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Livestock Lifeline

Live fish and coral sales are pivotal for independent pet retailer success.


Tough competition and a tight marketplace dictate that local fish stores have to focus on their strengths. And, increasingly, the aspects of their business most insulated from other retailers are livestock sales and superior customer service. 

Livestock sales are a vital component of local fish store business models.

“All livestock sales do well for us,” said Anise Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas. “We go with market demand and rotate our stock accordingly, and pretty much everything becomes a bread-and-butter offering at some point.” 

Increasingly, Jamal notices customers looking for new species that are appropriate for more technical types of aquarium setups.

“People are venturing into the nano tanks and planted tanks, which makes them brave enough to get into saltwater,” he said. “There’s a mixed push into nano planted tanks and saltwater.”

Jamal said he sees demand growing for unique saltwater fish, such as soldierfish and hybrid yellow tangs, and smaller freshwater fish suitable for nano aquariums, such as celestial pearl danios and jellybean tetras.

In general, retailers report that livestock sales are up and the aquarium business is doing well.

“You can’t rely on dry goods,” said Shane Billmyre, owner of Caye’s Aquarium in Portland, Ore. “Our business has grown by 100 percent or better since last year.”

Billmyre has also noticed demand for saltwater species and nano-sized freshwater fish. When it comes to corals, he said he does best with hardier varieties.

“We sell a lot of the polyps, such as the large polyp stony corals,” Billmyre said. “We don’t sell a ton of the more fragile small polyp stony corals, because they require a little bit more stable conditions.” 

Carrying a wide variety is key to growing sales and keeping customers coming back for more.

“When customers walk in, they know we’re going to have everything that they are going to need and everything they want to see,” said Steven Bayes, owner of Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. “We carry all types of corals, so it’s hard to really pinpoint one species or type that sells best.”

Clownfish are probably Bayes’ No. 1 sellers, followed by cardinals, as well as tangs and wrasses, he said.  

“We’re specialized in aquaculture, and big-box stores don’t have this stuff,” Bayes said. “We have thousands of corals, literally thousands sitting on display along with thousands of fish.” 

New in Livestock

Freshwater and Saltwater Introductions

Several freshwater and saltwater fish and coral species have become available in the aquatics market in recent months. 

“Some exciting new freshwater species have recently come into the trade,” said Laura “Peach” Reid, president and CEO of Fish Mart, a livestock distributor in West Haven, Conn. “One bottom feeder is the sharp-looking dwarf flash plecostomus, a nonaggressive fish that needs some wood in its tank. Another is the very colorful orange seam plecostomus, a catfish with an orange rim on the end of its tail and its dorsal fin.” 

For customers interested in nano tanks, the ember tetra is a small reddish-orange fish recently introduced to the hobby, Reid added. It is a peaceful, schooling fish best kept in groups of six or more. 

Novel saltwater species are also appearing on the market.

“Over the past six months, we have imported many new and exciting species, as well as species that have not been seen in the industry in years,” said Cynthia DeLillo, media manager for Quality Marine and Aquatropic in Los Angeles. “Recently, we received our first Dr. Seuss fish and tiger angelfish, just to name a couple.”

Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums, a distributor headquartered in Fort Pierce, Fla., expects to see another species of epaulette shark become available very soon.

“We have a specific type of aquarist in mind for these animals,” said Jordan Noe, director of sales. “Aquarists rarely have the option of aquacultured animals to choose from. Elsewhere in the industry, small releases of captive-bred angelfish and wrasses will continue to be announced.”  

New coral species introductions face a few hurdles, however. 

“It’s always difficult to predict because weather can really affect what will be available, as can bans and things of that nature,” said Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest Farms, a tropical and marine fish wholesale company in Gibsonton, Fla. “What we’re seeing trending is anything that’s tank raised or line bred—including zoanthid morphs, albino morphs, calico morphs—are in high demand. Of course, I’d say the tank-raised species, especially with marine angelfish and some of the more semi-reef-safe to fully reef-safe critters, have become huge on the marine side of the hobby.”

