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Trading on Dietary Expertise

Fish food offerings aren’t as simple as they once were, and customers are increasingly interested in providing their fish with a nutritionally balanced diet.


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Hobbyists are heeding advice from aquatic experts and are increasingly willing to try more advanced food offerings to ensure their fish are as healthy as possible.

“In my store, we feed our fish pellet foods every day with a vitamin soak,” said Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets Aquarium Store in Quincy, Mass. “We also do frozen food every day as well, and we recommend this to our customers. People are spending a lot of money on their fish, a lot of money on their setups, and they definitely want to get the best foods and highest quality possible.”

Gone are the days when every customer was content with an all-in-one fish food, Richmond added. Many retailers reported recommending that customers offer a variety of foods to their fish. 

“Customers are more aware of the health aspect of nutrition when it comes to their fish,” said Jonas Sternberg, owner of Sierra Fish and Pets in Renton, Wash. “We absolutely try to recommend a varied diet, with an everyday staple usually supplemented with two different types of foods, whether it’s going to be a different consistency in the sense of a pelleted food, or something freeze dried or frozen.” 

However, some in the industry advised against this practice—at least in some circumstances.

“More store owners are recommending that consumers mix up the foods they feed because of the idea that fish, just like us, need a variety to be happy,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that this is the case.  The big downside to this recommendation is that, should a consumer mix foods, they will take the highest-quality food down to the lowest-quality food in terms of feed efficiency. Additionally, the disruption of the balance of the diet will cause less utilization, which could translate to more waste and associated water-quality issues.”

Still, even aquarists who aren’t going to mix up their fish’s diets expect a greater variety of foods to choose from when shopping their local aquatic retailer.

“Young consumers are more in tune with feeding a better diet and are asking for more varied choices when it comes to fish feeds, especially on the marine side of the hobby,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of DrTim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif.

Customers are more willing to give new diets a chance in their own setups.

“I think people are just more educated with access to information online,” Richmond said. “They’re always willing to try different things.”

Consumer Education

Knowledge Sells

Demonstrating expertise and using foods in-store can help aquatic retailers connect with customers and drive sales.

“Like many aspects of retailing, you need to engage with your customers,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of DrTim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif. “Ask about their fish and make suggestions based on your customer’s lifestyle. Also, feed various types of fish food in your own store. Customers mimic what they see retailers do, and it’s much easier to suggest a fish food and get a sale by saying, ‘This is what we feed.’”  

Customer service is the secret to supporting food sales, according to retailers.

“We pride ourselves on giving our customers good service, good follow-up service, and also providing them with a really good-quality fish, one that we know is healthy,” said Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets Aquarium Store in Quincy, Mass. “We also make sure our fish are eating and doing well.”

Retailers that establish themselves as knowledgeable experts stand a very good chance of encouraging customer loyalty and growing repeat sales opportunities. 

“I think people really trust the recommendations of retailers and their employees,” said Jonas Sternberg, owner of Sierra Fish and Pets in Renton, Wash. “They rely on our professionalism and being around the foods and knowing the foods a little more.” 

New Products

Formulas to Entice

Various food formats and novel offerings are increasingly popular with hobbyists, independent specialty retailers reported. 

“The Fluval Bug Bites have been really popular for us,” said Jonas Sternberg, owner of Sierra Fish and Pets in Renton, Wash. “It uses a mosquito black fly larvae basically. It’s probably one of our No. 1 sellers now.”

Fluval recently added two formulas to its Bug Bites line of insect-based protein foods, said Chris LeRose, aquatic division manager at the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. The new formulations include Color Enhancing, Betta and Turtle diets, and the company has also introduced expanded sizes in its Tropical formula.

“The inclusion of alternative protein sources is trending up in the aquatic nutrition market,” LeRose said. “Providing nutritionally appropriate foods for all pets, whether they are companion animals, fish, dogs or cats, is vital to the health and well-being of the pet. Aquarists are no different than other pet owners and will seek out the best possible nutrition solutions for their fish.”  

New approaches to offering food and treats for fish are also trending, industry participants reported.

“We are expanding our Extras line of treats for fish,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of DrTim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif. “The line is packaged in pepper grinders [to] make it easy to grind a little over the tank or bowl.” 

The packaging is designed to help aquarists interact with their fish and prevent overfeeding, Hovanec added. 

Foods formulated to help stimulate feeding are also coming to market. Hikari recently introduced Vibra-Bites, said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. The pellet food is designed to duplicate the look and movement of a frozen bloodworm. The simulated wormlike texture is intended to stimulate a feeding response, Clevers added, and the product features a high-protein formulation. 

Distribution, Selection & Merchandising

Choosing the Right Mix

Choosing the right mix of dietary offerings is important, according to aquatic specialty retailers, as is placing foods in the right locations within the store.

“We have one full aisle for foods by brand, and then we do have some at the point of purchase, such as Bug Bites,” said Jonas Sternberg, owner of Sierra Fish and Pets in Renton, Wash. “We put our best-sellers up towards the top, and some of the slower sellers and the ones we don’t recommend more as much towards the bottom. Then we try to coordinate it by color, or a style of food.”  

For independent aquatics retailers, frozen offerings and pelleted foods might offer the best return on investment, according to industry participants.

“Use a few loss-leader items in highly visible areas to set the impression your prices are as good as anyone else’s,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “Offer a wide selection of frozen foods as a way to insulate your business. Concentrate on offering pelleted foods because you have much less competition versus flakes, and be sure to offer brands you know from your own use that match your customer base.”

Providing a thoroughly vetted food selection can also help build repeat business.

“If retailers remain focused on offering the best foods they can find, foods that they have used to verify they meet their quality and efficiency standards, they will find more happy customers who return for more of their stellar advice,” Clevers said. “Consumers are more worried about giving their fish the best food they can buy and are less interested in saving a few pennies.”

However, while offering a wide variety of quality and specialty fish diets can help drive sales, some foods might not be easily available depending on a store’s suppliers and distributors.  

“The problem I have with a lot of the specialty foods is that they’re not in distribution,” said Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets Aquarium Store in Quincy, Mass. “You have to have several different accounts with different places. You have to make a commitment to the food. I made the commitment to Reef Nutrition, and they have really good products. I have a small refrigerator for their products that they gave to me. It’s very easy to commit to their products. Every couple of weeks, I get a big order, and we’re all happy.”

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