How many different categories of marine aquariums are there? Many people might say there are two—tanks only inhabited with fish, and those inhabited by corals and other invertebrates, or in other words, a reef tank. But in reality, there are virtually no reef tanks without fish and only a few fish tanks without invertebrates, so retailers can benefit from having a carefully thought-out, merchandised and maintained assortment of marine invertebrates.
Coral or Not to Coral
The first decision to make is whether or not to sell coral. Even though corals are invertebrates, most have requirements that few other animals do, making them a challenge to maintain. Retailers can easily sell invertebrates without selling coral. In fact, recent trends are making coral sales in brick-and-mortar stores much more problematic.
There are a lot of garage breeders around, and in many areas, these entrepreneurs can be fully licensed to sell retail.
Even if they can’t sell directly from their homes, they can take what they grow and sell it to local reef shops. They might also take homegrown coral to reef club meetings, where pieces can be sold, traded and/or fragged. And then there is the Internet, where home breeders, remote retailers, wholesalers and importers continue to lure business from specialty retailers. They are doing it at ever-accelerating rates—and usually without having to charge sales tax. So, not surprisingly, the number of full-line shops that carry corals is shrinking.
Still, retailers that do sell coral have at least one advantage. There are plenty of choosy customers who will only buy high-ticket items, such as marine angels, triggers or tangs, after visiting a brick-and-mortar retailer countless times just to see how a particular specimen is doing. These same hobbyists will also often ask for discounts. They don’t go into big-box or chain stores asking for special prices, but they will most certainly do it in an independent small business. This is actually a strength that independent retailers possess—use it to your advantage, especially when it comes to livestock.
So, maybe coral should be considered an entirely separate category, even though it is an invertebrate, but there are certainly some animals that the vast majority of customers will throw into the coral group, even though they are not. Remember, there are hard or stony corals, as well as soft corals that are not photosynthetic. In addition to these, there are animals that look like corals, and indeed, some of them are known as false corals. Animals such as zoanthids and corallimorphs come to mind, and they are actually colonial anemones. Speaking of anemones, both regular and tube-dwelling anemones species are typically lumped into the marine invertebrate category, as they should be.
As a retailer, what you need to know are which types can safely be kept together and which types cannot. You also need to know which species of invertebrates are photosynthetic and which ones are not. These are two very important considerations when it comes to stocking, feeding and selling marine invertebrates. In fact, it is simple to make some serious mistakes as far as husbandry is concerned. If you get it wrong, not only will you lose livestock, you will lose customers as well. You must show people you have the knowledge necessary to maintain animals properly and help your customers do the same.
There is good money to be made selling marine invertebrates. Concentrate on the types that multitudes of reef hobbyists are not growing in their frag tanks. These animals require a variety of housing to match their diversity. You will not be successful with a shotgun approach to marine invertebrate maintenance and display. Another major consideration will be the ease of collecting specimens you are selling. Let’s look at a few examples, so you will understand what you are up against.
Snails are mollusks, and this group of organisms is extremely diverse—ranging from octopus to sea slugs. Somewhere in between these alpha and omega examples are the bivalves (two shells) and the regular snails (a single shell). In the trade, snails may range in size from a quarter inch to over a foot in length.
Most customers who are in the market for snails buy them anticipating that they will eat excess algae and clean up the substrate. It turns out that snails may feed in a variety of different ways on a variety of different foods. Some species are strictly herbivores, preferring to clean algae from hard surfaces such as rocks and aquarium walls. Other snails are carnivores, and they will eat only animals and animal products, posing a danger to many different types of marine livestock, including fish. Finally, a large number of snails are omnivores, meaning they will eat just about anything. These snails tend to live in the substrate rather than crawling around on rocks and tank sides.
The term “clean-up crew” has become a hackneyed catch phrase in the reef business that is often associated with the sale of snails—but these animals may not live up to consumer expectations in this regard. Snails can rarely clean up everything. You need a variety of animals to accomplish a really thorough cleaning, but since many snails that dig through the substrate are small and inexpensive, this is what people ask for. What customers really need, however, is a clean-up package that contains snails of several types, crabs, sand-sifting sea stars and brittle stars. The bigger the package, the more diverse the package and the more it costs. I categorize the packages into bronze, silver, gold and platinum tiers, with appropriate pricing. When someone asks for a gold package, I might give them six Trochus, 12 Nerite, six Cerith and 12 Nassarius—all snails. Then, I may add four emerald crabs, two Sally Lightfoot crabs, a common sand-sifting sea star and two brittle stars. This handsome package will do a great job at cleaning up a tank as large as 75 gallons.
Items for the gold package should be merchandised in several aquariums. You don’t want to mix sand-sifting snails together, since not every employee is going to know one from the other. Also, prices vary for different types of snails when they are not part of a package.
Signage is a must when selling packages, set-ups or anything with multiple components. Customers must understand that when buying a package, the selection of the individual specimens is up to the employee. If someone wants a specific item they may have to purchase it separately.
Clams and Crabs
While on the subject of mollusks, a quick look at clams might be a good idea. Yes, they are bivalves, but species in the genus Tridacna might as well be treated as hard corals since their mantles contain symbiotic zooxanthellae algae similar to that in corals. These animals need their own aquarium with full-strength coral lights, chemical additives and special foods fed at the appropriate times of day. In other words, clams are not your average mollusks, and they succumb quickly to poor water quality, inadequate lighting and pests such as bristle worms.
If you thought snails were diverse, I have just one word for you—crabs. There are three major types: land, aquatic and hermit. I throw in the land crabs because people may come in looking for land crabs that may or may not be hermit crabs. Sell the land hermit crabs in your small animal department, but do not sell the large coconut land crabs that occasionally come in—they are just about as aggressive as snapping turtles. Also, you may want to avoid small fiddler crabs, in the genus Uca, since they require special intertidal habitats to survive.
I have barely scratched the surface of the marine invertebrate subject. It is a complex issue and not one to take lightly, so I advise retailers not to get involved in this segment of the trade unless they are willing to make substantial commitments of time, space and money.
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.