Competitive Advantage

Giving Businesses an Edge

Livestock offers a substantial edge for pet specialty retailers, as they can focus on quality, price and customer service to ensure clients are getting what they pay for. Additionally, no competitor can yet match local fish stores for direct sales of livestock to hobbyists.

“Carrying livestock is a huge competitive advantage,” said Shane Billmyre, owner of Caye’s Aquarium in Portland, Ore. “Livestock sales make up 90 percent of my sales overall. For dry goods, the bread-and-butter stuff does fine, but all of the high-end stuff is normally bought online. Whoever does livestock and does it well, or whoever focuses on customer service, will succeed.”

In terms of his business model, Billmyre focuses on three things: keeping overhead low, offering the best livestock and providing top-notch customer service.

“If you had those three things, you’re going to win,” he said. “If you don’t, or if you’re missing one of them, you’ll struggle.” 

Business is good, retailers reported, and, as a result, several are expanding their livestock housing and in-house aquaculture facilities.

“Currently we have a 2,000-square-foot coral farm,” said Steven Bayes, owner of Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. “We just purchased a 6,000-square-foot warehouse for a new farm. We’re culturing 80 percent of our corals ourselves.”

Keeping pace with demand is something local fish store owners might need to focus on if they want to grow their businesses, particularly when it comes to livestock. 

“We’re actually building out a new 7,000-square-foot facility where we’re going to keep a lot of fish,” said Anise Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas. “We decided to expand to meet market demand. We hit our cap with our ROI on the square footage that we have in the retail store.” 

Specialization and offering high-end livestock seem to be the ticket to growing business quickly. When it comes to online sales, livestock is one of the few places where local fish stores appear to have an outright advantage. 

“Fish stores are being forced to become more specialized,” Bayes said. “When I travel the country and I see other fish stores, the really good, successful stores are the ones that aren’t complaining about the internet. Things are changing with time. We have an entire online department. We employ four people online full time.” 


Getting the Word Out

Because independent aquatics retailers are positioned to be so nimble, many of them report great success promoting new livestock directly to customers. 

“I want to be innovating in our market with a new type of aquarium store,” said Anise Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas. “We’re going all electronic, so everything’s going to be modern and have touch screens, with no prices on the tanks. [Customers] can just tap on an iPad, pull up a tank number, and it will tell you where that fish came from.”  

Customers want fish right away, Jamal added, and would rather spend $50 or $60 locally on fish than waste that same amount shipping fish. He said he uses Facebook and other platforms to post pictures of recently arrived livestock, with great success. 

Instagram can also work wonders for retailers seeking to reach aquarists.

“Instagram is a great place for store owners to connect with their audience with cheap and easy marketing,” said Jordan Noe, director of sales for Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla. “Being active and engaging with the pictures allows a local store to suddenly become more nationally acknowledged and bring in new business that they hadn’t considered possible before.”  

Even direct messaging seems to work, according to retailers.

“We do a text program once a week,” said Steven Bayes, owner of Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. “If we’re getting new livestock, we send out a text. It goes to the cellphones of every customer who has signed up.”

Customers are more informed now, and retailers who recognize this and make sure to offer the best in livestock selection, health and customer service will come out on top.

“Hobbyists have become more educated in many aspects, and retailers must be able to fit their needs,” said Ryan Voth, manager of the sales department for Quality Marine and Aquatropic in Los Angeles. “It’s an exciting time in the saltwater aquarium hobby because the playing field is changing quickly, and retailers must adapt in order to be effective in increasing their livestock sales.”

At the end of the day, however, what keeps customers coming back to their local fish stores is seeing novel, new and colorful species. 

“Customers want to go to the pet store because it’s exciting,” said Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest Farms, a tropical and marine fish wholesale company in Gibsonton, Fla. “They want to see fish in person. Livestock sales are huge because then you have all the add-on sales too. It’s paramount for stores to have livestock to ensure their sales thrive.” 

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