In my 27 years of writing this column, this is the first time I’m writing it during a pandemic. As far as normal is concerned, all bets are off—since the beginning of March, the U.S. has been functioning in uncharted territory. I keep hearing "the new normal," but the word "normal" in itself implies things are just about the way they always were. While most people and businesses are struggling to come to terms with the realities of this "new" life, the pet industry—and aquatics in general—are experiencing an unexpected resurgence.
Stores, shops and retailers that sell both hard goods and livestock are having their best summer in many years, and there’s every reason to believe this trend will carry on through the fall and into the holiday season. As people are staying at home, sheltering in place, social distancing and practicing better hygiene, they’re also spending more time at home with their pets, specifically their fish tanks.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news—thus what makes this the "new normal." Aquatic livestock has been in short supply due to increases in demand and the severe diminish in air freight, as less planes flying means that obtaining fish by air is much more difficult and considerably more expensive. Many of the chain stores around the country have been rationing fish to customers, and even at that their tanks are virtually empty. Even in areas where wholesalers exist and are willing to deliver fish, their inventories are at historically low levels.
What about the companies that supply livestock? Do they have product? The answer is mixed. Here in the U.S., fish farms have plenty of fish to sell, it’s just difficult to get them out of Florida. In the Far East, however, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the collection of wild-caught fish. Particularly hard hit are the marine collectors and the harvesting of both fish and coral. Atlantic specimens are a bit more available, but once again, getting them to your store might be the problem. So, to sum it up more succinctly—there is good news and bad. I tend to be an optimist, so let’s look at what you, as a retailer, can do to continue to increase sales in spite of a worldwide pandemic.
Punching Up Sales
Much of the sales uptick is due to new fish keepers, as people are looking at the aquarium hobby in an entirely different way—it’s not work, it’s therapy for the human psyche. If a consumer can give fish a safe environment and keep them healthy and stress-free, perhaps that feeling will transfer over to them and their family. This means there are probably a lot of novices out there who know nothing about maintaining an aquarium.
Perhaps you can start them off with a small set-up. A Betta tank, a shrimp environment or one of the pre-packaged "starter kits" could be the answer. Then again, you might decide to go big and offer kits for larger aquariums. Plenty of people have tanks they took down for one reason or another. A starter kit does not have to include an aquarium—you can sell with tank or for existing tank.
My philosophy on this matter used to be to include certificates in each set-up for a specified dollar amount of livestock commensurate with the size of the tank being sold, but I’d leave out that component out right now. You don’t want to disappoint customers who have prepaid for their fish.
Additionally, a lot of people are nervous about going to a retail store during this pandemic. If you have a small shop, you may feel the need to limit the number of customers who will be in your store at a given time. This means you could have them wait in their cars or even set up a social-distancing tent outside your shop. When you start thinking about these kinds of actions, it might be time to use your store website to better advantage.
For example, you could offer a 10 percent discount to people who purchase a starter kit costing $100 or more. You might even extend this discount by offering a curbside pick-up option, but be cautious and don’t go too far with this concept. The idea is to get people into your store—you can’t expect to generate a lot of serendipitous sales if you don’t lure people into your retail space.
A starter kit should include at least some tank-cleaning equipment. I suggest including a siphon hose with gravel-washer, an algae-scrubbing brush, two or more 5 gal. buck-ets, a fish net, hand-size scrubbing pads, a small bottle of water conditioner (chloramine remover) and a thermometer. You need for everyone to start smart, as you can’t cut corners when setting up a tank.
The major elements of the kit will be the tank, a hinged glass top, a light fixture, a mechanical filter of the proper size, a heater of the proper wattage, the correct amount of gravel and any décor items you’d like to include, which could consist of rocks, plastic ornaments or plastic plants. If you decide to include a livestock certificate, it should be good for both fish and live plants.
Right about now, there are probably more people starting new tanks than those who have been keeping them. Your business’s success during this time of national upheaval likely depends on where you’re located in the U.S. I’m certain you’ve been following the peregrinations of the virus as it peaks and ebbs from one part of the country to another.
While this quixotic behavior is not completely unpredictable, it is difficult to create a stable platform. I suggest an open-ended starter sale that may flex in its components and prices over an extended period of time. If it reaches into the holiday season, you may wish to kick it up a notch with extra incentives.
Thus far, I have specifically not mentioned marine nano-tanks, freshwater environ-ments or bio-cubes because they do not fit the present-day situation. If you specialize in marine sales, I suggest you concentrate on livestock that will thrive in small habitats, such as dwarf seahorses, gobies, blennies, clownfish, fairly basslets, etc. As things stand right now, wild-caught specimens are at a premium, so you will probably be able to access captive-raised animals more readily.
As far as corals are concerned, there should always be an adequate supply of coral frags since many companies and garage breeders are well-established. This reduces the demand for wild-collected specimens and makes the availability of corals much more stable than in the past. A 75 gal. tank is large enough to hold numerous speci-mens of coral. If it is properly set up with filtration, water flow, stratification and lighting, it will be a spectacular display that takes anyone’s thoughts off what’s going on outside their doors (at least temporarily). There is nothing mundane about a living reef, even if it is in your home.
If the children are getting tired of playing video games and/or talking on their cell phones to friends with whom they are not allowed to socialize, they might find a Glo-Fish starter kit to be just the thing. Everything in the tank, including the fish, will glow under a black light. It’s psychedelic art without the nasty side effects normally associ-ated with the term. Not my cup of tea, but to each his own.
Finally, an important thing to consider—or at least keep in the back of your mind—is the impact of the pandemic on the global economy. If and when things start to turn around, it should stimulate the general economy and free up more disposable income for hobby-oriented endeavors. This, of course, is what we all hope for, but what we get could be something entirely different. We appear to be at the mercy of the virus, and we can only wait for a breakthrough by the companies working on a vaccine or alter-nate solution. In the meantime, stay safe and keep on selling. PB
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer, wholesaler and fish-hatchery manager.