During almost any discussion concerning fish foods, one question always arises: Is there a food, or several foods, that can be considered a complete diet and does not need to be supplemented with any additional food items? The answer is: Even if this food exists, run away from it as fast as you can. Do you want to reduce your fish food sales to a single item? That would be financial suicide—unless, of course, you are the sole distributor for this miracle product.
When it comes to the sales of fish food, everything needs to be balanced—some manufactured, some frozen and some live. And it’s up to each retailer to find the perfect balance.
Live food sales are not for every store, but if they can give your business a leg up over your competitors, go for it. If your main focus is aquatic livestock, because the big-box stores limit your hard-goods sales, then go hard in the live foods category.
If your sales area has very little competition, you could probably choose to de-emphasize live foods, but would this be fair to your customers? When you are the only game in town, live foods become a major customer service item that will bring people back again and again.
The use of live foods to feed tropical fish has changed a lot over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, a store that carried live foods was most likely to have items such as daphnia, cyclops, tubifex worms, micro-worms, glass larvae, and like today, brine shrimp. In other words, the emphasis was on feeding small ornamental species—not the large predatory fish that are so popular today.
A good variety of live feeders is essential if you are going to cater to modern customers. We are talking small and large feeder goldfish, shiners, rosy reds, crawfish (where they are legal), ghost shrimp and guppies. Throw in brine shrimp and black worms for smaller species, and you have a live foods assortment that is significant not only in its sales potential, but also in its space requirement.
Yes, if you have a large aquatic live food department, it is going to take up a fair amount of floor space. To further complicate things, live foods are best kept out of general view. There are plenty of customers who are repelled by the thought of feeding live items to their home aquariums, especially live feeder fish. Frankly, it can be a fairly grisly scene when a large cichlid dismantles a goldfish.
So, you have a dilemma: you need to sell live foods but cannot display them prominently. Signage is the way to go here. It is more discreet and less offensive to sensitive customers. Advertise your live food prices clearly and include the quantity or portion that is supplied at that price. There is nothing more irritating than hearing someone say, “This does not look like two dozen guppies to me.” Just as bad is, “The other fellow always throws in a few extra at no cost.” Your policy when it comes to live food portions needs to be firm and clear.
The main problem with live foods is that they are alive, and they need to be kept that way. This requires good water quality and proper feedings. You might believe that feeding is unnecessary, since you are selling most foods so quickly. That’s one way to save time and money, but it is not going to ensure the health of feeders. Let’s face it, feeder fish are not at the high-end of the quality spectrum when it comes to live fish. They need all the help they can get to stay alive until you sell them. This may include having a chiller on any tanks or vats housing cold-water fish such as goldfish, rosy reds or shiners. They need good filtration, aeration, proper water temperature and adequate food. If you are not willing or able to provide these minimal requirements, get out of the live-food game.
If I made a list of all the food items that have been tried in the frozen-food category, I would be here all day. In other words, there are a lot of them and they are not all equally valuable for your fish. If this knowledge is not already second-nature, it would be worth the effort to secure as much information as you can on the subject. Doing so will not only benefit for the health of your fish and your business, but it will enable you to be a valuable resource to your customers.
Beyond knowing what types of frozen food to have on hand, you also need to know how to stock and merchandise them. Frozen foods can be displayed in something as insignificant as a single freezer, but if the freezer is not glass-fronted, people may walk by it a hundred times without ever realizing what it is. Prices on a solid-panel door do not take the place of visually merchandising the product. Unless you have an employee standing permanently in the fish food aisle, you need, at the very least, frozen fish food displays that permit customers to see the products as they shop. Some companies supply freezers with their branding on the outside, if you buy enough food to fill the appliance.
Just like live food, frozen foods require attention to detail, but in a different way. When you go to the grocery store and shop in the fruit and vegetable section, there are bags to put the produce in so you can carry it to the checkout. Likewise, right next to the freezer, there should be plastic bags in which customers can place the frozen fish food they are purchasing. Once the clerk has scanned the frozen items, he or she can wrap it in insulating newspaper and place it back in the plastic bag. This is customer service that requires little effort and helps preserve the food in its frozen state.
There are two basic forms of packaging for frozen fish foods—cubes and flat packs. In the old days, flat packs were the only thing available, but modern times bring innovations that are supposedly beneficial to the consumer. Cubes make it easier to portion food without the muss and fuss of actually having to cut it up yourself. When this convenience comes at no additional cost, it may be useful. On the other hand, customers with multiple tanks may want to purchase flat packs, since they are usually more economical because they contain more food with much less packaging. Either way, frozen fish food packages should be placed inside larger Ziploc-type plastic bags in the freezer, so no portion of them is exposed to the air, thus preventing freezer burn.
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.