them through the door.

In my opinion, it’s time to go in a completely different direction. Instead of selling “small and cheap,” try selling “high-quality and exotic.” If every big-box store has brick swords, the independent stores should have velvet swords. If every chain store has velvet swords, the independent stores should stock painted swords. In other words, carry unusual varieties of common items and try hard to stock larger specimens, not the tiny fish you frequently see at Warehouse City. This makes it difficult for customers to compare prices but, more importantly, it gives them choices they can’t find at other locations.


Don’t expect customers to buy a fish they don’t know, if an employee isn’t there to discuss it with them. There has to be what I call “pro-active salesmanship.” Explore, for a moment, the concept of selling cars. A customer needs a new car but doesn’t really know what they want. They enter the showroom and are met by a greeter who makes initial contact and introduces the customer to a salesman. This salesperson may show the customer various options, or he or she may let the customer wander around alone. When the customer shows an interest in SUVs, they will be paired with an SUV specialist who can discuss the details regarding all the SUVs on the lot. And it goes without saying that the price is negotiable.

The same concept can be adopted in a pet store. A customer comes in and says he wants fish for his tank but doesn’t know exactly what he wants. An employee can either take the customer around to show him various fish, or the customer can look around on his own. When the customer finds some fish that pique his interest, the employee should find out about his tank and help him to select the fish. This should be done with the customer’s best interests in mind, not just to make a sale. And prices should be negotiable.

Flexible Pricing

Yes, it is time to offer flexible pricing on freshwater livestock, but it is not the time to advertise this–unless employees have a lot of time to spend haggling over prices. Instead, change the price in order to make a sale, not just to make a customer feel like he is getting a deal. The best items to flex prices on are the high-ticket specialty fish like three-inch or larger discus; adult pairs of Rift Lake haplochromines and peacocks; arowanas; fancy goldfish and koi; breeding-size Neotropical cichlids; L-number plecos; fancy synodontis; and breeding-size specimens of any schooling fish (bought in quantity).

Selling Tips

It may be a good time to cut back on how many large fish are being sold in the store. If customers are really feeling a pinch in this economy, they are not going to want another giant mouth to feed. It will be easier for them to feed a tank full of small, highly colored ornamentals for a few pennies than a pair of giant Oscars that might eat as much as a small child. Don’t do away with large fish completely, just scale back until the economy gets better. There are still plenty of expensive fish that won’t outgrow every tank they call home.

When the store gets a shipment of new fish, take time to show them to all the employees. Signage can only go so far; a one-on-one between customer and employee is critical to success. Offer sales incentives to employees, like three percent of the sale. At the end of the day, any hourly worker will appreciate the extra dollars, and this sort of encouragement leads to the sale of more expensive fish.

For example, what retailer wants to sell a blue moon platy when they can sell a high-fin, tri-color “Mickey Mouse” platy? The price of the “Mickey Mouse” platy is probably four times as great, and many customers will buy the more expensive fish if it is merchandised properly. Therefore, in this tough economy, employees who know a lot about fish and have good rapport with customers are worth their weight in gold.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer & wholesaler, & fish-hatchery manager.

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