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The Life Aquatic

Unusual fish and corals are increasingly popular, helping to supplement the standard offerings of aquarium livestock.


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Aquatic livestock sales are being driven by consumer demand for both common aquarium species as well as some more unusual varieties, industry participants reported.

“As a distributor, we’ve been seeing a resurgence of the bread-and-butter fish in the tropicals [category], and also of South American cichlids,” said Laura “Peach” Reid, president and CEO of Fish Mart Inc. in West Haven, Conn. “Freshwater is where we are seeing the most growth.”

In general, common freshwater species are in demand, and suppliers are keeping the most popular species well stocked.

“We have a huge solid stock of … high-quality everyday fish,” said Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest Farms in Gibsonton, Fla.

However, Bush added, “oddball” species can also help generate interest in the hobby, driving customers into local fish stores.

“We just got in a couple of Japanese dragon eels, and we’re really trying to expand in that direction,” she said.

Still, she added, Segrest focuses on offering species that are likely to thrive in aquaria and that retailers can responsibly offer their customers.   

Retailers also reported success offering predatory species.

“Predator fish are all of a sudden having a surge,” said Joseph Verdino, owner of Joefish Aquatics in Fort Myers, Fla. “That’s what everybody’s looking for right now—piranhas and gar, and the bichir eels—all that kind of stuff.”

On the saltwater side of the hobby, common species such as the ever-popular clownfish and other aquacultured animals are in demand.

“As the marine hobby becomes increasingly more accessible to a wider audience, the demand for marine animals is certainly growing,” said Jordan Noe, director of sales for Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla. “The most popular species in the marine hobby continue to be clownfish, with an emphasis on designer varieties that increasingly push the boundaries of pattern and design.”

Smaller, plug-and-play nano tanks are increasingly popular in the marine hobby, driving demand for smaller, reef-safe fish. Dottybacks, blennies, gobies and other small, colorful fish that make good clownfish companions are also highly sought after, Noe stated.

Meeting Demand

Most wild aquatic species capable of being kept in aquaria have been identified, and almost all have been available within the hobby for years, industry participants reported.

“There aren’t any ‘new’ species,” said Jennifer Kimmel, owner of Reef To Rift Aquarium Store in Hatfield, Pa. “They’ve all been discovered. We have 350 tanks [in-store], so we specialize in the very rare.”

Her store has success selling many of the common species seen in the hobby, and those sales are steady, Kimmel reported. Where she sees the most growth, however, is in difficult-to-source species.

“We have extreme success with the hard-to-find [species], which is going to be your higher-end stuff,” she said. “Anything uncommon sells very well for us.”

High-end corals are generally the first to leave the store, she noted, and other industry participants echoed this sentiment.

“Everyone seems to be after that really rare piece,” said Kris Cline, owner of Carolina Aquatics in Kernersville, N.C. “Higher-end corals have become more popular.”

Price doesn’t seem to be a concern when it comes to rare corals.

“The more expensive [the coral] is, the more they want it,” said Stephen Myers, owner of Reef Plus in North Aurora, Ill.

A big segment of demand for these invertebrates is in “designer” coral—or corals that have been bred specifically for the aquarium hobby.

“I see hobbyist aquariums taking on the appearance of a collector’s gallery rather than a replica of a wild coral reef,” said Jordan Noe, director of sales for Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla. “As with designer clownfish, hobbyists are increasingly more interested in designer corals.”

The growing availability of an increasingly wide variety of aquacultured species in general has impacted all segments of the aquarium industry. From staple freshwater species to recently captive-bred marine fish and designer corals, more tank-raised species are available than ever before, and this can have interesting effects on price and demand.

“If you had the same fish—the same price and same color—people would prefer to get the aquacultured one because it is an ethical [issue],” said Kris Cline, owner of Carolina Aquatics in Kernersville, N.C., adding, however, that price can dampen demand.

“I think to an extent, [customers] prefer captive-raised [livestock], but only as long as the price is the same or better than wild-caught [livestock],” he added. “For example, with the captive-raised Mandarin goby, nobody wanted to spend the money for it, so everyone quit breeding it.”

Retailers often find that they have to compete on price with online retailers and even local aquarium club sales, industry insiders reported.

“Because of the ease of fragging, coral sales have moved a bit from the distributor level to the retail and hobbyist levels, with frag swaps and online sales,” said Laura “Peach” Reid, president and CEO of Fish Mart Inc. in West Haven, Conn. “Additionally, transshippers—importers that sell parts of their shipments to retailers without tanking and acclimating—that specialize in coral frags and marines are successful, for both price and often [for their] variety or specialty [offerings].”

Helping Hobbyists Be Successful

In few other segments of the pet industry is the ethical duty of retailers as important as with livestock sales. That’s where education and implementing best practices in husbandry come into play, industry participants reported.

“What I’ve learned is to develop a return customer,” said Jennifer Kimmel, owner of Reef To Rift Aquarium Store in Hatfield, Pa. “My philosophy is ‘be direct and use common sense.’”

She emphasizes husbandry first with her customers to ensure they have success from the start, she said. It’s best to take time with each customer and not rely on canned answers, Kimmel added, as each situation will be unique.

Other retailers share Kimmel’s focus on education.

“I don’t really concern myself with sales at all,” said Stephen Myers, owner of Reef Plus in North Aurora, Ill. “I concern myself only with education and [helping] people to be successful keeping something alive in captivity and reproducing it.”

It’s important for sales staff to be up to speed as well, and offering educational training and classes for customers can help achieve this goal.

“Having a very well-educated [sales staff] creates a very well-educated hobbyist,” said Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest Farms in Gibsonton, Fla. “The internet has created a plethora of knowledge, so how do you sort through good versus bad knowledge? Offering classes in the store [can] really create a buzz that your store is the place to come for knowledge.”

Create an Experience

Driving livestock sales in-store is all about display aquariums.

“Display tanks are immensely powerful,” said Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest Farms in Gibsonton, Fla. “You can do it in a 1,000-square-foot store, and you can do it in a 20,000-square-foot store.”

Maintaining over-the-top, eye-catching displays is a common way to draw attention to a location, but just as important is keeping display and livestock holding tanks clean and presentable.

“Having the aquariums in your store as clean as possible will make a huge difference in how consumers view the quality of the animals inside,” said Jordan Noe, director of sales for Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Clean, simple holding tanks help keep livestock losses down and showcase species for sale.

“We went bare bottom [in our holding tanks],” said Jennifer Kimmel, owner of Reef To Rift Aquarium Store in Hatfield, Pa. “They’re so much easier to keep clean. Our loss rate is down significantly.”

She maintains a wide variety of display aquariums as well, she noted. Across the board, industry participants reported that for local fish stores, offering a variety of healthy, attractive fish is vital to succeeding in the business.

“Livestock are a critical part of the retail store,” Noe said. “These animals create the demand for big-ticket items [such as] new skimmers and lighting, upgraded pumps and new aquariums. … Healthy fish tie directly to consumer confidence in shopping at a retail fish store.”

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