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Frozen Foods Heat Up

Specialty marine food options help pet specialty retailers keep market share and grow their bottom line.


When it comes to marine food offerings, the market is going upscale, and customers are interested in variety, quality and availability, according to industry insiders. While more traditional food options in the form of flakes and pellets are still popular, frozen offerings are increasingly in demand.

The shift toward frozen offerings is particularly evident among specialty marine retailers.

“We rely on a lot of frozen diets,” said Kreig LeBlanc, manager and co-owner of Aquariums West in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “Frozen offerings make up the bulk of our foods.

We have no shortage of combinations.”

LeBlanc added that, in his experience, more advanced customers want frozen foods for their fish. Other retailers echoed this sentiment.

“I sell more frozen and PE Mysis than any other food,” said Steven Bayes, owner of Reefers Direct Aquatics in St. Cloud, Fla. “Our favorite food here would be the LRS [frozen food blends] from Larry’s Reef Services. … With Larry’s LRS, finickier fish are more willing to eat food versus a pellet or a flake. Overall, it’s made everything a little bit easier.”

Dry foods still have a place on store shelves, and some customers prefer these foods, but sales of frozen offerings are growing rapidly.

“The dry foods tend to be more useful in terms of convenience,” LeBlanc said. “We’ve always pushed the frozen food selection quite heavily. Probably 90 percent of the food sales we do are frozen. People come in and they’ll buy a mixed case of frozen food.”

LeBlanc keeps a wide variety of frozen and flake offerings on-hand, as his store’s specialty status has made it the go-to location in his area for marine and reef hobbyists.

“A lot of people will come a great distance to stock up, so we always have a really good selection of frozen foods, and we make sure we have the quantities they want,” he said.

Attracting a wide variety of specialty hobbyists from a larger geographic area has other advantages, too, as they’re more likely to make additional purchases and are more inclined to spend on related products.

“We do have people that come from farther away to get some foods,” said Donna Harris, co-owner of Blue Reef Aquatics in North Las Vegas, Nev. “It gets people in the store. Maybe they’ll buy something else because they’ve come all the way for a pack of food. Customers that buy that type of food for their fish are more likely to spend more money on other things, too.”

Increasingly, customers want to offer their fish a variety of food options, and Bayes said he often recommends flake and pellet diets to supplement frozen offerings.

Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif., concurred that there is strong consumer demand for variety.

“The most prevalent current trend with consumers is to feed their fish a mix of foods to avoid having their aquatic pets get bored with a specific food,” he said.

Clevers recommended that pet specialty retailers focus on offering quality products they’ve used themselves to help aquarists succeed in the marine hobby long term.

“After all, a consumer with a fish that has problems or a consumer that can’t keep fish alive [creates] another reason for them to walk away from the hobby we all love and enjoy,” he added.

Price Points

Premium Perceptions

Frozen food offerings are viewed as premium products, according to independent pet specialty retailers, and customers are often willing to pay the higher price tags that come with them.

“Sometimes, people definitely just want to look for the cheapest [option] if they only have something simple or they’re new to the hobby,” said Kreig LeBlanc, manager and co-owner of Aquariums West in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “But for the most part, most customers are really into their hobby and their fish, and they don’t have any problem spending a little bit more money for quality food that’s going to be nutritious and help the overall health of their animals.”

The sweet spot in terms of price point is $20, LeBlanc added, and this is commonly what customers are looking to spend. He uses shelf talkers and a lot of signage to ensure customers can differentiate food offerings on the shelves.

“For us, $20 relates to three 3.5- or 4-ounce packets of food,” LeBlanc said. “That’s a really common number people will purchase. The same thing applies to the dried foods, too. … Frozen foods are a big mover. They’re definitely not a loss leader, that’s for sure. We do very well on the frozen foods.”

For Steven Bayes, owner of Reefers Direct Aquatics in St. Cloud, Fla., 90 percent of his customers are willing to pay a higher price for frozen and premium foods, but there are limits.

“People aren’t going to pay more than 20 bucks,” he said. “They’d like to be around the $10 mark, and sometimes they have sticker shock at the beginning with the frozen food being at 20 bucks, but once they see what’s in it and that we use it, it sells itself from there.”

Customers at Blue Reef Aquatics in North Las Vegas, Nev., look for premium offerings, said co-owner Donna Harris, and she sees them focusing on foods in the $18 to $25 price range.

“Once you get past the $25 mark, it gets a little intimidating even for the people that spend money on their fish,” she added.

As marine hobbyists have become more sophisticated and retailers have moved to focus on specialty products to meet their needs, frozen offerings have started to become the expected norm.

