A Spot-On Approach
The Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore., earned its status as an award-winning live animal retailer by focusing on unusual freshwater tropical fish and aiding the success of its loyal customer base of aquarium hobbyists.
Running a successful small business is never an easy undertaking—even less so if your merchandise requires food, care and is always swimming around. For Steve Lundblad and wife Marcie Rivera, co-owners of The Wet Spot Tropical Fish store in Portland, Ore., the key to being a prosperous live-animal retailer in a saturated marketplace is making sure they stand out in the crowd.
“My husband had this vision of wanting to provide the public with unusual fish that they didn’t see in chain stores,” says Rivera, who serves as the store’s CEO. “So he thought that having a retail pet store that offered these fish to the public would be good.”
What really makes The Wet Spot unique among aquatic retailers is the fact that it does not carry any of the popular saltwater species typically associated with pet shops. Every single fish, from the stunning cichlids to bright betas, is a native resident of freshwater.
“There wasn’t a solely dedicated shop to just freshwater fish, and most of the public think that there are no beautifully colored fish in freshwater. They usually think about beautifully colored fish with saltwater,” says Rivera. “So we wanted to dispel that myth.”
The Wet Spot’s story actually began when Lundblad was a boy with a love of aquatic animals, raising tropical fish in his parents’ basement. “When he was young, he wanted fish, so his parents always encouraged him and said, ‘You raise half the money for the aquarium or the fish and we’ll put in the rest,’” says Rivera of her husband. “He was always trying to save up his money so he could acquire another fish or another tank.”
This lifelong passion, combined with a great entrepreneurial drive, led to the establishment of The Wet Spot Tropical Fish in 1998. The name is an ode to the reality of owning a fish-focused pet shop, where a little water spillage is a common occurrence.
Identifying the shortage of freshwater fish in the market has certainly given The Wet Spot an advantage and has served the enterprise well over the years. Since its foundation 16 years ago (the store will be celebrating the anniversary of its opening this October), the business has doubled in size from 2,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet and is filled with 400 tanks of fish in every shape, size and color.
In order to provide a wide variety of interesting and exotic fish, the livestock is imported to the shop from locales all over the world, including Singapore, Malaysia and the Amazon River. But getting those fish from point A to point B can be a major hurdle.
“I think one of the biggest challenges facing everybody [in the business] are the regulations and rules that the government wants to pass [pertaining to] certain species, what you can import and what you can’t bring in,” says Rivera. “I think that’s always troublesome to the field because unfortunately, most of the people making these decisions aren’t really familiar with what’s really going on in the industry.”
Traveling such a long distance can also take a toll on the fish themselves. It is very common for the fish to reach the end of their journey stressed, malnourished or sickly. To make sure that the fish have the opportunity to properly recover from the trip, they are first transported to a separate holding facility rather than directly to The Wet Spot.
Rivera and Lundblad further ensure the health of their fish through individually filtered tanks, which prevent illnesses and disease from spreading from tank to tank by quarantining sick fish. This is notably different from other live fish stores that rely on central filtration systems. The Wet Spot keeps a specialist on staff to help monitor fish wellness as well.
Going the extra mile is a central part of The Wet Spot Tropical Fish mission of “selling the highest-quality, healthy fish in the marketplace,” according to Rivera. All of this special care and effort even led to the store being recognized with the Retailer Excellence Award for Best Live Animal Retailer at Global Pet Expo earlier this year.
Excellent customer service is another important aspect of the Rivera and Lundblad’s business model. Instead of focusing on the sale, Rivera says their goal is to build relationships with customers through friendly and knowledgeable expertise. “We just like to see [ourselves] as consultants, not as there to sell fish,” says Rivera. “We’re there to achieve what the customer wants and we’re there to hold their hands especially in the beginning. We want them to succeed. We do not want them to fail.”
This specialization in and dedication to quality freshwater fish has made The Wet Spot a destination for fish enthusiasts from all over the country. “Whenever a true hobbyist is in the area, we’re one of the spots that they have to hit,” says Rivera. And for those who can’t make the trip to Portland, The Wet Spot also does online orders and ships anywhere in the United States.
Fish aren’t the only thing The Wet Spot has to offer, though. Tanks, filters, a variety of nutritional fish foods, and plants—both live and artificial—are available, making it a one-stop shop for fish owners. There’s even a tank maintenance and set-up service for customers who live locally.
The biggest secret behind The Wet Spot’s success, however, is the staff’s genuine love and enthusiasm for the fish they care for and sell. “[Fish] are just so calming and beautiful. You can bring a small piece of the outdoor environment into your home,” says Rivera. “There are so many to choose from, and that’s why so many people end up getting more than one kind. It’s an addicting hobby, but it’s a healthy hobby.”
With more than a decade of growth and success under its belt, Rivera hopes that the future holds more of the same for The Wet Spot, continually expanding on its ample and varied selection of freshwater fish.
But a good business also has to be willing to change with the times or risk being left behind in the dust. “We’d like to keep moving with the trends in the aquatic world. We’d like to be in the forefront of that,” says Rivera. “So I think just expanding on our selection of fish, keeping the customers well informed about fish nutrition and any new things out there is how we see ourselves in the future.”
No matter what the future holds for aquatic retailers, though, Rivera says The Wet Spot Tropical Fish will always remain loyal to its customers and true to its freshwater roots.