Navigating the marine livestock trade presents numerous challenges, but with some careful consideration, retailers can profit abundantly from the category.
While the marine livestock trade is overflowing with opportunity for pet specialty retailers, it is also a pet segment that is fraught with challenges. Stores that can build a good mix of fish and invertebrates that work synergistically to provide a fully stocked yet flexible selection of organisms will certainly benefit from a loyal customer base of enthusiastic hobbyists, but accomplishing this lofty goal is no easy feat. The very nature of this trade requires retailers to not only stay at the forefront of the latest hobbyist trends, but also deal with a variety of sourcing issues and contend with some pretty stiff competition from a number of directions.
Unlike in the freshwater livestock arena, there are many shops that specialize in stocking only the newest, rarest and most impressive specimens of corals. Of course, if this is what customers want, a store should be able to supply it. Also unlike the tropical hobby, there are many coral hobbyists who are acting as retailers. They frag their corals and both trade and sell them to other aficionados. They are, therefore, in competition with you.
The existence of numerous hobby/retail coral breeders is a vexing problem, as is Internet competition. In the segment of our trade dealing specifically with corals, it is big business to sell coral frags online. This means that local retailers have competitors not just in their own geographic area, but all across the country. So what do you do about this? The best approach may be to visit these coral breeders when they offer to sell you frags or pieces of coral. At least you will be able to see what their operations look like. Knowledge is power, but it only works in your favor if you are able to do something constructive with it.
As far as marine animals other than coral, you will want to search long and hard for companies that carry a wide range of items and almost always have the things you need on a regular basis. A lot of stores like to stock high-priced fish and make a few impressive sales rather than numerous sales of more common items. I will always trade six yellow tang sales for one or two blue hippo tangs. Why? Because the odds are great the customers buying the hippos only want them because they were inspired by the movie Finding Nemo. Such fish will be dead in short order, and even expert marine aquarists have trouble with this species. Stay away from selling blue hippo, powder-blue, powder-brown and Achilles tangs unless the buyers have UV-sterilization and know how to acclimate such fish properly.
When it comes to selling marine fish and any reef corals, I would never offer a guarantee. Too many things can go wrong that you have no control over. You should concentrate on items that every level of hobbyist will need, such as small snails, crabs, shrimp and a wide assortment of invertebrates that are pretty much bulletproof as far as water chemistry is concerned.
Keep it Fresh
Customers will come in all the time looking for unusual items in both the freshwater and marine habitats. It’s very important to order livestock on a regular basis so customers see something new during each visit. Once a customer comes in three times and sees that your livestock selection is static, they are not going to make that weekly trip any more. Special orders are always a way to gain customer loyalty and build a clientele that is dynamic. Periodic sales can add to this vitality, but be certain they are not too predictable. Everyone runs a sale on July 4th; how about a sale for September 16 (Mexican Independence Day) or St. Patrick’s Day when everyone can save a little green? In short, livestock trends are what you make of them. Don’t forget, your margin on livestock is a lot higher than your margin on dry goods.
Finally, if your shop is too small, too remote or too under-financed to carry a wide selection of fish, you should consider stocking cyber-fish. This would be a series of photos you assemble—probably from the Internet—for customers to file through in search of the fish they find interesting. Once they have given you this information, you can determine if it is worth your time and effort to order these items. Obviously, only use photos of fish you know you are able to purchase. This technique will expand your fish selection exponentially and may uncover items that turn out to be your trendsetters.
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.