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Quality Rules in Marine Foods

The hobby has shifted to high-end diets that help both fish and corals thrive.


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Innovation in marine foods has led to greater success in the hobby, both with fish-only and reef systems, and local pet specialty stores are reaping the rewards of a more-dedicated customer base and competitive advantages over big-box and online retailers.

With the introduction of frozen foods and all-in-one products, retailers now have an easier time offering nutritional advice and effective feeding options across the marine aquarium hobby spectrum, leading to higher levels of hobbyist success, industry participants reported.

“On the marine side of things, frozen foods are much more popular than with freshwater right now,” said Arthus Frayler, lead manager of Aquatropics in Gainesville, Fla. “Fish are reacting well to frozen shrimp, frozen brine shrimp and mixed foods such as Rod’s Food. They really like the variety.”

With the palatability and quality of marine diets increasing, frozen foods, all-in-one options and specialty single-ingredient food offerings have opened the hobby up to more people.

“Frozen foods and higher-quality diets in the nonfrozen food category are seeing the most action,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “Marine fish hobbyists typically have more discretionary income and are looking for the best products for their fish.”

The availability of premium and higher-quality products has helped retailers keep customers from dropping out of the hobby, Clevers noted, which is good for everyone. Marine hobbyists tend to be more invested in terms of time and money, and, therefore, have more to lose.

“The cost of failure to the consumer could be huge, as could the loss to our industry,” he said.

The increase in food quality and the greater level of education available for hobbyists means consumers have more options than ever before.

“As far as saltwater goes, people are really involved in some of the forums, magazines and YouTube videos,” Frayler said. “Basically, what they’re looking for is quality and variety. People really are taking it personally. People are noticing … the smell of the food, the quality that goes into making it.”

This shift toward high-quality marine foods has been pervasive, both retailers and manufacturers reported.

“The general trend in foods has been a dramatic shift away from dry foods, either flake or pellet,” said Jimi Casper, owner of Jimbo’s Gumbos in ​Virginia Beach, Va. “Professionals and hobbyists are understanding the benefits of mixed frozen foods that meet all the nutritional requirements of the fish eating them. … Without a doubt, this is the biggest trend in aquarium foods and pretty much across the board in the pet industry. Dogs, fish and all pets are now eating healthier than ever before.”

Still, although the marine hobby has seen some hobbyists move away from flake and pelleted foods, these offerings have experienced an increase in quality as well.

“I feed exclusively frozen, personally,” said Matthew Catanese, co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark, Calif. “However, I’ve heard good things about the V2O [flake and pellet] foods. I threw some [V2O food] into my display tanks. My fish don’t even recognize pellets and flakes, and they ate it, so I was actually a little impressed with that.”

Expanding Options Target Convenience

Many specialty offerings have appeared on the marine food market, and pet specialty retailers have a variety of options when making recommendations to customers.

All-in-one foods are doing especially well, said Anis Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas.

“That’s what we’ve been carrying, and it sells really well,” he said. “Customers really like it. Nobody has time to sit there and feed 10 different things.”

Convenience is still a factor in the marine hobby, and offering a blend of frozen, flake and pellet diets can help retailers meet customers’ needs.

“Many people have limited time each day to care for their fish,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, headquartered in Newark, Calif. “Convenience and ease of use are key. The market for diets that require prep is much smaller than for ready-to-use foods, such as frozen, flake, pellet and powders.”

Both Ocean Nutrition and San Francisco Bay Brand have new offerings in the works, Oneppo reported, including Ocean Nutrition’s Formula Food Flat Packs: Reef Formula One, Reef Formula Two, Fish Only Formula and Predator Formula. They are made in the USA and are prepared by hand, he noted, adding that they do not contain binders, artificial preservatives, added colors or terrestrial vegetable matter as a source of vitamins.

San Francisco Bay Brand also is introducing the Reef Multi-Pack, designed to offer a single pack that contains four varieties of food, including six cubes each of Marine Cuisine, Fish Eggs, Coral Cuisine and Reef Plankton.

Other manufacturers are introducing options in the pellet and flake categories, including Cobalt Aquatics.

“We recently launched our Ultra Spirulina flake, which is packed with 20 percent spirulina algae, prebiotics and probiotics,” said Kyle Thaman, customer service manager for Cobalt Aquatics in Rock Hill, S.C. “We are also putting the finishing touches on a brand-new line of 100 percent all-natural pellet foods.”

The market response to Cobalt’s probiotic offerings has been good, retailers reported.

“Cobalt’s new probiotic foods are really nice,” Jamal said. “There’s a big mixture of products that are going into it now, such as oyster eggs, oyster meat and rotifers, and stuff like that.”

Other manufacturers are debuting probiotic lines and specialty foods targeting certain types of fish. Hikari recently released two marine food lines, Saki-Hikari Marine Carnivore and Saki-Hikari Marine Herbivore, and the company plans to release frozen Omega Enriched Brine Shrimp in a cube format soon, noted Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. The Saki-Hikari Marine line offers a probiotic enhanced-nutrient profile, he added.

High-end specialty offerings are also on the rise. Jimbo’s Gumbos recently introduced a breeder’s cut blend of Jimbo’s Reef Gumbo, said Jimi Casper, owner of Jimbo’s Gumbos in ​Virginia Beach, Va. The product is targeted for aquacultured marine fish, and it is formulated with the higher levels of amino acids, lipids and protein levels that juvenile fish require, Casper added.

Be a Resource

With so many new products on the market, and quality playing such a large role in feeding marine fish and corals, pet specialty retailers have had to amp up their focus on customer education.

“We don’t put an emphasis on pushing sales through education,” said Arthus Frayler, lead manager of Aquatropics in Gainesville, Fla. “We want to educate for the good of the fish, and I think sales follow that.”

It’s helpful to approach customers and open a dialogue as soon as possible, and also to emphasize research on the topic.

“From the time customers walk in, we explain everything down to the last grain of sand in their tank,” said Anis Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas.

Jamal directs customers to research he has compiled or research that is available from manufacturers, he added.

In general, marine customers tend to be dedicated and are looking for expertise from local fish stores.

“Most people just know that they have to feed their fish, and they want to be educated,” said Matthew Catanese, co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark, Calif. “Some of the food companies are doing a really good job of pushing better education in their ads.”

Recommend and Display

When it comes to displaying marine foods, pet specialty retailers are equipping themselves with freezers as frozen offerings have gained in popularity.

“We keep our marine foods in a large glass freezer right by the door so that when customers walk in, they see the frozen food,” said Anis Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas.

Jamal uses the Reef Nutrition freezer display, which incorporates a see-through door, he said.

While effectively using retail shelf space and freezer placement is important, it’s not as vital as interacting with customers and giving them advice on what to feed.

“As far as displaying [marine foods], it’s more about us recommending it,” said Arthus Frayler, lead manager of Aquatropics in Gainesville, Fla.

Other retailers echoed this sentiment, and in some cases, they advocate going one step further—adding in-store feeding demonstrations as a way to draw hobbyists in and emphasize retailer expertise.

“It’s more about making recommendations,” said Matthew Catanese, co-owner of California Reef Co. in Newark, Calif. “I get asked a lot about what I feed. The stuff that I feed in-store definitely has higher sales than the stuff that I don’t feed in-store.”

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