Retailers have mixed opinions when it comes to carrying live fish.
By David Lass
While some full-line retail store owners look at selling live fish as a necessary evil, others find that space devoted to selling live fish can be the most profitable section of the store.
Most retailers contacted for this article agreed on the value of the live fish portion of the aquatics department, due to its profitability and also that it can really make stores stand out from other local pet retailers.
“Because we are full-line, half of what we sell is alive,” said Chip Beitel, owner of Plano Pets in Plano, Texas. “We are always looking for special orders [and] requests from customers. We buy fish ‘by committee,’ meaning that everyone has input on what we order.”
Others echoed Chip Beitel’s sentiments.
“Fish is where we can offer the biggest selection and variety, and where we can really showcase the professionalism of the store,” said Jeff King, owner of Pets Plus in Taylor Mill, Ky. “Healthy fish and a good selection make us stand out from our competition.”
A fish room could have the biggest, most colorful fish for sale at reasonable prices and in infinite variety, but without good staff in the aquatics department, the profits probably won’t be there.
“The fish room staff has to generate enthusiasm about fish and convey this to the customers,” said Tony Canzano, owner of two Little Critter Pet Center stores in Raymond and Exeter, N.H.
Acquiring and retaining good fish room employees requires offering competitive wages.
“In addition to paying our employees well, we try to make the store a fun place to work,” said John Music, general manager of Pet Palace in Clarksville, Tenn. “We want everyone who works here to be engaged and excited—it’s contagious to your customers.”
Low employee turnover is one sign a store is doing well.
“All 12 of our employees have been here around [for] 10 years,” said Marie Barton, manager of Claremont Pet and Aquarium Center in Claremont, N.H. “Many have left and come back. I’ve been here for 16 years.”
Reducing Aquatics Sections
While a few store owners reported they had drastically reduced or eliminated their live fish departments, others said they have increased their departments.
“When I bought the store I had 50 fish tanks, but I became convinced that the fish weren’t even paying their electricity bill,” said Connie Kamedulski, owner of Animal Fair in Ridgefield, Conn. “After looking closely at the numbers, all I have now are bettas and one tank of goldfish.”
Various issues related to carrying live fish may impact retailers’ ability to profit on fish sales, but there is a potential for increased profits on dry
What factors are important in making the live fish portion of an aquatics department successful?
“It really comes down to two things: the quality of your fish and the professionalism of your sales staff. The best fish in the world can’t overcome dull, uninterested and uninformed salesfolks, and the best salespeople in the world can’t sell sick, small and dull fish.”
—John Music, general manager of Pet Palace in Clarksville, Tenn.
“We really go out of our way to make sure that our customers are successful with their first aquarium. We’re seeing more young couples with kids starting tanks, and that is always good for business.”
—Tara Muller, manager of Hillside Pet Center in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
“Diversity and selection are key—you need to make your fish department stand out from others, and know that your customers really like coming to see your fish. We always try to have lots of ‘eye candy’ in terms of new, rare and exotic fish.”
—Chip Beitel, owner of
Plano Pets in Plano, Texas
“Clean tanks and healthy fish are a given, but what really creates great fish sales is the staff in the fishroom. They have to have personality, knowledge of fish, and really love talking to the public about fish.”
—Tony Canzano, owner of two Little Critter Pet Center stores, in Raymond and Exeter N.H.
“Variety and selection are the keys. You need to have a large enough fish room and enough variety of fish to bring in everyone from the newbie to the dedicated hobbyist.”
—Jeff King, owner of
Pets Plus in Taylor Mill, Ky.
goods sales for stores that maintain fish rooms.
“The live fish themselves are at best a break-even proposition when you consider the labor, maintenance and [livestock] losses,” Little Critter Pet Center’s Canzano said. “For me, the live fish and invertebrates drive the aquatics dry goods sales, especially the sale of consumables.”
Although selling aquatic dry goods is one reason for having live fish, there is also value and profit to be found in the fish department itself.
“I’ve had fish for 30 years,” Pets Plus’ King said. “While that part of the business is not what it was a few years ago, the live fish displays still bring customers into the store—customers who almost always have other pets besides fish.”
Some retailers are even considering expanding their aquatic sections, seeing it as an added opportunity for sales and profits.
“My fish room is the heart of my store,” Plano Pets’ Beitel said. “We want to cater to people who love pets in general, and fish are something that a lot of folks keep. We go all the way from the first-time hobbyists to the extreme hobbyists with 30 tanks.”
Potential customers can be drawn into a full-line store by the fish on display, and once inside, they may buy products for their other pets, too.
“Fish are so valuable to us,” Barton said. “As we expanded the store, we moved birds and reptiles to their own area so we could convert that space to fish.”
Customers who are successful with their fish tanks tend to support the hobby and retailers in ways beyond product purchases, as they act as “advertisements” to entice others to keep fish or to shop in the store.
“I make it a point to keep the store tanks less than pristine,” said Tara Muller, manager of Hillside Pet Center in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
“That way, the fish don’t go into shock when the customers get them to their home tanks,” she continued. “Customers with thriving fish tanks are the store’s best advertisement, and [are] very valuable customers.”
In some cases, if the competition has stopped offering live fish, discerning store owners may be able to capitalize on a vacancy in the marketplace.
“We have nine big box stores within 6.2 miles of our store,” Beitel said. “Many of their employees come to our store, and send their customers here because of our fish. Nobody else has the cool stuff that we do.”
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