“People expect a high-quality food,” LeBlanc said. “We’re a specialized store, so most of our customers expect to see a more premium product.”

What’s Selling

Meeting Demand for Quality

While frozen offerings are increasingly popular and are taking a larger share of the marine fish food market, demand for flake and pellet offerings is still alive, and new marine diets are appearing on the market.

Piscine Energetics, manufacturer of PE Mysis Frozen, recently expanded its offerings with the introduction PE Mysis Flakes and PE Mysis Pellets.

Traditional manufacturing processes can affect the nutritional quality of foods, said Nuri Fisher, president of the Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada-based company, and a challenge Piscine Energetics faced was creating a process to protect the nutritional profile of mysis shrimp when incorporated into pellets and flakes.

“We’re taking fresh mysis and mixing it with our other ingredients, but we’re never exposing that mysis to extremely high temperatures,” Fisher said. “Our mysis shrimp is exposed to temperatures around 100 degrees Fahrenheit for a very short amount of time. Then, we use a slow-drying process.”

Pellet and flake food types continue to do well for pet specialty retailers.

“Our No. 1 pellet food is the New Life Spectrum Thera+A, followed by the PE Mysis Pellets,” said Steven Bayes, owner of Reefers Direct Aquatics in St. Cloud, Fla., adding that his favorite food is the frozen LRS from Larry’s Reef Services.

Other manufacturers are coming out with new flake offerings as well. Hikari Sales USA recently introduced its Saki-Hikari Marine Carnivore food and Saki-Hikari Marine Herbivore food, and it will soon release a frozen Omega Enriched Brine Shrimp in a cube format, said Chris Clevers, president of the Hayward, Calif.-based company.

The Saki-Hikari Marine line offers a probiotic-enhanced nutrient profile, which is formulated to help marine fish more fully utilize the nutrients present and reduce waste, Clevers said. “The Omega Enriched Brine Shrimp offers marine fish hobbyists a treat choice [to help support] their fish’s immune system,” Clevers added.

In the marine hobby today, both manufacturers and consumers are focusing on quality products with higher price points. This is leading to growing profit margins for pet specialty retailers.

“Years ago, aquarists would find the cheapest, easiest food to feed their tanks,” said Rod Buehler, owner of Rod’s Foods in DeKalb, Ill. “Eventually, we realized that a $10,000 reef tank deserved more than a 49-cent can of flake foods, or single ingredients or ‘fish-meal’ in a single product packed in water or with gel binder fillers.”

Buehler’s solution was to introduce a blend of fish and coral foods in his original recipe, formulated to be a complete reef food. While more expensive for consumers, these premium offerings have had other benefits, driving demand and increasing margins for retailers.

“The reason we use frozen foods in-store is because they’re fresh,” said Kreig LeBlanc, manager and co-owner of Aquariums West in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “There’s a lot of variety, so no matter what type of organism you’re trying to feed, there’s a food made for it.”

Seachem’s line, Hikari’s line and OmegaOne’s offerings all do well for LeBlanc, he noted.

Merchandising & Marketing

Investing in Displays

With the rise of frozen offerings, independent pet specialty retailers have had to invest in freezer displays, but often these turn into profit centers for the store.

“We have a large clear-glass Hikari freezer,” said Kreig LeBlanc, manager and co-owner of Aquariums West in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “It’s all marketed quite nicely. Everything is arranged by category and price point. People can come and see the frozen foods right through the glass. It’s always well stocked, and customers can mix and match.”

Because demand is so high, LeBlanc is able to keep product moving through the freezer, which helps to further promote the perception of freshness.

“We have a high turnover rate, so we’re always getting new product in, and our customers know that,” he said. “Nothing sits on the shelf for too long.”

Most retailers have moved to freezers with glass doors, mainly to help with merchandising.

“We started with a freezer with no glass door, and we really didn’t sell as much food as we do now,” said Donna Harris, co-owner of Blue Reef Aquatics in North Las Vegas, Nev. “Visibility definitely helps.”

Frozen food packaging helps sell itself, said Steven Bayes, owner of Reefers Direct Aquatics in St. Cloud, Fla. He uses a Cobalt-branded freezer in-store, along with marketing materials from Larry’s Reef Service to highlight some of his offerings, he added.

“Our glass-door freezers are packed, and we have a good margin on them,” Bayes said. “The freezer definitely isn’t a loss leader; it’s a necessity.”

Most retailers reported keeping their flake and pellet foods close to the freezer, which generally puts all the marine diet offerings near the front of the store, making everything easy to find and access for customers.

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