Alive and Well

Livestock trends come and go, so retailers need to stay abreast of the market and decide what works for their customers.


I have been around the aquarium hobby and industry since 1965, and I have seen a lot of livestock trends come and go. For example, even before my time, angels were all the rage, until discus showed up. Then, African cichlids from the Rift Lakes came in, and everyone flocked to them. Now, it’s all about live corals and nano-tanks for corals, an affordable alternative to pricey coral. From marine nano, we have now segued into desktop tanks, primarily for freshwater items.

Of course, the best trend is the one that works for you. However, step one is knowing what is trending in the market.

There is a massive push in the industry to sell small table-top or personal tanks, in the range of two to eight gallons. They are made from plastic rather than glass. Retailers that stock these and make attractive live-fish displays are guaranteed to sell more bettas, neon tetras, glowlight tetras and other small species that can survive in close quarters. Most of these are relatively inexpensive, unless you get into the newer micro-species coming from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

A really big livestock trend plays into the nano-tank theme very well. Most of the rest of the world is way ahead of us in falling in love with exotic freshwater shrimp. They have been around for years in Asia and Europe, but they are just starting to surge in popularity in the U.S. The desktop tanks work great for most of the shrimp species. Only a few are so big or aggressive that they require larger quarters.

If you go this route, be certain to stock shrimp food, shrimp décor and shrimp substrate. Yes, it can be that specific. Keeping these shrimp with fish is perfectly OK, except it completely changes their behavior. It’s much more entertaining and educational to give exotic shrimp their own habitat. Don’t make them share it with rowdy tankmates.

Of course, not everything that glitters turns out to be gold. Sometimes, however, glowing things can make you a lot of cash. In this case, I am talking about GloFish and the explosion of interest in these transgenic wonders. Today, there are more colors than ever, over a wide range of species. Merchandise that glows like the fish is a great complement to the livestock, and you can easily create displays that showcase both.

Another species benefiting from the mini-tank craze is the guppy. It is a perfect companion for small environments. There are many exotic varieties from the Far East, and you may find yourself re-evaluating the role that guppies can play in your inventory. The guppy is truly reborn, as far as the U.S. trade is concerned. I recommend carrying at least a dozen strains with variations in color and finnage. Set up display tanks that match their colors to the dominant colors of the guppies housed inside. Talk about an item that is bulletproof—it’s the guppy. Once again, however, if you don’t display them properly, you are wasting space and money.

Still, despite the nano craze, bigger is often better when it comes to making money on aquarium products. Smaller environments cut down on total dollar sales in both equipment and livestock. If your shop is looking to be a trendsetter, it should be in the mega category, not the mini field. Certainly, you should carry the boutique-size tanks, just don’t sell them dirt cheap. Save discounts like that for the big items, such as aquariums of 75-gallons or larger. Think of how much you can make on those accessories and the numerous fish it will take to populate such large tanks.

Here’s a trend that only a few businesses can really wade into without going completely under water. Today’s marketplace somehow supports a fair number of high-end reef stores that specialize in truly exotic varieties and/or species of corals. Some people call these signature corals, others call them custom or even hand-crafted corals. No matter what you call them, they are big-ticket items, and selling a couple of them every day can more than cover your costs and give you a hefty profit.

Most shops, however, will not be able to compete with specialty coral merchandisers. It is all about supply and demand, and if there are too many shops, the competition will drive prices down. The average store will do better selling coral that the majority of customers can afford.

Most retail space cannot afford to be wasted, so it’s important to keep up with trends in both livestock and merchandise. When the next big thing hits, you want to be able to get in on the action from the very beginning. Flexibility in your livestock inventory will allow you to do this. Don’t get locked into a pattern that will be difficult to change. This means you should constantly be cycling your selection of fish, rather than stocking the same old items, week after week. Changing things up is the only way you are likely to discover what is selling.

Most stores do not keep extensive notes on what is selling and what is not. It’s more intuitive than anything else. If an item is sold out, a storeowner may assume it is selling. If there are a ton of the items on the shelf, it must not be selling. But this is not the most accurate means of determining what works best the customer base. One way to ensure that the store’s livestock inventory meets local demand is to simply ask the customers. Take a survey by asking people to write down fish they would like to see you carry. Make up a one-page questionnaire for customers to fill out. Most people will only be able to supply common names, so keep the form as simple as possible. Reward commenters who provide their contact information by entering them into a weekly raffle. A small prize or gift certificate will be sufficient motivation to fill out the form. I guarantee you will get some good suggestions from this concept.

On a final note, one of the livestock trends I see that I take major exception to is the sale of fish at small sizes, rather than as full adults. I am not talking about cichlids, because it is common practice to see these in a variety of sizes. I mean the bread-and-butter schooling species that are, by far, the best choices for community setups. These include tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, rainbows and, to some extent, livebearers. These fish should only be sold as full adults, or perhaps in two sizes: mature and jumbo. Many retailers are selling the juveniles because they are cheaper to buy, and they look like they will live comfortably in the new mini tanks. This is an illusion—a trick played on consumers who don’t know any better. Don’t fall into this practice, because it can only create ill will between you and consumers.

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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