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Food Facts, Nutrition Knowledge

Knowing your fish food and stocking the right mix of products can mean more sales.



Industry insiders report that it’s a great time to be in the aquatics business, with tank sales improving over the past 12 months, which has translated to a better sales environment for accessories and food as the year progresses. Many store owners are reporting improved sales over 2014, some in a big way.

When it comes to fish food, the biggest buzz seems to be about nutrition.

“Generally, a person who knows nothing about this is looking for something they can feed their fish that is simple and nutritionally valid,” said Bruce Kelley, owner of AquaTek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. “Everyone realized you can’t just feed the cheapest flake in town, and more [customers] are asking about nutritional benefits.”

Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif., said there is a vast number of new foods on the market that just don’t perform due to issues such as cloudy water, containing ingredients that fish won’t eat, smells that don’t seem normal and ingredients consumers don’t relate to.

“There also is a growing concern about products that talk about benefits or mislead consumers about benefits that are not there,” Clevers said. “Hikari is very focused on only offering products that have passed extensive testing and feeding trials to verify the product meets our quality standard for the finished product, has passed feeding trials to be sure the product provides the benefits to the fish it is fed to and also accomplished the objectives the benefits say it will, and finally, that the fish actually readily accept the diet.”

Fish food trends oftentimes are a trickle-down reaction from human and companion animal nutrition interests.

The Right Approach
The concept of life stages and a more personalized approach to fish nutrition recently has gained awareness in the aquatics industry.

Fish food trends oftentimes are a trickle-down reaction from human and companion animal nutrition interests, said Keely Roberts, aquatic nutrition marketer for Spectrum Brands in Madison, Wis., maker of Tetra Foods.

“Currently we are seeing consumer concentration on the ideas of whole and/or natural foods, life stages nutrition, and an idea that smaller batches of food or food manufactured by small companies must therefore equate to quality, nutrient-rich products,” she said. “These trends are reflections of human food trends such as purchasing organic foods, an increased interest in farm-to-table restaurants, and a resonance with the ‘buy local, eat local’ motto.”

Yet fish and aquatics nutrition is a complex subject, as there are more than 2,000 species of fish commonly kept globally as pets. Size at maturation, growth rates, native habitats and other factors often come into play when determining the best nutrition formulations for fish, Roberts said.

“The human-driven effect and new attention to ‘small batch’ or ‘mom and pop’ fish food sources also raises question to what types of consistency parameters are being tested prior to the products appearing at market,” Roberts said. “For example, at Tetra, we test our sourced ingredients in formulation through chemical analysis and then also test the food performance biologically through feed trials. These feed trials are timely and costly but ensure consistency of quality.”

Foods with fresh, raw or organic ingredients seem to be gaining in popularity, said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med Laboratories Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“It is not necessarily about the cheapest thing on the shelf, especially when it comes to the ‘high-end’ fish hobbyists,” Rademacher said.

New in Nutrition
Hikari just released Blood Red Parrot+, a red parrot food that does not use hormones of any kind to support coloration and health, and contains a probiotic that offers several benefits to the fish and the environment they live in, Clevers said. 

Also, after requests by its customer base, the company released Sinking Goldfish Excel, an economical sinking goldfish diet that helps goldfish readily handle the nutrient mix and offers support to color development, he said.

“Many consumers feel that feeding floating pellets causes their goldfish swim bladder issues,” Clevers said. “While our research has not proven this and has shown that this issue is more likely caused by overbreeding and a digestive tract deformity, we always try to give our customers what they want, so we have introduced this item recently.”

Some of the newest trends aren’t so new, said Andreas Schmidt, owner of San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif. They cropped up in the industry 20 years ago but never took off and were discontinued more than a decade ago due to low sales numbers, he said.

“The big buzzword these days is probiotics,” Schmidt said. “They are starting to show up in dry and frozen foods. It’s something we have been working with for over 10 years and use very selectively in our formulations and processing.

“Another popular trend is the use of Selco,” he added. “We have been using Selco in our formulations and to enriching brine shrimp for almost 30 years. Frozen foods without binders that disperse easily and provide food for the entire reef also are gaining in popularity.”

Live food is another strong market, Schmidt said, but it has shifted from being dominated by brine shrimp and black worms, giving way to popular foods for reef aquariums such as copepods, rotifers and phytoplankton.

“We have several new products that will be released sometime in 2016; some of these are based on items we made over 20 years ago, and others are unique offerings in the industry,” he said.

Merchandising to the Max
Merchandising is crucial in the world of fish nutrition, as there are so many types of fish that have specific diet needs, and they feed in different areas of an aquarium.

Matt Pickett, an associate at Quantum Reefs in Springfield, Va., said kids love to be around fish, and the number of children in the store has increased of late. When it’s feeding time, a staff member will let a child help with the feeding in the tanks. (Although he warns not to let them feed too much.)

“Once they do that, they’re hooked,” he said. “It’s that thing that puts a sale over the top.”

Dan Stearn, owner of The Fish Store in Seattle, said he tells his customers it’s best to use what they use in the shop.

“In that respect, we like to have a supplier who can provide us with bulk-size food so we can use it in the store, since pulling things off the shelf isn’t economically viable,” he said. “If someone is unsure of what we’re talking about, we might bring out a sprinkle of food for the fish, but most people seem to follow our recommendations pretty well.”

Roberts said for Tetra foods, the company sees a lot of consumer loyalty, and retailers have seen very positive results with brand blocks in their merchandising.

“After brand, consumers shop by fish type (tropical, goldfish, cichlid, betta and bottom feeders), then by food type (flakes, crisps, pellets, granules, sticks, wafers and weekend),” she said. “It is essential for retailers to categorize and merchandise their nutrition products so consumers quickly find what they are looking for and possibly find something extra, such as a treat or color enhancing food.”

Keeping products and shelves clean and uncluttered, with the labels faced out, will help increase sales, said Schmidt of San Francisco Bay Brand.

“For specialty products like our frozen foods, displaying them in a glass door freezer with spring loaded freezer trays can increase sales as much as 200 to 300 percent, making it some of the most profitable square footage in the store,” he said.

According to Hikari’s Clevers, retailers that have reduced their fish food offering from 10 or more product lines to a select few covering an economical option, mid-range option and high-quality option are seeing improved SKU movement, improved product turn and a reduction in consumer confusion. 

“It also helps their staff become better equipped to address specific questions about the product being offered,” Clevers said. “We suggest the store personnel actually try the products on their tanks or in-store to be sure they meet the requirements of the store and to help improve their image rather than detracting from it as a result of dissatisfaction from products sold that do not perform.”  

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Pet Product News.

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