Swimming with Sharks

Running an aquatic-focused pet store every day is challenging, especially in the age of the internet. But Greg Housley shows how great customer service is still the key to success in the modern era.


When your products are constantly moving—literally—no two days at your store are ever the same.

“Running a fish store, it’s very unique and fast-paced. These are live animals, so this is basically controlled chaos,” says Greg Housley, owner of Kennesaw, Ga.-based aquatics retailer Optimum Aquarium. “There’s always something that can go wrong with a pump or a leak or a shelf falls down or an angry customer, which does happen, though not very often.”

Add on dealing with competition from big-box stores like PetSmart and Petco, other specialty aquatic stores and internet retailers, and it’s a wonder how small, independent pet retailers like Housley stay on top of it all each day.

For more than 12 years, Optimum Aquarium has been doing just that, providing Atlanta-area customers with a wide variety of high-quality products and aquatic livestock from around the world. Housley himself has been in the pet retail business for more than 30 years. What began as a job while he studied marketing in college turned into a job in aquatic wholesale, and then finally his own specialty retail store in early 2004.

“It was kind of a wandering path, but I’ve been in the pet business my whole adult life in one way or the other,” says Housley. “When I first started working in a store when I was younger, I didn’t really know a whole lot about fish. It just clicked with me and I got good at it. I was really lucky to make a career out of it.”

Starting the Day Swimmingly
At Optimum Aquarium, every day begins with a round of chores—cleaning each of the 24 tank systems, checking on the more than 100 species of fish and preparing the 4,000 square-foot store for customers—before opening the doors at 10 a.m.

Upon entering the store, shoppers are greeted with a friendly, “Hi, can I help you?” along with the sound of bubbling water filters, chatter from customers and some classic rock music playing over the speakers. 

Eyes are immediately drawn to the big display tank right in front of the main checkout counter. Filled with show-stopping creatures, including pufferfish, eels and a blue ring angelfish (Housley’s personal favorite), it is the epitome of a classic saltwater, fish-only aquarium and “kind of the mascot of the store,” says Nathan Justice, general manager.

More than one young child excitedly exclaims while peering curiously into the tank,  “Look, it’s Dory!” and “Where’s Nemo?” at the sight of the bright blue and yellow tangs in the tank, a reference to the popular Disney/Pixar characters.

“If I could, without them getting harassed by some of the other fish, I’d like to get a couple of clownfish in there,” Justice notes.

Each of Housley’s eight staff members is assigned to a different section of the store, such as manning the walls of tanks in the back of the store or working with the 265-gallon freshwater tank full of Amazon river fish, as Ben Riley does every Friday afternoon.

“During the week, it’s mainly keeping up with the tanks and systems, cleaning them out. On the weekends, it’s much busier. That’s when families come in here,” says Riley, who has been at Optimum for just over a year. “It’s just non-stop, informing people, helping people, selling equipment for tanks or helping them with setup.”

The clientele coming through the door each day at Optimum Aquarium can vary almost as much as the fish on display, from parents looking to buy their kid a 10-gallon tank and first feeder goldfish for Christmas to the “fish geeks” with the latest high-tech equipment. 

A majority, though, are “moderately serious hobbyists,” according to Justice. “They enjoy taking care of their tank, they know what they’re doing, they usually just need help with the finer points,” he says.

The store is located in a bustling outdoor shopping center just off of the busy Ernest W. Barrett Parkway. It’s actually Optimum Aquarium’s second location. For the first five years, the store was in nearby Marietta, Ga. According to Housley, the decision to move has proven to be a good one.

“It’s doing much better here,” he says. “[We moved] right when the economy was getting a little funky.  And the area we were in was smaller, less busy than this mall area.”

Another bonus of the new location: the store is now right next door to HobbyTown, popular retail hobby and toy store franchise—the perfect place to capture the attention of hobby-minded people.

Great Barriers to Success
A great location is a key part of Housley’s strategy for Optimum Aquarium’s success, but location alone isn’t enough for the store to overcome the challenges facing modern independent pet retailers.

With 30 years of experience under his belt, Housley witnessed many of the recent turbulent changes to the pet retail industry firsthand. When he started out in the 1980s, it was the heyday of mom and pop pet shops; a little store selling fish, dogs, cats and bunnies seemed to be on every other block. 

“As soon as the big-boxes came onto the scene, that put a lot of these mom-and-pop shops out of business and basically created a niche-only market in most big markets,” he says. “The big chains have created an environment where if you’re not a specialty high-end store, it’s really hard to compete.”

