Little fish in fish tank or aquarium, gold fish, guppy and red fish, fancy carp with green plant, underwater life.

Even if a big-box or chain mega-merchandizer has stopped selling aquatic livestock, it is still very much in the aquatic packaged diet business. In fact, in my closest example of this small business/independent retailer “DeathStar,” the fish food is directly across the aisle from the foil-packets of “high-end” cat food. 

Being a cat lover almost as long as I have kept fish, I was surfing for something special to tantalize my finicky feline. This cat turns up her nose at anything that is offered two times in a row—most cats don’t do that, and neither do most aquarium fish. However, that’s not to say they shouldn’t be offered a wide variety of packaged foods. 

So, as I am searching brands, flavors and packaging iterations of cat food, a woman in a motorized shopping cart (courtesy of the store) comes rolling down the aisle and stops directly in front of the packaged fish foods. Now, mind you, I am really getting into the cat food scene across the aisle, but after five minutes or more, my cheeky presumptuousness can contain itself no longer. I ask her if she might appreciate some help (from an expert) in selecting a fish food. 

Honestly, I had done this a thousand times in pet shops and fish stores across the country, but never in a big-box store. I can tell you it felt good, and the lady and I had a very detailed discussion concerning her mother’s fish tank. It was, evidently, 10 gallons or smaller and only had three fish in it. She was only certain that one was a Betta. Based on that alone, I suggested a tiny card-mounted plastic bubble of “Betta Food” plus an almost equally small can of a very common brand of flake food. 

Then, being unable to contain myself, I suggested that going to a “real” fish store would be a good idea. She was not totally restricted to the motorized cart, but normally at home, she used a wheelchair. She specifically mentioned that aisles in pet shops are not always wheelchair friendly. Sometimes, they are not wide enough and in the fish display area, the tanks are frequently tiered, with the upper-level aquariums being too far away to give her a good view of the livestock. In the back of my mind, I honestly had no solution to the tiered presentation. Space is precious in small stores, so tanks and packaged fish diets are stacked. Unfortunately, not all problems are solvable.

Being undeterred by this setback, I continued the conversation because the lady seemed to be enjoying the personal attention. And there, right in front of me, was the answer: one on one—sales associate and customer. If the fish food product is located too high, the clerk can hand it to the customer. If the customer knows little about fish foods, the pros and cons can be conveyed face to face. Do you think there was any employee in that 100,000-sq.-ft. store, prowling the aisles, looking to help customers? The electronics department was the only place where sales associates who were willing to help could be found in the entire store.

My discussion with the lady was fascinating, illuminating and friendly. She thanked me for my help and rolled away with two items. I went back to my cat food conundrum, not any better off than before the interruption. Yes, I bought some cat food—three different types, in fact. My cat turned her nose up at two of them. Thank goodness, most fish are not that finicky, but that does not mean that any packaged diet will do. It just means the fish might eat it, but it may provide them with scant nutrition. 

Nine out of 10 of the customers who enter your store looking for fish food could use your help; they just don’t know it. Never hesitate to ask—very few people will seek out a clerk on their own. Keep an employee prowling the aisles looking for customers to help. If there are scant customers, that person can straighten up merchandise and organize misplaced items.


Teaching the Basics

When it comes to educating customers, I am probably a bit more aggressive than many retailers. This may be genetic since my parents were both teachers and my two daughters are public school teachers. I taught for several years myself, before I was lured into the aquarium industry by my love for fish. That’s a dangerous and frustrating job in these days of COVID. Even owning an aquatics store may put you in jeopardy. Still—we all soldier on because we are essential, it’s our livelihood and, hopefully, we love the hobby and the joy it brings to our customers.

What about packaged diets? Are they everything they purport themselves to be? Certainly—I can tell you there are levels of quality within the broad spectrum of basic or staple diets. If you doubt this, study the ingredients on the labels. Note where (in what country) the food is produced. Open a can and pour it into a clean bowl. Take a deep inhale over the product. What odors do you detect? Are the flakes of uniform size and color? In a staple diet they should not be. Is there much powder as a residue? From time immemorial, flakes made from various ingredients have been dyed so they can be differentiated. 

The question is—who does this benefit? Well, believe it or not, fish can see colors, much like humans. The thing that gets in the way is the water. Just ask fly fishermen if fish can see color. They spend hours meticulously assembling and tying artificial lures. It’s not just shape and form that matter—the colors of the components are equally important. If a fish food does not smell, fish will often not even recognize it as food—a food’s odor, shape and color are critical. 

I see there are packaged foods advertising the fact they are no longer adding dyes to their food. Is this a good idea? Who knows, but you must believe that exhaustive trials have been conducted to test this theory. Proof is in the feeding, but not just a few days of feeding. It should take more like a few months of trials to verify results.


Securing Sales

In the store, carry the brands that you trust to feed to the livestock you have for sale. If there is a great brand out there that your competitors do not carry, be certain you do. For example, I see several packaged diets being offered now that purport to have probiotics as an ingredient. These are good bacteria that aid in the natural digestion of food. The process of producing a staple fish food that is sold in a can, bottle, jar or bag will almost invariably require the use of heat. Heat is a killer of bacteria—be it the good or the bad kind. Perhaps this problem has been overcome and probiotic fish foods are here to stay. Who is checking the efficacy of these products? I have no idea. The proof will be in the observed improved health and growth of your fish. 

One matter that has little to do with how good a packaged diet may be is how good you are at selling these items. Put another way, “If it don’t show—it ain’t gonna go.” 

That’s right, if you do not display fish food in a manner that is conducive to enticing customers to the packaged food aisle, you will not sell nearly as much. However, even more importantly, you won’t sell the foods you, yourself, believe in. This requires expertise in setting up displays to create a climate in which customers will be persuaded to visit the fish food department and peruse the selection, much like you would books in a book store.

I suggest lots of placards, scattered throughout the store that advertise brands of packaged foods you sell. Especially at the entrance to your store, you should offer incentives for customers to purchase fish food. Many companies make special deals with stores that are willing to place large orders. These may include a discount in price or limited quantities of items at no cost. 

While COVID has changed things a bit by slowing down the supply chain and creating shortages, hopefully it will be back to regular business before the end of 2021. Once this happens, you are going to have another bump, or as they say in Mexico—a TOPE—to get over before you can predict what business will be like in a COVID-free world. 

If there is one thing that is for certain, it’s that if people continue to buy aquatic livestock in the quantities they did in 2020, there will be really great sales all through this year. This will always include prepackaged fish foods—for nothing is easier to feed than food from a can.  PB