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Aquatic Marketplace: Schooling Customers Nets Profits

Posted: October 22, 2013, 12:10 p.m. EDT

Taking time to educate fish hobbyists about nutrition pays dividends for retailers.

By Portia Stewart

Fish owners don’t want a food that clouds their tanks’ water; they want a food that is easily digested and cleanly metabolized, and they want their fish to like it, said Nick Kornblith, U.S. brand manager for aquatic nutrition with Blacksburg, Va.-based United Pet Group, which produces the Tetra line of fish nutrition.

"What people are looking for is something easy to use that will give them as much of the nutritional needs their fish need to have to keep them healthy,” said Andreas Schmidt, president of San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif.

Another key to customer satisfaction, Schmidt said, is to offer products for different sizes of fish.

Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc. in Hayward, Calif., agreed that most hobbyists are looking for foods that are easy to use, provide their fish with the proper nutritional components, and help them maintain good water quality.

Fish Food
Hobbyists seek foods that are easy to use and provide proper nutrition. Katie Ingmire/i-5 Publishing at Tong's Tropical Fish.

"Unfortunately, in many cases, once they realize the food they chose does not provide a good nutritional offering, it’s too late,” Clevers said. "Trying to help their fish recover from the impact of lower-quality food can take a very long time—if it’s even possible. In today’s marketer’s environment there are lots of great stories that aren’t supported by research and longevity—just marketing. This makes the job of the consumer much more difficult when choosing the best food option for their aquatic pets.”
Offer Up Education
The most effective approach to selling to fish hobbyists is through education, said Ian Tepoot, vice president and operations manager at New Life International in Homestead, Fla.

"We have conversations with customers at our store on many different topics, and I trained my staff to ask, ‘How long have you had your setup?’” he said. "Because there are so many people who add way too many fish way too quickly, as we know. We try to prevent that with friendly conversation with the customers.

Food Stocking Best Practices
How many brands are too many? What are too few? Industry experts help answer these questions.
Ian Tepoot, vice president and operations manager at New Life International in Homestead, Fla., said it’s important to offer more than one brand, because consumers need to feel like they have options and the ability to select another product to compare against the products their retailers recommend.
But Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc. in Hayward, Calif., also cautions against offering too many. This can make it difficult for customers to choose a product, he said. Instead, he recommends offering a smaller selection of good, better and best for the consumer. Clevers suggested looking for the following hallmarks of fish food companies and fish nutrition brands:
Works to engage the consumer to get them in their store buying products.
Offers products that move off the shelf and make the store money.
Enjoys a reputation in the marketplace that matches that of your store.
Works constantly to upgrade their items to meet market demands.
Spends money to keep the brand in front of the consumer and builds a lasting relationship with the consumer the store can capitalize on.
Offers support that matches what the store requires.
Is dependable and provides products that have proven themselves over time.
Offers programs that support the retailer.—PS

And so I encourage my staff to work fish food into that same conversation. And feeding the fish different foods in front of your customers is probably one of the best ways to do it.”

D.J. Ducharm, assistant manager at Little Critter Pet Center in Exeter, N.H., also uses feeding demonstrations to educate clients, especially for new products. For example, for the new Repashy Aquatic Gel Premix foods from Repashy Ventures in San Marcos, Calif., Ducharm said he shows how to make the food (it comes in powder form) and feeds it to store fish. He also demonstrates wafers that stick to the glass to show the different interactions fish hobbyists can experience with fish. It’s been popular, he said, especially with children, because it provides one isolated spot in the tank that focuses all of the fish a little below the water line facing the glass.

"I think demonstrations work the best,” Ducharm said. "Getting people involved and seeing the product in action oftentimes helps them more than any kind of description.”

For regular hobbyists at his store, Ducharm said they’re often interested in his personal recommendations based on his experiences with the product.


One challenge, Tepoot said, was to correct common wives’ tales about fish ownership. Fish owners might be confused about what causes bloat in their fish or how to select an appropriate diet for their herbivore fish.

Tepoot agreed that one of the best ways to educate fish hobbyists is to offer demonstrations in your store. When people see a beautifully maintained tank with healthy fish, they’re interested in recreating that experience in their home. In the end, it’s the customer’s experience with the product that sells it, he said.

"When you sell fish, you don’t want them to die,” Tepoot said. "It’s in your long-term interest that the fish you sell are happy and thrive, because that keeps people in the hobby.”

It also helps when you have an educated workforce who uses your products and can make strong personal recommendations to fish hobbyists, Tepoot added.

Bonella agreed. He said he offers his staff products for their personal use at cost to help them experience the products firsthand.

Tepoot also recommends retailers educate their employees by sharing articles about fish nutrition and passing along some of this information to hobbyists by creating or finding educational materials to share. For example, Tepoot said retailers could create an owner’s manual for fishkeeping or share specific information about a specific topic, such as nutrition or water quality.

You might also educate pet owners by helping them understand the labels on the fish food, United Pet Group’s Kornblith said.

"Point out what’s guaranteed on the label,” he said. "It declares parameters, such as the protein, fat, moisture and fiber in the food. And some fish foods will list additional guarantees. Each of these parameters can be tested. And the food has to be within parameters until expiration date.”

And don’t forget the importance of creating a positive feeding experience for fish hobbyists, Kornblith said.

"Research shows the most fun the consumer has interacting with fish is through feeding,” he said. "You’re not going to play tug-of-war or curl up in bed with your fish, like you would with a companion animal. So feeding gives us the opportunity to see them, check on how they’re doing, and see their behavior. So it’s a big interaction point with their fish.”

Another useful strategy, Kornblith said, is to create brand blocks so customers can easily scan the shelves and find what they’re looking for.

"You want the consumer to not be frustrated when they come in your store. You want them to be able to see the product they need right away,” he said. "And then also maybe see other things that might be useful, like a food for the fish at the bottom of the aquarium, like a sinking tablet, or a treat food that maybe they haven’t used before. So in addition to that primary food, you might get a secondary food sale.”

Introducing Small Frys to Young Frys
Engaging children in fishkeeping might just be the best way to gain long-term hobbyists.
Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc. in Hayward, Calif., said what gets him most excited about the aquatic market is seeing kids at consumer shows excited about fish.
"I enjoy watching them try to convince their parents that getting a fish tank is what they want,” he said. "We see kids today just as excited about fish as they were 30 years ago. If we can get the message out to the parents that keeping an aquarium is much easier today and requires much less time or expense than keeping a dog or a cat, we have a good chance at a huge rebirth of aquariumkeeping in the United States.”
Generally, fishkeepers are not really that different from most other pet owners, Clevers said.
"They have a love for their pets just like dog or cat owners and want to provide the best items for their pets,” he said. "They also work hard to keep them in top form. Maybe fishkeepers are less stressed and more relaxed, as it has been shown in a number of studies that fishkeeping can have a positive impact on your heart health and reduces stress, which also can improve your quality of life.”
It’s important to respect these hobbyists, said Andreas Schmidt, president of San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif.
"I believe as most of the people who are our customers today started the hobby at a young age, they learned responsibility at that younger age and it served them well in life,” he said. "They are generally well-educated, have computer skills, and are willing to learn and study their hobby to be successful. I think that is a positive for all of us in the trade.”
"I think retailers need to give most of these people that respect where it is due, so they do not lose them to alternative retail sectors,” Schmidt added. "Understand that many of them do know what they need and want. So try and carry products that will allow you to distinguish yourself as the place these customers want to shop by being aware of their needs.”—PS




















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