Remember the days when the average shop selling reef equipment and livestock was a small-town operation with little competition? In fact, these stores were likely to be the only game in town. With such a dearth of competition, life was good for many of these retailers, which did not have to make much of an effort at all to attract almost all the local hobbyists. It was also easy to believe that the business would survive no matter what the future held.
Well, welcome to the modern world. Threats no longer have to be local or even from other businesses. Internet retailers, “garage operations” and local reef clubs all seem to conspire to draw business away from brick-and-mortar aquatic specialty retailers, which changes everything. These days, a pet shop, its ownership and staff may no longer be the source for everything “reef.” In fact, unless they are on top of their game, they may find themselves well behind the forefront of the hobby. A vibrant reef store or a pet shop with a major reef department must operate on the cutting edge of the industry as a whole. If you are a day late, you are going to be a dollar short, when it comes to sales.
A shop is not going to be successful in the reef business unless it has a broad selection of equipment and livestock. In large metro areas, a store may get away with concentrating on selling corals and not fish. It may not even be essential that a shop like this carry a wide selection of products—just the ones it believes in. However, this targeted sales approach will not work in most locations, because there is not enough of a target audience to support the concept. I believe that 90 percent of stores with major reef departments must stock items in all aspects of the hobby: from equipment to livestock, fish to corals, tanks to sumps, salts to supplements, commercial to live foods, as well as items for beginners and experts.
Running a good reef store or department is going to take deep pockets and patience. There will be items that go out the door very slowly—usually because of their cost, but also because fewer people are attracted to them. If there are products you believe in, you should definitely concentrate your sales efforts on them. After all, what could be more important than selling things you actually recommend? Showing functionality of such items is critical in promoting sales, so they must be up and running on your tanks. In the case of supplements, nothing speaks louder than a blow-your-mind reef tank. When it comes to fish, bigger is not always better, but rare or difficult to maintain is. If you display a nice group of Moorish idols or an Achilles tang, or maybe a bed of garden eels or colony of jawfish, it will get attention. You need to be the store that goes one step further than all the rest. If there are no others, then challenge yourself.
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Virtually every shop that has strong reef sales has its owner as the main driving force and head salesman in the department. If this is not the case, it is critical to have a marine manager who knows the products and livestock inside and out. Whoever runs the reef section must be an aficionado—not just a salesman. There must be a connection between the manager and the customers. This camaraderie will make the store a destination location for reef lovers both near and far. People will come to talk with a knowledgeable “reefer,” and they will come to marvel at your fantastic reef displays. And if you do not have fantastic reef display, you may as well pack it in, because people are more impressed by visual and tangible exhibits than by rhetoric—even if it is accurate and sincere.
Setting up a successful reef display in a retail environment is a real challenge for a number of reasons. First and foremost, building a reef tank by committee is next to impossible. A reef tank needs to be one person’s vision, and yet, its maintenance is rarely left to a single person. This is the nature of the business. When it is possible for a shop to have multiple reef display tanks, a different person can be put in charge of each one. This will showcase the talents of various employees and take the pressure off a single individual.
A second consideration will be the actual display of the livestock. Lighting a reef tank at full illumination for the entire duration that a retail business is open is entirely too long. We are talking about anywhere from nine to 12 hours. Good lighting throughout the day will burn most coral and do serious damage to many other sessile invertebrates. Finding balance is difficult. The solution to this dilemma is also the answer to the “reef display” question. If you have multiple display tanks, you can sequence the lights in each of these. Some tanks will be at full illumination while others are in dawn/dusk mode.
Another challenge of display reef aquariums is how and/or when to feed the animals. Most corals are best fed with the lights out, or at least in a dimly lit environment. This should occur after a typical diurnal cycle that ends in a simulated sundown. In other words, unless your display tank is located in a very dark room that receives little or no sunlight, the corals should be fed after you close for the evening. Otherwise, in a dark room, you could feed them in the morning.
Neither scenario works very well for showing customers what the corals look like when they feed. Since many corals are bioluminescent, you will want people to see them under strictly actinic lighting, at least for a brief period of time.
What effect constantly shifting the light spectrum in a reef tank will have on coral is difficult to say, but I can’t imagine it having a positive influence. As a compromise, feed corals under strictly actinic light at a specific time every day. Post this time so that customers can be there to observe—if they so desire.
There have been several high points in the aquarium hobby over the years: the first importations of “true” tropical fishes; the enthusiastic introductions of angelfish and discus; the first basic marine fish being sold and the Rift Lake cichlid revolution. These pale in comparison to what the reef hobby is experiencing today. Is the sky the limit? Well, right now as more and more marine fishes and corals are propagated in captivity, I would say yes—as long as the main focus of the reef sector remains dedicated to conserving natural habitats while learning how to harvest specimens in a responsible manner. Hopefully, the old days of raping the environment for corals, live rock and reef fish are well behind us.
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.
People are always searching for fish that will be compatible with their reef tanks. For me, the perfect fish are hawkfish in the family Cirrhitidae. Most species of these “perching” predators remain small, so they are only a threat to very small fishes and shrimp. They are colorful and inquisitive, and they are always moving from one location to another in search of food. Pairs form easily, but two males may fight over territory. Hawkfish are compatible with virtually every other type of reef tank fish. Larger species may damage corals by constantly “sitting” on them—usually in exactly the same spot.
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