How much food customers feed, what type of food they feed and how often they feed their fish is not a statistic; it is a dynamic. As a retailer, if you merchandise fish foods properly, you have an opportunity to control all three parameters. A retailer’s influence on customers’ decisions can be substantial, affecting both the health of its customers’ fish and its own bottom line. However, in order to guide consumers’ decisions on fish food, retailers will first need to understand and commit to a philosophy of how fish should be fed.
After spending many years raising fish commercially, I can assure you that the vast majority of people with aquariums are under-feeding their fish. One of the most significant reasons for this is that people are poorly educated when it comes to the science of feeding their fish. They don’t know what they should be doing, and there is no one around to tell them—but you.
A healthy fish should eat at least three times a day. Approximately 90 percent of fish in the ornamental trade are opportunistic feeders, meaning they eat whenever the opportunity presents itself. The exceptions to this rule are the heavy predators that live on a diet composed almost exclusively of live fish. Once these piscavores have made a kill, they frequently don’t require food for a considerable period of time. Excluding the meat-eaters, all the other fish will eat as long as there is food available. Some fish will overindulge, bloating up with food until it virtually kills them. However, most fish will not do this.
Feeding should commence shortly after the aquarium lights are turned on. My preference for the morning has always been prepared foods. Think of it like eating cereal—it is a quick and easy presentation, and the fish will have a long time to clean up what they don’t eat initially. If someone is home during the day, they can deliver the second course—or lunch. For example, if a tank is fed at 9 a.m. for its first feeding and at 9 p.m. for its final feeding, the middle or second feeding should come between 3 and 4 p.m.
No matter when, how or who the first two feedings are accomplished, the final feeding of the night should be frozen—unless you are feeding live foods. The reasoning here is that many tanks contain fish that are crepuscular or nocturnal, meaning they prefer to feed at dawn or dusk, during the night. These fish will get little to eat if they are not prepared-food feeders unless that last feeding leans toward their preferences. Most frozen foods are rich in ingredients that stimulate olfactory glands in fish. Fish don’t actually taste food like humans, but they do smell food even better than we do. If something smells good, they are more likely to eat it.
There are a wide variety of frozen foods, and some are more nutritious than others. I won’t tell you which foods to avoid; savvy fishkeepers can figure out what is and is not working for them. For example, chunky foods such as beef heart, squid or fish fillets should only be fed to specimens large enough to eat big chunks. Fish food should be size-appropriate—small particles for small fish and so on.
Most fish will eat frozen food, but they will always have preferences. It’s a good idea to pick the two foods that are eaten with the most gusto and alternate between them. If you are lucky, maybe even three foods will make the cut. That permits the opportunity to vary the nightly offering, so you never have to feed the same thing twice in a row.
One of the common practices I see customers following when they feed frozen food is to defrost several cubes in a cup of water. Once the food is well separated, they pour the contents through a net and throw away the liquid. This makes sense when it comes to reef tanks. In this case, people are trying to reduce the amount of phosphates being introduced to the tank. Phosphates are a major source of nutrients for algae, so a spike in the phosphate level may cause an algae bloom. In freshwater, this technique is useless; in fact, it probably removes a lot of important organics and vitamins from the foods.
It may seem a little unusual, but it’s a lot of fun to feed fish by hand. Hold a piece of frozen food in your fingers and plunge it underwater. When fish are first fed this way they usually hover around, darting at small particles as they flake off the main piece. Within only a few days, a majority of the specimens will be biting at the food you are holding. They may also nip at your fingers, but hopefully, you know better than to employ this technique with any fish large enough to do any real damage. This technique works really well because once the fish are satisfied, they stop eating. You can flick the remainder of the now waterlogged piece to the substrate, giving species that are perhaps a bit more shy a chance to feed. Just be certain your hands are thoroughly free of toxic substances before you do this.
It’s always good to give your customers a wide selection of products, but when it comes to fish foods, less is better. Carry a smaller selection of premium brands, and always be willing to tell people why you follow this practice. When it comes to frozen food, you should only sell from a glass-fronted display freezer, so people don’t have to continually open the door. They will do it anyway, but at least you can reduce the behavior. Frozen foods should be sold by brand rather than type. So, if a certain brand has 20 SKUs, they should all be together. Don’t mix frozen brine shrimp from three different companies together. This will confuse people. They are going to be different, so separate them.
I would, however, place some signs on the freezer that suggest foods that are recommended for marine species versus freshwater ones—even though in most cases the packaging itself is decorated with photos of the appropriate species.
Lastly, never assume that customers know what they should be feeding. If they ask for help, ask enough questions to actually give them proper advice. Don’t just point out a food and say it is the one they should feed. Give customers information that proves correct and useful, and they will continue to shop at your store for all their fish-feeding needs. Customer service is never more important than when it comes to fish foods and feeding fish.
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.
GIVING THEM A SIGN
Retailers should try to adopt the philosophy that every customer is entitled to his opinion—until he or she is proven wrong. This is particularly true when it comes to feeding fish. When a person asks for help, that is the time to give it to him—not before. I do, however, recommend signage that will lead people in the right direction. A favorite of mine is really nothing more than a list of rules for feeding fish. You can call them whatever you wish. I like to call them: Fish Feeding Made Perfect.
1. Don’t mix incompatible fish.
2. Wash your hands before and after handling fish foods.
3. Buy the best fish foods you can afford.
4. Feed the fish three times a day.
5. Feed fish with the lights on.
6. Do not over-feed the fish.
7. Feed fish at the same times every day—if possible.
8. All feedings should be done by one person for better continuity.
9. Do not feed fish and walk away; observe fish while they are feeding.
10. Vary the diet between prepared and frozen foods.