Fresh and Easy
With the right products and marketing techniques, retailers can grow business with a simple staple product category—freshwater fish food.
Few product categories are as well established in the local fish store business as freshwater fish food; it’s a standby that keeps customers coming back again and again. The trick for retailers is to focus on variety, freshness, the trend toward natural offerings, and optimal merchandising and marketing strategies.
Variety and Freshness
Just as in other pet categories, consumers increasingly are offering a variety of foods to their fish, which means independent fish stores can get a leg up on competition by catering to this trend.
“People are more open to providing a variety of types of food for their fish, not just flakes,” said Marcie Rivera, CEO of The Wet Spot Tropical Fish in Portland, Ore., a retail location that has been in business for more than 15 years. “They’ll come in and buy flakes, pellets, some frozen [foods] and some live. People are taking more of an interest and mixing up their fish’s diet and not just giving them one certain food.”
Stocking a wide variety of foods not offered elsewhere allows retailers to beat out big-box competition.
“We carry a lot of brands that big-box stores don’t,” said Rivera, adding that customers will come in specifically because of the wide variety of offerings at her store.
Other retailers agreed that it’s necessary to offer customers a variety of freshwater fish foods.
Joe Chopski, owner of Tropical Paradise in Hollywood, Fla., said variety is the biggest trend he’s seen over the years, and he’s been in the aquarium business for more than 40 years.
“[Manufacturers] are coming out with so many different varieties, vitamins, nutrients in the food, and they’re trying to make fish food a really important factor in the industry,” Chopski said. “The average consumer just says ‘give me fish food,’ but we try to persuade them to go for the frozen foods and dry foods in a mixture, so fish have a balanced diet.
“Frozen foods seem to be selling very well, and I think the frozen-food business has moved up considerably from two to three years ago,” Chopski added.
Freshness of ingredients is increasingly important to consumers as well, Rivera said. She noted that manufacturers are offering foods with fresher ingredients, and some types of food lend themselves to freshness by design.
“The Repashy line is a powdered gel that you mix with hot water,” Rivera said. “It’s pretty fresh because when you mix it with water and keep it in the fridge, that’s probably as fresh as you can get.”
One of the newest manufacturer entrants into the product category, Doctor Eco Systems in Maryland Heights, Mo., is offering a product called Doc’s Eco Eggs. It is made of the eggs of a freshwater fish species that feeds on algae, said Dr. John Hirsch, founder and managing partner of the company.
“I spent a lot of time looking at how fish feed in the wild,” Dr. Hirsch said. “I really believe that eggs are the principal part of the diet of many fish in the wild. I see more and more people buying into the concept that all-natural, wild-caught foods are desirable.”
Specific brands retailers mentioned include companies that have focused on providing a wide range of options for consumers.
“There are many new dry and frozen foods coming out from numerous companies such as Repashy Superfoods, Cobalt Flakes and Dainichi [Fish Food],” said Joshua Snyder, hatchery manager, and freshwater and saltwater specialist at Blue Fish Aquarium in Grandville, Mich. “Hikari frozen foods have been a top priority for customers as well; specifically brine shrimp, bloodworms, mysis shrimp and krill.”
Flake foods are still the staple of his business, Chopski said, but he also noted frozen foods increasingly are popular.
“The trend is the Aquatop foods,” he said. “People seem to be going toward that, and of course there’s Piscine [Energetics’] frozen food; that’s the latest frozen food that’s popular.”
Live food offerings are gaining ground, too, Snyder said.
“Live foods include microworm cultures for those into breeding fish whose fry are too small for live baby brine shrimp,” he said. “We also stock live blackworms.”
The Wet Spot Tropical Fish also does well with live food offerings, Rivera said.
“We sell blackworms, we sell live brine [shrimp], and we have a couple freezers’ worth of frozen food,” she said. “We also sell [products with] probiotics. We sell the Cobalt line. We’ve had good luck with those.”
Not everyone agrees that live food sales are growing, though.
“With the ever-expanding options in frozen foods, live foods are becoming less and less popular consumer choices,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif.
Others in the industry echoed this sentiment, including Aleck Brooks, specialty sales for San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif.
“Due to the risk of disease, live food sales have become less popular over the years,” he said.
It’s also the case that maintaining live food offerings might be too labor intensive and costly for retailers to make a return on their investment.
“Retailers also find that the amount of work required to maintain live foods in a saleable condition, in many cases, does not allow them to be profitable selling these foods,” Clevers said.
Ultimately, the decision to offer live foods is one retailers will have to make based on their business conditions and local demand.
Because freshwater fish food is a staple, retailers should leverage it to keep customers coming back.
“When we get people in the store, and we sell them fish, we always follow up with, ‘Do you have enough food?’ or ‘Have you heard of this food?’, so it’s not just an add-on sale,” Rivera said. “A lot of times people just come in to get the food.”
Placement within the store also might make a difference.
“You want people to walk through your store,” Hirsch said. “If you know somebody is buying food, put the food in the back of the store. They’re going to walk past your tanks and see what you have.”
By focusing on the customer experience, retailers can distinguish themselves and earn business. A personal touch, knowledgeable staff and superior customer service allow smaller retailers to beat out bigger competitors, retailers reported.
“It’s been a little difficult, but we’ve been here quite awhile, and we’ve built up an excellent reputation and a good clientele,” Chopski said. “People like that one-on-one customer service.”
Keeping staff up-to-date when it comes to species’ needs is a big part of maintaining success in the segment.
“Employees have to know the fish,” Rivera said. “Employees have to learn a lot about the different types of fish. They also learn what [foods] are compatible with the fish.”
Offering foods intended for certain species or varieties of fish is a popular sales method and produces good results for many retailers.
“When people buy fish, we normally recommend the best food for that family of fish,” Chopski said. “If I cut my food sales out, I’d see a significant difference in retail sales.”
When retailers provide customers with foods fit for their individual species, everyone wins.
“I want customers’ fish to live,” Chopski said. “If their fish continually have problems and die, they’re going to get out of the hobby. I’ll lose a customer, and the industry will lose a customer.”
What’s the secret to effectively marketing freshwater fish food?
The bottom line is, offering variety is best. If [customers] offer a variety of foods to their fish, [their] fish are going to be very healthy. I keep a customer, and they’re happy with the result. Everybody wins.”
Frozen foods are an independent retailer’s friend. They provide an opportunity for the retailer to differentiate themselves from the big-box stores. They also tend to get consumers in the store more often—up to 12 times per year—versus a flake or pellet purchaser who might only visit once or twice per year.”
Retailers need to carry lines that the big-box stores don’t, and don’t try to compete on price.”
One of the most important things that a retailer should do is feed in the store what they sell on the shelf. Offering food to the fish when you are explaining the importance of good-quality foods is your best salesperson.”
One of the most effective tactics we’ve [used] is simply to feed the different foods in front of customers. Overall, customers trust us as a store to hook them up with the best fish foods that we recommend.”
The smart stores are the ones that are upselling products. It amazes me that you can walk into a store and ask to buy a fish and not see it eating. I would never buy a fish unless I know it’s eating. I would be feeding fish in the store the products I’m trying to sell, that I have the highest margin on and that are quality products. You’ve got a built-in sale.”