Breathing Life into Livestock

For many retailers, livestock sales are bound to increase this fall, but clever merchandising and sourcing strategies can make sales soar.




Summer is over, and it is time to gear up for the high season of sales. Many fish tank owners neglect their aquariums over the summer and will be ready to make some new additions. Retailers can certainly expect fish sales to gradually increase by late September and continue an upswing through the end of the year—and this is going to happen no matter what fish are in stock. However, retailers that are looking for that extra pop in sales will need to stock up and merchandise wisely.

Maybe you know intrinsically what to order for your clientele. This would make you a fairly savvy buyer—few retailers have mastered that technique. For that matter, few storeowners have the time to pay that much attention to livestock sales. Retailers should depend on livestock managers to keep close tabs on what is selling and what is not.

One of my favorite techniques for targeting fish sales is to feature a specific group or type of fish every week. There are countless possibilities, but I recommend keeping it simple at first. Try these groups of freshwater fish and see how they sell: tetras, barbs, rasboras/danios, Corydoras catfish, loricariids, angelfish, dwarf cichlids, Rift Lake cichlids, Asian/African catfishes, Central/South American cichlids and livebearers. That’s a good three months worth of fish to put on sale.

Now, the question arises: What do I mean by putting them “on sale?” Do I mean selling them for less than usual? Not exactly. It means selling them cheaper by the dozen or cheaper when they are purchased in multiples. Buy two, get one at half price is a good sales concept; and for the schooling species, you can always offer a deal of buy three, get one free. Obviously, there are some species for which having too many specimens is a bad idea. For these, you can simply offer a straight discount of 10 to 25 percent.

It is important to have in-store advertising to direct customers to the specials. It is also beneficial to advertise in local papers, radio and/or TV, plus do mass-marketing mailings. However, don’t go crazy with the price reductions; the idea is to make money, not just fill up your customers’ tanks.

Looking for trends in livestock? I am seeing a major upswing in discus and angels, including all sizes from small to full adult. Discus are all about color and pattern—wild-collected specimens cannot match anything that man can create. The same applies to angels, of course, but that has been the case for many years. I was around for the introduction of both the marble and gold strains of angels. It was a major boon for the retailers lucky enough to get in on the crazes early on. It was all about big prices, big sales and big profits—everything good for increasing sales and generating enthusiasm in the fish-keeping public. Unfortunately, very few of these special events take place over the years.

As for glowfish—another hot trend recently—people are still buying them, but the novelty has worn off a bit. The lime green or “margarita” tetra is the newest addition that seems to be popular. It really shines under an actinic lamp. Some customers are still reluctant to buy glow, or transgenic fish. At this point, I have given up trying to explain to people how these fish are created. It turns off a good portion of the public and outright confuses many of the others. You should group glowfish in tanks side by side, if you can, and provide them with special lighting. They will sell better if displayed to best advantage. 

Presentation is key to selling livestock. The best-looking fish in the world in the worst-looking aquariums are not going to sell. Bettas sell ten times better when they are housed in long “betta runs” rather than glass bowls. When they can see each other, they will display frequently but not constantly.

Also, do not group bettas by color; it is better to alternate colors so that you have a more balanced display. Guaranteed, if you put all the red bettas together, someone will ask, “Why is this betta so much redder than the others?” The answer, of course, is that it is a super red or alpha betta and it is always going to appear redder. Color integration will give each individual fish a chance to shine and be sold.

One of the premier techniques for selling more aquatic livestock is offering an ever-changing selection of fish. For example, a retailer that commonly stocks six varieties of swordtails—velvet, brick, gold wag, brick tuxedo, velvet lyretail and green—may want to give customers a more diversified choice by replacing three of these with pineapple tux, brick wag and marigold lyretail. This pattern can be carried out with many types of fish such as tetras, barbs, Corydoras, mollies, guppies, Rift Lake cichlids, etc. The list is virtually endless, but the concept requires some actual work when it comes to ordering fish. There are far too many stores that purchase fish by using a standard, non-flexible approach. Some purchasers don’t even bother to check their inventory before filling out their order forms.
Getting in a rut is a bad idea for any business, but especially damaging for the sale of livestock. Not only should you vary what fish you carry, you should purchase them from numerous suppliers, not just a select few. Shopping around is a good way to learn about companies you have never ordered from.

Retailers also have to consider how they obtain the fish. Very few shops are lucky enough to be near a wholesaler, where they can pick out their own fish. Most retailers must run to the airport for their shipments. This is truly an expensive proposition. First, you need a vehicle large enough to hold many boxes of fish. Second, you must send someone to the airport—someone whom you can trust to both drive responsibly and negotiate with the freight company. If you live in a large city, just getting to the airport can be challenging. And, who knows what can happen when you get there? There may be missing, delayed or damaged shipments, over-charges on freight, waiting lines to pick up freight, or boxes staged in too-hot or -cold conditions. It’s all a nightmare.

The best way to receive livestock shipments is to have them delivered to your door by the company you ordered them from. This is possible in many parts of the country, but not all. It does not require you to make any special efforts except to have the tank space available when the fish arrive. Packing fish for shipment is an art form, and not every supplier does it as well as the next. Hopefully, you know who has the expertise in this area. Don’t order from firms that do a poor job of bagging fish.

Buy Coral, Buy Local
In the marine segment of the trade, there is so much going on in coral propagation that you can probably find a garage down the street where you can buy livestock. I was a garage fish breeder for years, so I hate to discourage this practice, but it is probably a good idea not to buy coral locally unless the facility is licensed and has a business location. Even then, if other local pet shops buy from this breeder, you should seek a different supplier so that your inventory is not coming from the same place as the other shops. In other words, be distinctive, stand out from the crowd and stock items other stores do not, will not or cannot carry. This is especially true in coral selection since reef hobbyists are all about getting something different.

Finding a good supplier for marine fish is a lot like trying to put a golf ball in a hole from 200 yards away. Most of the time you can get fairly close; sometimes you miss the mark by a long shot, but rarely, if ever, do you achieve your ultimate goal. There are many factors at play in this situation. These include: supply and demand, time of year, location of supplier, size of supplier and supplier’s facility. If all of your wishes are met, your marine supplier should be able to fulfill your needs most of the time. No one is ever going to be perfect. In order to get a leg up on your competition—in this case, that means anyone buying from the same supplier—you need to be finely tuned in to the arrival of overseas shipments. The “good” stuff will go fast, so you need to have a jump on everyone. This would entail a standing wish list that will be filled out automatically when the appropriate items arrive. You need to be the type of customer who deserves special attention because you order frequently and always pay invoices immediately. That alone should put you ahead of most retailers. 

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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