Optimum Aquarium found its niche catering to customers looking for marine fish, invertebrates, corals and live rocks—everything from venomous lionfish to seahorses. It also offers a variety of what Housley refers to as “oddball” freshwater livestock.

“We call them oddball fish—like cichlids and some of the more rare, unusual freshwater fish,” he explains. “We also carry a lot of your common things; beta fish are one of our best sellers. We don’t carry your everyday betas, though. We carry more of the exotic types of betas. We try to offer as much of a variety as we can get away with. We definitely try to play to our strengths, which is specialty stuff.”

With their focus on saltwater and specialty freshwater livestock, Optimum Aquarium doesn’t compete directly with big-box stores. In fact, there is a PetSmart just around the corner and, according to Housley, it actually sends business his way when customers can’t find what they’re looking for on their shelves.

“I can’t sell dog food and compete with PetSmart, but I can sell some exotic fish. And they don’t have any idea what it is and they don’t have it,” he says. “So, as long as there’s a market for it, I can stay in business.”

The greatest challenge to modern specialty pet stores like Housley’s, then, is not the big name franchises, but rather internet retailers. Like every other retail industry today, the specialty pet businesses are feeling the pressure from online stores. A simple Google search gives consumers access to hundreds of varieties of exotic fish and corals from across the globe, at prices most independent stores simply can’t afford to match.

“So, customers have to weigh, ‘Do I go in and support my local store and let them help me with this? Or do I just save the dollar and order it online?’” says Housley. “I totally understand both sides. I buy stuff on Amazon all the time. I could go into the auto parts store and get them to help me fix my car, but I’m ordering the part online for 10 bucks cheaper. I totally get it, but at the same time, it’s affecting the landscape of independent fish pet stores.”

The Gold(fish) Service Standard
So what helps Optimum Aquarium—and other independent pet retailers—stay competitive in the online age? “Service and quality,” says Housley. “That’s the only thing that’s going to give you the edge on the internet.”

At Optimum Aquarium, top-notch customer service is always the No. 1 goal. Throughout each day, staff members field questions from customers such as, “Is this fish good for my tank?” “How often should I be refreshing the water and cleaning the tank?” and “Is my fish sick?”

Working one-on-one with customers to solve their problems is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job, says Housley. “The majority of new customers don’t really understand the dynamic of what’s going on in the fish tank,” he adds. “That’s an easy thing to teach someone. Once they understand that, they should be successful.”

Although many customer quandaries remain the same, like how to fix algae problems or pick a filter, the industry is always evolving—especially in terms of technological innovations. That is why it’s so important for the sales staff to stay up to date and informed about the latest products and trends in the aquarium market.

“I rely a lot on my young guys, because they have more time and interest to ferret out all the new and different products, especially when it comes to some of this higher end technology like controllers and programmers that takes a lot of electronic savvy,” explains Housley.

Another major way Optimum Aquarium differentiates itself from the competition is through its maintenance and installation services. Staff members make house calls to customers who request help setting up a brand new aquarium or want their tanks regularly cleaned.

“Our bread and butter is someone walking in and saying, ‘I want a 210-gallon aquarium in my living room, and I don’t want to have to deal with it,’” says Justice, who is also the maintenance and service manager. “So, we’ll sell them the equipment, go out and set it up. And then every two weeks or so, depending on the type of aquarium, we’ll go and do the filter changes, the water changes, coral replacement and all of that.”

For Justice, building relationships with customers is both the best part of the job and the secret to their success. After all, the internet may be able to provide an inexpensive angel fish, but it can’t provide these kinds of personalized, extra-mile services. 

“I think what marks us as different is our focus on customer service, establishing that relationship,” he says. “One of the things we look for from employees is, ‘Are you personable?’ We need likeable fish nerds to work here because they’re going to service that customer much better.”

Tail End of the Day
Each day at Optimum Aquarium ends much like it began. Employees carefully check each system to ensure water levels are correct, fish are healthy and the lids are shut properly. Finally, the doors are locked until the whole chaotic process starts again tomorrow.

Housley remains optimistic for the future of Optimum Aquarium and the pet industry, despite the formidable challenges out there. “I’m sure the [independent pet store] business will exist in some form or other,” he says.

His main concern at the close of each day, though, is that the customers went home happy—and, of course, that they plan to come back again soon. “I like them to feel like they had a good experience and they were taken care of in a respectful way—that they got a good value,” he says.


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