Is aquatic livestock a major portion of your sales? Do you depend on livestock to put you “over the hump?” Many stores emphasize merchandise rather than livestock. These are typically the big-box discount or chain retailers that are able to sell goods at low prices due to their purchasing power. Most independent pet specialty stores, however, do not have the flexibility or leverage to offer goods at “sale” prices at all times, but what they can do is use their expertise to carry an assortment of fish that attracts customers and rivals—or even tops—what the competition offers.
The major groups of livestock a retailer needs to consider if carrying a full line of aquatics are Florida-raised fish, captive and wild-caught Southeast Asian fish, African fish (wild-caught), Rift Lake cichlids, wild South American fish, koi and goldfish, captive and wild-caught marine fish, marine invertebrates, wild or captive-raised corals, live rock for marine applications, freshwater aquarium aquatic plants, freshwater pond aquatic/bog plants and genetic discus strains.
This lineup may seem daunting, but it does represent all the types of aquatic livestock that a full-line store must deal with. Retailers should keep in mind that the thing that often brings customers back again and again is a dynamic, constantly evolving assortment. It’s very important to give people something different as often as possible. Customers who specialize in certain groups or types of fish, on the other hand, are particularly focus-driven. Rift Lake cichlids fans, L-number pleco lovers, brackish-water devotees and loach enthusiasts, for example, are all likely to care very little about any fish outside their narrow circles of interest.
Retailers should try to incorporate every major category of fish when purchasing livestock. This is a challenge, since few,—if any—suppliers carry an inventory wide enough to provide all of a retailer’s needs. In fact, it is critical to a store’s success to purchase from as many livestock suppliers as possible, being careful to eliminate those that do not live up to expectations. Retailers may consider working with hobbyist breeders who can supply fish that can’t be obtained from commercial sources. Sometimes, these people are a retailer’s best bet for items such as angels, discus, rare Rift Lake species, killifish and even livebearer strains.
Just having the “right” livestock in the house, however, does not guarantee that it will sell. Retailers must do everything possible to showcase new items. I would start by advertising the selection on the store’s website. Stocking exotic livestock can distinguish a store from its competitors, so it makes sense to emphasize that feature of the business. People may come from many miles away to visit a store, but they are more likely to visit if the website tells them what to look for.
It is extremely important that your fish displays are creative, even inspirational, but most of all worthy of the species being maintained. Many stores make the mistake of having run-of-the-mill tanks with spectacular fish. This lack of imagination actually degrades the value of the livestock.
A special section of the fish department would be the best place to showcase rare, unusual and expensive items. I would never consider putting high-end species next to the common fish on the lower end of the price scale. Again, co-locating the two is just another way of degrading the value of the unusual.
Labeling is an important aspect of showcasing a store’s fish assortment. Every fish for sale should be labeled. Typically, there is a label for each species or variety (strain). Most stores do not have the luxury of single-species tanks, so fish are mixed together, hopefully in a compatible fashion. This means there are multiple labels for most tanks. While employees should not need to depend on labels to identify fish, many of your customers will.
In fact, labels must supply a great deal of information if they are to be valuable. First, the fish must be identified by its common trade name. Since trade names can vary, the scientific name should be available as well. I use scientific names even on labels for common fish, such as cardinal tetras, tiger barbs, zebra danios, etc.
Labels should also include a description of the fish. If males and females are different, their characteristics should also be detailed. Next, list the geographic distributions, wild-caught or captive-raised status, water requirements, food preferences, etc. Finally, include the price, with a variation, perhaps, for fish sold in pairs or groups.
One of the major problems in dealing with livestock is keeping it alive long enough to sell it. This is not always as simple as it sounds. With fish and animals coming and going on a constant basis, it is easy to introduce parasites and/or diseases when new items come in contact with existing ones. The question arises, do you hold on to items until they sell without much reduction in price or sell items off as quickly as possible, even if you must sell them at a discount? I recommend holding on to expensive livestock items for as long as it takes to sell them. The price line break might come around $20 to $25. Expensive livestock is often more fragile, so if you have fish or inverts that have “settled in” and are thriving, it does not make sense to clear them out cheaply. The next batch of up-scale animals might not acclimate quite as well.
When a specific species or type of fish sells quickly, I try to follow up immediately with another batch of the same. These may or may not sell as well, but you will never know unless you try. Once you have reached a saturation point for a given fish, discontinue it for a while, perhaps until people start to ask for it. Even items as popular as discus, for example, might benefit from a “rest period,” but it is difficult to do this if you have dedicated specific tanks for discus.
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.