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Years of Fish Experience

Aquatic Village’s methods for success are customer focus and knowledge.
By Anne Sedjo

The store makes the best of its layout.

To some degree, discus helped bring together Dottie and Vern Allen, owners of Aquatic Village in Ventura, Calif., and one of the 2008-2009 Retailer of the Year Runners-Up. They were both interested in discus fish early in their relationship.

“I’ve been interested in fish since I was just a child,” Dottie says. “We were adding it up the other day, and we’ve had discus fish for 40 years. They didn’t live for 40 years, but we’ve always had discus.

“I remember when wild green discus were $55 a piece,” she says. “They were more then than they are now.”

Aquatic Village has survived in this tough economy by having a staff with a love and knowledge of fish and invertebrates and an evident concern for customers. The 2,300-square-foot store makes the best use of its layout, with a relaxing and spacious atmosphere. A discus tank is prominent in the back of the store, following aisles of mostly saltwater and live coral tanks.

The store location is good, too—between a Starbucks, hair salon, doughnut shop and a large grocery store. And it’s right down the road from the beach.

Owners Vern and Dottie Allen came together over a love for discus. (Photo courtesy of Anne Sedjo/PPNI)
Dottie attributes their successful 25 years in the pet industry to their knowledge about fish.

“Vern and I have had saltwater fish for 35 years,” she says. “If a mistake has been made, we’ve made it. We started when there were no protein skimmers and live rock. We used to spend all day doing a water change.

  “Some people say it’s hard to maintain a saltwater tank,” she says. “I say life is easy now.”

The Allens opened their first store in Carpinteria, Calif., in 1983. It was a pet store already in business. Dottie says the only thing it didn’t have was fish, which they added. During that time, they also built a second store in Ojai, Calif. She started doing more installations and maintenance, so they sold the Ojai store.

Their first aquatics-only store was in Santa Barbara. The Carpinteria store had been sold, and they decided to retire and sell the Santa Barbara store. That didn’t last long.

The store boasts a 1,500-gallon koi and fancy goldfish pond with a bridge. (Photo courtesy of Anne Sedjo/PPNI)
“Three weeks in, I hated it,” Dottie says. “We went to the mountains. We own a house on Lake Arrowhead. I said, ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’”

Four years ago, the Allens found the Ventura location. It was an “art shop with cubicles” that was empty for eight months before they leased it, Dottie says. She didn’t want to open until it was “perfect.”

Inside its doors, the store boasts a 1,500-gallon koi and fancy goldfish pond with a bridge. Pond setup is a service offered, along with another main ingredient for the store’s success, aquarium setup and maintenance.

Installation and Maintenance
Dottie performs tank maintenance for such places as retirement homes and banks and for some of Southern California’s rich and famous customers. One pond installation project was for a party producer and director Ivan Reitman was holding at his $100 million estate, Dottie says. He had the project changed for a more Hollywood look, she says, and they worked with him to fix it later to make it functional again.

Her favorite aquarium installation is a 500-gallon living reef tank in a retirement community called Vista Del Monte in Santa Barbara.
Dottie does maintenance with another employee, Britt Hughlett, who has been with the Allens about two years and has a zoology degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

AT A GLANCE


Aquatic Village

Location: 2437 Harbor Blvd., Ventura, Calif.

Owner: Dottie and Vern Allen

Size: 2,300 square feet, including a 1,500-gallon pond

Employees: Five full time

Years in Business: 25

Products and Services Offered: Sells pond, freshwater fish, saltwater fish and gift products. Livestock sold includes pond fish, freshwater fish and saltwater fish. Services offered include water testing, aquarium setup and maintenance, pond setup and educational seminars.

“I really like it,” Hughlett says. “You have tanks that are a mess and nurse them back to health and consider them yours. They all have their own little environment. One is never the same as another. Every fish community is going to act differently. For marine tanks, especially with corals, a coral will do well, then you service it and you can’t figure out why it’s not doing well.”

She says if someone has the basics covered, it can be a pretty easy hobby. The upkeep sometimes can be challenging.
“That’s why we service,” she says. “That’s where we come in.”

Known for Customer Service
In addition to Dottie, Vern and Hughlett, Dan O’Halloran and his mother, Pat, round out the staff. Dan is a freshwater specialist, and Pat is a retired teacher who now works full time at Aquatic Village. Dottie sticks to helping customers while Vern does in-store tank and other maintenance. Dottie jokes that Vern is her plumber, although he did install plumbing for the whole store.

Vern says he lets Dottie do the talking.

“She’s a gabber,” he says. “She introduces herself well.”

 Dottie admits that she’s a people person.

“That’s what I like best about the store,” she says. “This is my social life. That’s probably the reason the store is popular. We give people a nice place to visit.”

The lack of smell in the store, feng shui and the more than 4-foot-wide aisles don’t hurt, either. Thatched roofs, murals and shades of green and blue, and of course the beautiful fish and tanks, complete the tropical look. People say their fish look like happy fish, Dottie says.

Learning and Teaching

Secrets to Healthy Fish

Aquatic Village has some sophisticated ways of keeping fish pretty and healthy.

  • Water in tanks hidden under the selling tanks in the store equals twice the water in the top tanks for better filtration.
  • The Allens make their own salt water from virgin tap water. They have two barrels in the back for the reverse osmosis process, which also applies to fresh water.
  • Lines run from saltwater and coral tanks to the back of the store, where a protein skimmer and live rock treat the water.
  • A chiller keeps tanks at 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although the store has lots of great features, it always comes back to the customers. Dottie says the employees train each other, but customers play an invaluable part.

“The best teachers are your customers,” she says. “We listen to our customers and are always learning. If we don’t have an answer, we find out.”

In turn, the Aquatic Village staff places an emphasis on sharing knowledge with customers. They conduct in-store seminars early on Saturdays to teach kids and get them interested in the hobby.

“We bring in kids a lot and train them how to take care of tanks,” Dottie says. “We take any tank and do it right on that tank. We don’t set up a show tank for them. We let them clean one of our tanks, especially saltwater, so they can learn saltwater.”

Other promotion methods are word of mouth, school programs and carnivals.

“We give them their goldfish,” Dottie says. “Well, we give them a tag, and they pick up the fish here. We donate to school carnivals and carnivals at the beach. There are always carnivals on the beach here.”

In addition to installing tanks and performing maintenance at retirement homes, Dottie says they get to know the residents.

“We have programs and we bring people special requests,” she says. “They’ll want a shrimp and we’ll be sure to put in what they like.”
At this time, the store does not have a website. Dottie says a worthless website is not worth having; she’d rather focus time on service and in-store customers.

Since the store has a focus on service work, business has remained steady, although Dottie has recently noticed a slowdown in customer traffic. They lost maintenance work after one bank’s closure, but someone wanted the tank and they found homes for the fish.
Both Dottie and Vern say surviving in this economy does depend on location, though. They have noticed aquatic retailers in other areas having problems. <HOME>


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