Taking Stock of Livestock
by Ed Taylor
September 1, 2012
Taking the time to evaluate and fix the shortcomings in your livestock department can translate into happier customers and stronger sales.

There comes a time when every retailer has to evaluate the state of its aquatics department. Is your equipment old? Are your aquariums scratched? Do your filters frequently stop running for no reason? Is your lighting dingy and outdated, or is your décor non-existent? If you answered yes to any of these questions, how do you expect to sell fish?

Selling livestock is not entirely about the livestock itself—it’s also about the presentation. Many aquatics departments could use a makeover, an overhaul or at least some tweaking. The effort, of course, requires time, money and patience, and these commodities might be in short supply right now with the economy struggling to recover. Still, the endeavor can be a worthwhile investment. Properly displaying, pricing and caring for livestock goes a long way to increase a store’s bottom line.

I recommend a modest start, just to prove that upgrading equipment will actually yield tangible results. Obviously, a retailer can’t deconstruct its entire fish room all at once. Select a portion of your livestock display that easily lends itself to being upgraded. Hopefully, this will be no more than a handful of tanks. Depending on your store’s configuration, it might be thirty 10-gallon tanks, twenty 20-gallon tanks, fifteen 30-gallon tanks or eight 75-gallon tanks—whatever the number, it should be enough to make an impact. From there, you can decide what issues need to be addressed.

Maybe your tank filtration is old or inadequate. If you don’t use drilled tanks, it means you must select either power or canister filters. These require a good deal of maintenance, and keeping up with their cleaning schedule can be a challenge. While an integrated system might seem both time and cost effective, you should consider the fact that none of your customers will employ this technique. Even people with drilled aquariums will be using sumps, and these usually lack good mechanical filtration. An obvious choice is to use identical filters on tanks of the same size. If you have tanks back to back and want to employ power filters, you must leave adequate space for their deployment. Canister filters require less space between the tanks, but more space under the tanks.

Many canister and power filters have proprietary cartridges, inserts, pads, bags, etc. These are great to sell to customers, but it will cost you a small fortune to use on store tanks. Instead, I suggest selecting a power filter that can be customized to fit the tank’s needs.

There are other advantages to using power filters. My preference for power filters over canisters is all about the visible output. For the most part, canisters return water to aquariums below the water level. This makes it a bit more difficult to judge the flow without really studying each one carefully or putting your hand in the tank to feel the flow. With power filters, the water is returned above the water’s surface, using a waterfall technique that is easily visible. This makes it easy to tell when the flow decreases and you can rectify the situation. Also, the falling water will add a good deal of oxygen to the water, and with the aid of air stones, the flow guarantees good circulation throughout the tank environment.

 If you decide to use canister filters, remember that hoses can develop pinhole leaks after extended usage. Also, these filters will have to go under the tanks, which means a lot of bending over and moving the canisters to a place where the parts and the boxes can be cleaned. There is no such problem with a power filter.

 Let’s move on to another area to consider when refurbishing the aquatics department: decor. Fish sell better when they are “happy.” They are not happy unless they have the proper décor. Every species of fish or group of fish deserves individual consideration and decor specific to their needs, so this means you’ll want to avoid committing to one fixed look for every tank.

Fortunately, many fish do quite well in similar environments, so you do not need every tank to be strikingly unique. In fact, I like to tie my tanks together by using what I call “foundation” décor items. In any given size of aquarium, I employ one or more artificial caves—size dependent on the gallonage. These act as décor focal points that I can build around.

Selection and Presentation

Some stores prefer to display their fish in groups—for example, all tetra tanks together, all rainbow tanks together, all catfish tanks together, etc. This might be easier for employees to deal with, since they won’t have to run around looking for all the barbs, but I believe it reduces sales in a very unexpected way. If you show customers 10 tetras in a row that vary in price from $1 to $8, many will choose the cheaper fish. When you scatter fish from the same groups (e.g. tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, cichlids, catfish, etc.), people are much more likely to choose items they like, rather than shopping by price.

Customers are always coming to me and saying, “What fish do you recommend for my tank?” Once I learn the specifics of their setup, I say, “Search our tanks for fish you like. Come back when you have found several items. Then we will look at them together, and I will advise which fish might be best for you. You should pick the fish for your tank—not me.”

Inventory of livestock should never be static. Customers who come into your store every other week should expect to see new items. This is particularly true for people who are looking for more unusual items. If they come back again and again and rarely see anything new, they will stop coming back as frequently.

There is, however, a bit of a twist on this theme when it comes to marine livestock—especially fish. Since many reef fish can be quite costly, people are frequently reluctant to purchase them. In these cases, smart shoppers will come back over a series of weeks to see how certain fish are doing. If the fish are gone, it is no big deal to most people. If the fish are still there and looking healthy, the customers will be back again. The issue with reef fish is not knowing how they are collected. Problems frequently take two to three weeks to show up. Savvy customers know this, and they are willing to wait for that special fish.

The next question you need to ask yourself is: Do you only want to sell more aquatic livestock, or do you also want to make more money on the livestock you sell? If you are constantly running sales on livestock, people will wait to buy the fish when they are on sale. This skews your sales figures and makes it difficult to calculate profit. In reality, expensive fish should never be sold at discounts equal to that offered on inexpensive items.

Let’s say you purchase giant danios at 23 cents each and normally sell them for $1.49. That means you are getting back at least six times your cost, taking into account shipping and subsequent losses. On the other hand, you might pay $8 for baby whales that you sell for $25. This is only a return of three times your cost. If you put both of these items on sale for 25-percent off, the prices will be approximately $1.12 and $18.75, respectively. Now, you are still making almost five times your cost on the danios but only two and a quarter times your cost on the baby whales. If you lose any of the whales, this number quickly deflates even further—not so with the danios. Livestock sales should be more like a flash mob: scattered and unexpected. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a total merchandise clearance every so often or seasonally.

Considering the cost of marine fish, especially the expensive species—$25 and up—I would almost never put them on sale. Instead, it’s much better to give selected customers “special prices” to reward their loyalty and their fishkeeping skills. People who are constantly returning with stories of mayhem and wipeouts do not deserve any sympathy or special consideration. Reward your best customers with your best prices; encourage them to return. The “death and destruction” individuals will probably never learn their lessons.

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.